Checking Toronto's Vital Signs

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Checking Toronto’s Vital Signs

The Toronto Foundation's annual "Vital Signs" report issues a call for connectivity.

Image via the Vital Signs website

Yesterday saw the release of the Toronto Foundation’s Vital Signs. The annual report compiles the most current data from government, social agencies, and academic sources to chart how Toronto is developing (and how it’s falling behind).

In previous years the report has explicitly called upon local government to address the multitude of issues facing the city. But this year, the Foundation’s message is one of connectivity: namely, how the major inequalities faced by the city’s residents are interconnected, and how it’s the responsibility of every one of us to work together to enact necessary change.

“Toronto is a petri dish for globalization. More than any other ‘most livable’ city, we can be the model for everything a great city can be. But we have some serious challenges in front of us and the only way to address them is by seeing ourselves as one city. We must become one place,” said Rahul K. Bhardwaj, President & CEO of Toronto Foundation in the report’s accompanying press release.

This call for unity comes in the midst of our city’s increasing social stratification. 17 years after amalgamation, Toronto remains “tenaciously divided” in its standards of living. According to the report, “income inequality is increasing at twice the national average.” Average household incomes in the poorest 10 per cent of neighbourhoods rose by only 2 per cent, while those in the richest 10 per cent of neighbourhoods grew by 80 per cent.

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Image via the Vital Signs website

When the report does make a brief foray into the political sphere, it’s to criticize the current tone of council sessions: the report’s press release noted how “the increased polarization of our communities is also illustrated at City Hall debates on the Gardiner, carding, and subway-versus-LRT.”

Income inequality and neighbourhood polarization aren’t just moral issues: poverty is a key indicator of everything from a person’s risk of diabetes to the size of their social network. Here are the six major issues identified by the report, and the surprising ways they’re interconnected.

1. The rise of the “precariat.” In 2015, 22.7 per cent of Torontonians relied on temporary and contract work, up from 19.4 per cent in 2013. And the so-called “standard employment relationship” (full-time, permanent work with benefits) no longer exists for 44.3 per cent of us. Less secure employment has impacts on our levels of mental health, and even the strength of our friendships. Low income/less secure workers are most likely to report that they don’t have a close friend to talk to.

2. Unaffordable housing. Toronto’s luxury housing market was recently ranked the “hottest” among global cities for its “Luxury Temperature” by Christies’ International Real Estate. This boom has led to the creation of thousands of jobs in construction, but they’re not enough to keep pace with the rapid ascension of non-luxury housing prices, which have tripled since the 1970s. An annual income of $126,530 is now needed to afford the average home in Toronto. Vancouver still boasts higher housing costs, but we claim the 13 spot for least affordable housing market.

Our rental market is similarly inaccessible: for the bottom 40 per cent of GTA earners, nearly half of their household income is now spent on rent. The report notes that housing costs in excess of 50 per cent of one’s income is likely to lead to homelessness.

3. Excessive traffic. Torontonians face the second longest round-trip commute (a whopping 66 minutes) in North America. Meanwhile, only 29 per cent of our workforce uses transit. Increasingly longer commute times have a negative effect on health and intensify the “time crunch” that one in five Ontarians feels caught in, with less time for family, leisure, and community.

4. Declining health. Starting with the landmark Whitehall study in 1967, extensive evidence has shown the direct link between income and health. Socio-economic circumstances account for 50 per cent of a person’s health: men are 50 per cent more likely to die before age 75, women are 85 per cent more likely to have diabetes, young women (aged 15 to 24) are twice as likely to be infected with chlamydia, and babies are 40 per cent more likely to be born at a low weight.

5. More seniors living alone. One in five Torontonians over 55 now lives alone, and for those 85 and older, it’s 44 per cent. Long-term care homes are dealing with residents who are older, frailer, and have more complex care needs (and as of 2010, only seniors with high or very high care needs are eligible for long-term care).

Yesterday, The Federation of Canadian Municipalities urged federal political parties to address housing for seniors in this fall’s election campaign, calling the diminishing incomes and rising rents faced by Canadian seniors “a perfect storm.”

6.Uncertain futures for youth. In 2014, youth unemployment was almost 22 per cent (up from 18 per cent in 2013) and much higher than the national average of 14 per cent. Youth are the fastest growing homeless population in Canada, representing one third of the total with 65,000 young people living on the street (2,000 in Toronto). In terms of wellness and connectivity to their community, only half of young adults feel a strong sense of belonging, in comparison to the 69 per cent of the rest of the population aged 12 and up.

manifesto jumping

Image via the Vital Signs website

But it’s not all bad news. The report highlights the many ways in Toronto is flourishing: the Pan Am games, our fourth-place placement on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of most livable cities, the growth of our economy and employment (almost 16 per cent more businesses opened in Toronto in 2014 than in 2013), and the size and vibrancy of our parks are all singled out for praise. It’s a strong step up from the 2012 report, which boasted that Toronto was “not too bad” in comparison with countries facing “financial collapse, political instability, war, famine, [and] natural disasters.”

Each area of study is also accompanied by several “Ideas and Innovations”: programs and projects undertaken by organizations in Toronto and around the world to address these issues, as well as thought-provoking questions to inspire readers to engage more deeply with the data. Direct links are included when nonprofit organizations and community initiatives are discussed, giving readers the opportunity to support their work through donations or volunteer commitments.

“Whether you’re a planner, a politician or a philanthropist, a voter, volunteer or neighbour, you have a role to play in making this city a place that works for everyone,” says Bhardwaj.

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