Toronto at crossroads

For all his relentless optimism, Rahul Bhardwaj is well aware the city faces big problems. “If we don’t come to terms with the issues,” warns the president and CEO of the Toronto Foundation, “we are at real risk of falling behind.”

Although there’s much about which Torontonians can be proud, Bhardwaj worries residents tend to take the city’s success for granted.

“The big picture, the theme of this year’s Vital Signs report, is that it’s about time we realize we are a global city.

“We rank right up there; Toronto’s in the top four cities in the world. We are the 2014 Intelligent Community of the Year. We are also the most youthful city of 2014. We are the sixth smartest city in North America . . . .

“Obviously, we’re doing some things quite well. That’s a good thing.”

The question, of course, is whether Toronto can stay at the top of these various lists. And as Bhardwaj points out, in a city of immigrants, there’s also the matter of remaining attractive to new-comers.

Vital Signs, the civic report card released annually by the Toronto Foundation since 2001, has become one of the most reliable snapshots of the city. There’s much to feel good about, Bhardwaj argues. Growth in Toronto is off the chart. More towers are under construction here than in any other city on the continent. We are Canada’s pre-eminent financial, media and cultural hub and an acknowledged centre of diversity.

But not everyone shares in the prosperity.

“We need more people experiencing life in the fourth most livable city,” says Bhardwaj.

Many of the excluded are immigrants, specifically visible minorities. Already more than half of Torontonians are foreign-born, and, by 2025, that’s expected to rise to 63 per cent.

As the University of Toronto’s David Hulchanski outlined in his seminal 2010 study, Three Cities, poverty is increasingly concentrated in post-war high-rise neighbourhoods in the inner suburbs. More than ever, it is also associated with immigrants. In other words, poverty is being racialized.

“The real gap in Toronto is not between rich and poor,” Bhardwaj explains. “It’s a gap in opportunity. We know that 43 per cent of Torontonians live in low- or very low-income neighbourhoods, and two-thirds of these are visible minorities.

“We are creating a situation where we have a deficit of opportunity.”

And, he adds, although Toronto has “the best education system in the world,” youth unemployment here is 20 per cent.

More disturbing are the figures about poverty.

According to Bhardwaj, 29 per cent of children in the city are poor. In some neighbourhoods, including Parkdale and St. James Town, as many as 40 per cent or 50 per cent of kids live in poverty.

At the same time, the waiting list for affordable housing comprises 90,000 families. Worse still, 90 per cent of families living with children in low-income apartment towers are inadequately housed and at some risk of homelessness.

These are shocking numbers.

And they are entirely inconsistent with the city considered among the most desirable on Earth.

Yet to much of the world, Toronto stands out as a beacon of hope and a shining example of inclusivity and opportunity.

Still, Bhardwaj wants to make it clear that, “We have all the assets we need to be a great city for everyone. We are extremely highly ranked. But what got us here won’t get us there. Competition may have built this city, but collaboration is the only way forward. Collaboration between sectors, public, private and philanthropic, is growing.”

Under Bhardwaj’s leadership, the Toronto Foundation has become a go-between agency that connects individuals, institutions and philanthropists to create alliances that benefit everyone involved. As he is quick to point out, “Civic engagement will be very important to the future of the city.”

“We are at risk of falling behind,” Bhardwaj says. “But we think there’s a lot to love about this city.”

Whether that’s enough remains to be seen.