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December 22, 2007

« New Work(Space) | Main | Creative Class High on ... »

It's become increasingly clear that city-regions are becoming more stratified and polarized by income and class.  A fascinating new study by my colleagues at the Centre for Urban and Community Studies (CUCS) tracks these trends over the past several decades in Toronto, and argues that the “city of neighbourhoods” is becoming three separate "cities" defined by widening disparities.  I am very fortunate to work with the best collection of urbanist colleagues in the world. A press release on the report is here (I am trying to track down an electronic copy).  The Globe and Mail asked for my thoughts on the landmark study:

Toronto, despite its worsening economic polarization, or perhaps because of it, is perhaps in the best position worldwide to lead here. It should put aside its dream of becoming another New York, London or, in some quarters, another high-tech Silicon Valley. Those are yesterday's models - thriving commercial cores and growing polarization and poverty. Toronto must break the mould and strive to deal with the spikiness and polarization that its improved position in the global creative economy has brought with it.

Caught today between the twin pillars of economic growth and widening social and economic polarization, Toronto has the opportunity to become a model of the prosperous, sustainable and inclusive region - one where each and every person can fully develop their talents, find work that fufills their dreams, and connect the further development of human creative capabilities to future economic prosperity. The three Torontos can become one Toronto. The time to act is now.

My full column is here.


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Michael Wells

Dynamite column. You're right, New York, San Francisco and maybe LA are too far down the road for near term solutions. But can cities like Toronto, Portland, Seattle which haven't hit the extremes yet, that still have vital mixed income neighborhoods, take a different path?

I know Portland best and I think the question here is how to keep the creative class momentum going without driving out other groups. As low income neighborhoods become hip art centers one after the other, the older residents are being pushed out to the cheaper suburbs.

It won't be simple. Along with the creative class forces, there are multiple other factors at work. I was at a lower income high school to have lunch with a friend and there was a mixed ethnic group of boy playing touch football in front. Many of them weren't wearing jackets and I thought it was adolescent fashion/macho. I said to the principal "Don't those kids know its winter?" She said "Many of them don't have coats, we have 168 homeless students." Oops. Or I was meeting with a Somali couple that run an agency for Somali refugees. They said there's a big influx from Ohio and elsewhere moving here, trying to get their kids away from gangs.

Michael R. Bernstein

"The three Torontos are defined by an increasingly rich and advantaged core, a shrinking middle-class zone, and low-income earners and immigrants at the outskirts."

This is exactly what I see happening here in Las Vegas (another reason I want to leave here), with the added fillip of various segregated upper-class, upper-middle class, and 55-and-older gated community enclaves in the outskirts in and among the 'starter home' suburban tracts.

BTW, many immigrant families are using these 4000sf McMansions as multi-extended-family dwellings. Do you see the same pattern in Toronto?


Michael and Michael - Thank you for those dynamite comments!. My guess is the key lies in unleashing the creativity of every single person. In a very basic sense, of unleashing the same dynamic of factory worker input Toyota used to conquer the global auto industry but across an entire city-region. No this won't be easy, especially with the dolts who run countries. And I think a central part of the strategy has to center around upgrading the creative content as well as the pay and benefits of service work. Service industry work has great rewards - it is flexible, independent, it can even be fun - but by and large we treat it like "dirt." We need to wake up and upgrade these jobs. Yes, it does seem as if we are trapped now - in a period where no one is really thinking about this sort of institution building. The writers' strike indicates that an AFL (labor aristocracy) type movement is brewing. But where is the 21st century analog to the CIO. And no I don't mean another union movement - what is the analog for today's economy and society? I know we don't have the answers yet, but this will be the core of the mission of the Prosperity Institute. My guess is that the beginnings of the answers and solutions can only come from the constant combination and interplay of does and thinkers. Can you guess what my New Year's resolution and wish is:-)?

Michael R. Bernstein

I should clarify that the reason I want to leave Las Vegas isn't the creeping segregation per-se, but the fact that as far as I can tell this segregation is being treated as cause for celebration rather than concern by the Powers-That-Be and the developers that are their true constituents. Also, the local reaction to 'new urbanism' is to create these Disneyfied faux-NU developments that are really aimed at elites and middle-class hangers-on.

BTW, I don't have answers either, but note that Las Vegas' main industry is a service economy, and that unions here (especially the Culinary Union), while not everywhere, are pretty serious players, and not getting weaker.

Yule Heibel

Thanks for a timely and thought-provoking article! In particular, I like your historical perspective, linking the "new economy" with the previous phenomenon of the Industrial Revolution. (FWIW, I wish the G&M pieces wouldn't disappear behind a pay wall. I find myself copying and pasting entire articles into email and sending them to my other account, just to keep track...!)

