Addressing social change in Toronto’s inner-ring suburbs

North America’s fourth-largest city has a number of changed suburbs that have more lower-class residents and immigrants:

David Hulchanski’s seminal 2006 study, The Three Cities within Toronto, documents the shift of poverty from the inner-city to the inner-suburbs of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The University of Toronto sociologist also made it clear that the poor increasingly tend to be immigrants. The rich, meanwhile, have moved downtown. Only they can afford the cost of housing there.

The third of Hulchanski’s three cities, which encompasses Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke, has experienced the largest increase in immigrants, rising from 31 per cent of the population in 1970 to more than 60 per cent today. During the same time, incomes in those same areas declined almost 40 per cent, more than any other part of Toronto.

Though Toronto is the more tolerant and inclusive city of the two, the social mobility that historically took immigrants from the places they arrived to the places they finally settled has slowed or even disappeared. Low wages, high youth unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure don’t inspire confidence, let alone optimism.

That’s why Toronto’s future lies in its suburbs. That’s why their needs are the needs of all. It’s also why failure to deal with them will hurt the entire city.

So far, the response has been more focused on mollifying suburban discontent than transforming vast swaths of the postwar landscape into more urban configurations. Rather than squander billions on feel-good projects like the Scarborough subway, we need more programs like tower renewal. Transit is essential to move people and connect them; but in addition, many highrise suburban communities desperately need to be remade to 21st-century standards.

This mirrors the circumstances of a number of American inner-ring suburbs: as wealthier (and often whiter) residents have moved to more exclusive suburbs or gleaming high-rises downtown, more poor and non-white residents have moved to cheaper suburbs that often had more industrial and blue collar work. But, what works best to renew these communities? Continue to play up on their advantages in industry and manufacturing (cities and suburbs have been severely hurt in recent decades with the loss of manufacturing jobs)? Compete in new areas like suburban entertainment and culture (wealthier communities often an advantage here)? New housing is often needed in these inner-ring suburbs – their housing stock often dates to the decades before World War II – but it is hard to come up with money to undertake big changes.

One route is to play up their more urban aspects: they may offer a taste of suburban life but are still much closer to everything the city has to offer. Many suburban communities have pursued transit-oriented development built around subway, train, and bus lines that provide quick connections to amenities within that community as well as nearby.

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