Russ Ford's Blog

Needed: An Equity Strategy for Toronto



This week the City unveiled its new priority neighbourhoods, now called "neighbourhood improvement areas" as a concession to some who found the "priority neighbourhood" designation disturbing.

No matter, the brain child of former mayor David Miller seems, with rare exception, to be well supported by all parts of the political spectrum.  The once controversial experiment in social equity ahs clearly proven its worth. The 13 priority neighbourhoods received an additional $225 million between 2005 and 2011.

The concept is to invest more money and put more resources in neighbourhoods that have been designated as the most disadvantaged communities in the city.  That designation is determined using a number of different criteria such as income, educational attainment, health status and voter engagement, to name but a few.

It should be pointed out however, that this is a "relative" scale not an "absolute" one.  Just because a community does not make the list does not mean that it is doing well.  It just means the community is doing better than those who qualified as an improvement area.  This is both the strength and the weakness of the program.

Putting more resources into communities that need it the most,  is a fundamental principle of any equity based approach.  Treating communities equally will just continue to perpetrate the current situation.

Not being designated a neighbourhood improvement area does not mean a community will lose resources.  LAMP will not relocate from the lakeshore because we did not make the list.  Being a designated community does make you eligible for new funding that non designated communities will not receive.

The problem however,  is our entire city is in decline and the city has no strategy to address the issues facing the many non improvement communities.  In David Hulchanski's "Three Cities" report the increasing inequity in Toronto is clearly articulated.  For example,  Hulchanski's points out that in 1970, 19 percent of Toronto's neighbourhoods could be considered low income.  In 2000 that number had risen to 50 percent.  That is a significant change in just thirty years.

Increasing inequity is not new to just Toronto. It is a phenomena that has gripped most of the western world.  This is what the Occupy protests were about, the growing unequal distribution of resources.

So given how the floor is falling the city needs a comprehensive strategy on how to strengthen neighbourhoods and reduce inequity right across the city.

At the forefront should be the neighbourhood improvement policy.  Of course we should invest more in high needs areas but the challenge is to stop others neighbourhoods from declining further.

First the strategy must begin with an equity lens.  Simply put, all actions must be measured by whether it makes us a more or less equitable city.  The Scarborough subway extension would fail the equity test.  The LRT alternative would have actually gone through some of Scarborough's high need communities and thereby provided more service to low income people.

User fees on recreation would be gone as fees are a barrier to low income people accessing recreational services 

To build strong neighbourhoods, the city would need to divest decision making to local communities.  The centralization of speech and language services would be cancelled.  Community boards with real decision making authority would replace the current advisory committee model; planning processes would be changed to allow for real community engagement and even local police stations would be accountable to local police committees.

Nothing radical here.  Most of these initiatives, and this is not the whole list, are in action in many other cities in North America. 

It is just a matter of political will.

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