Posts tagged ‘Neighborhoods’

October 8, 2010

If hubs are the solution, what’s the problem?

The following are comments I presented on a panel at the recent Social Planning Toronto symposium on schools as community hubs:

We know the research. Concentrated disadvantage, growing inequality, all shown in reports like Poverty by Postal Code, the Three Cities, and Social Planning’s own work, the ten year social demographic retrospective, authored by Beth Wilson, this past summer.

These are entrenched problems, ones seemingly intractable.  In his book, The Persistence of Poverty, philosopher Charles Karelis uses the metaphor of bee stings to explain how poverty cannot be cured through a singly-targeted effort. If one has many bee stings and only a little balm, it’s not worth trying to soothe just one of the stings. Each of the stings of poverty, the lack of a job, the lack of childcare, the lack of housing, the lack of a safety net, has to be treated at the same time.

This is why place-based interventions, like community hubs, make sense.

It’s startling to see what passes for common sense these days:
Hubs — Co-locating services so people don’t have to travel? Neighbourhood centres have been doing this for over 100 years.

Full-day kindergarten — Offering learning opportunities and childcare in the same space? Who knew this, but a parent?

Because funding structure and legislation have focused on populations and singular, simple problems, we have not made the traction we want on issues of poverty, things that are true to the common good and our civic values.

So, in response to the first part of this session which posits “If Hubs are the Solution….,” what problems are community hubs supposed to solve?

Using a place-based lens, hubs offer the ability to address complexity and entrenched problems. (Place-based solutions can rightly be critiqued for their own drawbacks — that many issues are beyond the scope of the local — but that’s another panel session.)

Hubs are one form of other institutions that use a place-based, wrap-around model; others are such as neighbourhood centres, settlement houses, multi-service agencies, community health centres, and even, once, community schools. (My children’s school was built in the 1960s so that the school library could be used as a public library, with a separate entrance build into the structure. That failed and now the library is down the block.)

The “system” has now adopted hubs as an answer that makes sense. Within Toronto, that means bringing community space to the inner suburbs where infrastructure supports, like meeting space and community programs, is too scarce.

The Strong Neighbourhood Taskforce and the resultant Strong Neighbourhoods strategies at the City government level and at United Way Toronto promoted hubs as one strand of the solution. The POL funds, major donor gifts, and funding through the Youth Challenge Fund helped to realize these new resources.

When the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce examined service levels across the city, in comparison with the needs of the local population, the one map that showed coverage, washed calm blue instead of fiery red, was the map of access to local schools. Schools are in every Toronto neighbourhood.

That’s why the concept of schools as community hubs makes such sense.

The  Toronto District School Board has grown this idea, through initiatives such as Sheila Cary-Meagher and Cassie Bell’s Model Schools for Inner City initiative. (Note these schools do not rigidly fall within the Priority Neighbourhood Areas – poor kids are more widely dispersed in the city). And, more recently, Director Spence began to open Full Use Schools. Both these programs open schools to the community and the community to schools.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has also recognized the sense of this. They have funded the Community Use of Schools program, which opens up school space to community agencies in the summer and after school, and, more recently, launched the Priority Schools Initiative, which provides support to grassroots groups to do the same.

“Schools as hubs” is on the radar.

In the midst of this municipal election, we hear candidates talking about schools as community hubs. The City has still to figure out how to work with the school board – the Community Partnership Strategy, for instance, is skirting  this boundary issue as it maps out the resources and assets in Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

So if there is all this wisdom, what’s the problem? Why are there not more hubs?

This summer I had the chance to work on a report on community hubs for the ICE committee, and that will soon be forthcoming.

But here’s a short list of some of the challenges:

Parental resistance – we still have to figure out how to work through the “stranger in the school” problem

System coordination – The multiple orders of government and even the silos within them make an integrated take, like this, challenging. Competing deadlines and funding criteria don’t make this easy.

The Funding Formula still funds school boards on a per pupil basis with targeted special grants laid on top. When school boards lost their taxing authority, they lost much of their flexibility to be innovative about local issues.

The burden of moving all this forward falls upon on two already burdened, under-funded sectors (education and community service agencies).

Listen to this semi-facetious “To Do” list for anyone developing a hub. Here’s what they have to develop:

  • Visioning
  • Partnership-building
  • Capital dollars fundraising
  • Operating dollars
  • Location identification
  • Community consultations
  • Resident engagement
  • Needs assessments
  • Zoning/permits, Design & space allocation
  • Service planning
  • Governance model
  • Administrative model
  • Feasibility studies
  • Lease agreements
  • Cost-projections
  • Cost-sharing ratio
  • Program space design and allocation
  • Operating hours
  • Outreach and communication strategy
  • Itinerant partnering protocol development
  • Staffing models
  • Job descriptions
  • Source funding
  • Emergency preparedness plan….

And we wonder why it can’t get done.

My job today was to provide evidence of why hubs are a good idea.