You wrote that you're looking for an electronic version of Hulchanski's report. The Wellesley Institute links to the full PDF: http://wellesleyinstitute.com/files/cucs/threecitiestoronto.pdf

The URL for the Wellesley Institute portal page, which includes several other links (to TD reports and United Way reports, is:

John Lorinc

The list of urgent moves cited in the article should also include reinvesting in Toronto's public education system, which continues to struggle with inadequate resources. There's little doubt that Toronto enjoys the sort of cohesiveness not seen in many similarly proportioned cities because of its strong local public school system, which continues to educate about 90% of the children within the city and has not -- like big city boards in much of the U.S. -- been abandoned by the middle and upper income classes. But the system is struggling -- or, more accurately, the children in the system are suffering because of a provincial funding formula that fails to properly account for the challenges of delivering high quality education in highly diverse urban neighbourhoods. In particular, the schools rarely have sufficient resources for ESL instruction, remedial education, special needs kids, and high-risk students. All of the forces identified in the Hulchanski study are playing out in the schools in cities 2 and 3, and if we want to check the centrifugal forces at play in Toronto, we need look no further than reinvesting in its schools.

Zoe B

We face the same increasing social stratification in our college town. People below a certain level of income cannot afford to live near campus, or even within the borders of our top-notch school district. A huge number of people commute as much as an hour to a staff job at the university or service work in town. Forget the town/gown conflicts - the town/county split leaves it in the shade. County folks use the phrase "up at the college". This is not a compliment. Their school systems are so much poorer than ours that their relative economic disadvantage is passed to the new generation.

Traditionally, our in-town low-cost neighborhoods have been trailer parks. However, in the last decade most of them have been closed. The landowners replace them with strip malls. We finally have begun to pay attention to affordable housing, about which we have a great deal to learn.

Our in-town real estate market also is distorted by the demand for student housing, particularly near the campus. We have no in-town low-rent areas because somehow the students manage to pay appallingly high rents (probably via student loans that will handicap their ability to buy a home for years after graduation).

I think one important element for combating our class segregation is to find neutral and safe places where all of these people can meet and interact with each other. It does happen within an academic department: the faculty, office staff, and (OK, graduate) students know each other personally. The social code of our school promotes treating co-workers with respect ( I do not take this for granted. While our support staff are knowledgeable and helpful, I have been to schools whose staff were passively hostile, certainly unhelpful and apparently widely ignorant. This was a sensible reaction to the way that faculty and the (generally) wealthy students treated them.)

I am looking for other venues to foster such personal relationships across our town/county divide. Better Together (by Robert Putnam) offers a few examples: a branch library shared by a rich and a poor neighborhood; a community arts project. This is at least something we can do without waiting to solve the real estate problems.

Paul White

It looks like I am going to be alone here, but I feel that this is unavoidable in the spiky world that we live in. The two solutions I can see is that the income distribution becomes flatter, or the world becomes flatter (ala Friedman), neither of which I think will happen anytime soon.

I agree that it is a shame that many people are being priced out of the city centers. But in New York, where I have lived for 5 years, and in Portland, where I was raised, the positives far outweigh the negatives in successful urban cores (such as decreases in crime levels, improvements in neighborhood services, increased tourism). And what happens when young smart people are priced out of the cores? They move outside of the core and bring the positives with them (such as Brooklyn in NY or Sellwood in OR).


Right now it is unavoidable, a seemingly "natural" consequence of a creativity-powered, royalty-generating global economy. But what seems natural is actually embedded in economic and social institutions. it's time to change those institutions in ways that raise the valleys without lopping off the peaks. John's points about education are important here, as well as those who mention other institutions that need to be built and supported. This is indeed the challenge of our time.

Paul White

Mayor Bloomberg announced today that violent crime in New York has reached its lowest level since records have been kept. Subway crimes, murder, and domestic violence are all at their lowest levels in over 40 years.

Michael R. Bernstein

Paul White: If it were just a matter of being priced out of the core I wouldn't be so worried. It's the 'shrinking middle' that is the real problem.

As a result, fleeing 'young smart people' end up being dispersed in the exurbs, where they are too diffuse to maintain the city's creative productivity, and most suburbs and exurbs have architectural features (like cul-de-sacs) that are actively hostile to the local densification that could create new creative centers.

The end result is the gradual eradication of the middle-class as an economic factor and the emergence of two-tier cities with a widening gulf. Of course, we may not see the full effects of this until the Baby-Boom generation starts dying off (right now they've just started retiring) and depopulating the burbclaves, but by then it will be much too late.

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