Canadian immigrants, housing and social relationships

A few years ago, Dr. Sutama Ghosh presented the results of her freshly minted thesis at a CERIS seminar on the housing of 30 Bangladeshi immigrant families in three Toronto neighbourhoods. She described one highrise tower she visited where children ran through the apartments of their neighbours, giggling, peeking into the fridge, and playing. Doors to the hallway were unlocked so that the children could have free-run. Mothers watched over each other’s children or visited in the laundry rooms. The community had created a “vertical neighbourhood” in the same way that suburban children might scamper through a set of backyards. Ghosh also described other families living in buildings where they were isolated, walled-off and alone. These apartment buildings, where many new immigrants first settle are, as she phrased it, “vertical neighbourhoods” and “spaces of hope and despair.”

Short and tall

Image by Loozrboy via Flica a few years ago kr

It’s a timely topic because later this week, United Way Toronto should be releasing an in-depth study looking at Torontonians who live in high-rise towers across the city, their well-being, their challenges and their communities.

Canadian geography professors, Brian Ray and Valerie Preston have also looked at the social isolation immigrants and found that building form is vital in explaining how connected immigrants are to their communities. Where Ghosh found hope, Ray and Preston found that isolation was more common, de-bunking the myth that immigrants live in inward-focused ethnic enclaves.

Poor social integration, if it is indeed a problem, may be much more a function of housing than the ethnocultural composition of neighbourhoods.

Those who rented or lived in apartment buildings were less likely to know their neighbours than other immigrants or Canadian-born because the places they lived did not necessarily provide the spaces to meet others. The ability to meet through chance encounters offered in “horizontal neighbourhoods,” ones with sidewalks and nearby stores, is often limited in apartment buildings. Neighbours may see each other in mailrooms or elevator rides. Building lobbies commonly lack a place to sit and socialize.

In a nice contrast, the new buildings in Regent Park have been designed to include common bulletin boards, laundromats with nearby play areas, rooftop garden plots and exercise and party rooms, normally a feature of condo buildings.

However, Ray and Preston also found that immigrants who lived in apartment buildings were just as likely as others to:

  • express a sense of belonging, even through the fleeting interactions with their neighbours, and
  • to have a majority of friends from other ethnic groups, a telling rebuttal to the idea that diversity dilutes trust in others.

They concluded that more thoughtful building designs and public policy would improve the social isolation that many immigrants — and apartment–dwellers — experience, making better neighbours.

Ray also be presents later this week at York University CERIS seminar on a related topic. It’s going to be a good week.

My thanks to blogger Kevin Harris, Neighbourhoods, for referring the Ray, Preston article to me.

TheStar Hume: Highrise apartments are towering issue in Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Tower Neighbourhood Renewal in the Greater Golden Horseshoe

December 5, 2010


4 Comments to “Canadian immigrants, housing and social relationships”

  1. Thanks for bringing the discussion of vertical neighbourhoods to the forefront.


    • It began with you! Thank you for your scholarship. The powerful way you described how community occurs among apartments stuck with me.


      • Thanks a lot Diane–I am extremely grateful to you for recognising my research. My doctoral supervisor Prof Bob Murdie has also worked on a project recently, I believe it is on Parkdale. I am waiting for that report.


  2. thnks for sharing such a nice blog abt canadian immigrant housing


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