But we know they are. That’s why we’re all, three hundred, here.

This is less a rational debate where we need to convince each other of the merits of a good idea, but much more a discussion about our civic will and priorities and the administrative structures and resources required for this “good idea” to be realized.

Thank you.

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September 24, 2010

Happy 2nd Blogday, Belonging Community!

Two years ago, Belonging Community began. As poet Dionne Brand has said, this is a city that is in the middle of “becoming,” and my hope was to think about Toronto from the level of a city block.

How can schools serve students better? What lives do our neighbours live? What does inequality look like at the neighbourhood level? How do local institutions affect our lives?

One hundred and two posts later, the Top Hits from the past year are:

Crime hotspots across Toronto neighbourhoods 2,992 More stats
Toronto Community Partnership Strategy: 443 More stats
About me 428 More stats
The Ontario HST: a counter-intuitive remedy 385 More stats
Ethnic enclaves in Toronto, 2001 – 2006 365 More stats
“Are there limits to gentrification? 333 More stats
The TDSB’s Learning Opportunity Index 323 More stats
Toronto swimming pools: Class in session 317 More stats
Community Partnership Strategy: NWI 265 More stats
Crime and social cohesion in Toronto 261 More stats
Defining race (and racism) in the TDSB LOI 243 More stats

Crime as you can see is big, with an average of eight hits a day. Other topics are popular because not many people are writing about them. My favourite pieces are less about these big policy pieces than the stories which emerge from living in an urban neighbourhood.

I have also appreciated the new community of bloggers, activists, and researcher that Belonging Community has introduced me to, people like Kevin Harris, Christopher Leo and Leo Romero. Sometimes too, I have even gotten a laugh. Three of the funniest (or strangest ways) people have found the blog recently are by using these search terms:

  • diane dyson emergency
  • ugliest areas of toronto
  • portland flag

Thanks all! It’s been a good year.

September 6, 2010

NIMBY – hear the middle-class roar

They came with their hairy dogs, determined looks on their faces and helmeted children scootering ahead of the adults holding picket signs. The people of the Beach and Birchcliffe had come to protect the Quarry.

A former dump, at one point, the Quarry is roughly 50 undeveloped acres southeast of the Main subway station. Environmentalists sing the praises of the wildlife. However, the area was zoned in the 1960s for highrise development, and the developers are exercising their legal rights. So, the community was out to defend it.

I happened on the protest by chance, with a friend. We had to stop. The banners said “Save our neighbourhood” and “1960s planning is bad planning.”

The proposed 7 twenty-story buildings would provide 1,455 units of housing, at a density 7 times what the surrounding area is now with its detached, single-family homes.

“Affordable housing!” I whooped. No one took up the call.

It’s hard to know what to think about these kind of events.

People were rising to the defense of the community, but against whom? The developer. Yes, probably. The newcomers (interlopers) – new renters or condo buyers.  Perhaps some of them.

It was easy to see what we were against, but what were we fighting for? About every person here probably has a different reason, my wiser friend explained.

It reminded me of other protests I’ve seen. The outrage against the possible arrival of big box store in South Riverdale pitched local residents against each other, often split along ethnic and income lines. The Salvation Army and Seaton House faced fierce community meetings when they moved to house homeless men in other neighbourhoods, even if only temporarily such as on Pape Avenue. (The Sally Ann, bless its soul, has a webpage on the topic of NIMBY-ism.)

These debates too often deteriorate into a debate about who is moving in, or they erupt, under a more politically correct guise, such as “Social services should not be concentrated here. We have our fair share already.”

Another recent example close to home was the call from near-by residents to have Felstead park’s playground equipment upgraded – something already on the schedule, but not soon enough for their liking. They too used the blind that as a mixed income neighbourhood, they had been ignored to the benefit of richer neighbourhoods near-by. However, as a gentrifying neighbourhood, the press was on.

Or more recently, neighbours to the south of here, feeling protective of their “own,” confronted members of a church congregation for bringing their faith to the streets, unfortunately by a fire hydrant where a gay couple live. This well-meaning crowd ended up as a “Was my face red…” front-page story in the Toronto Star.

Within the past year, another of my neighbours closed down his family restaurant when he heard an apartment building next door to him was being built to provide supportive housing to people with mental health problems. More plain in his prejudices, he refused to stay near “crazy” people.

Examples from other parts of the city include the conversion of the “Entertainment District” to a residential area and almost any neighbourhood where condos have been built close to a slaughterhouse or other industrial area. If the City of Toronto mapped out where building orders occur, they are in concentrated in the areas with higher and mixed-incomes – the gentrified and the gentrifying areas of the city.

What under lies all these is fear. People don’t want to lose what they have. When people (re-)act from a fearful place, any larger vision gets lost.

But the reality that the neighbourhoods with the highest complaints are not the places with the most problems, but rather places with the most privilege. These are the neighbourhoods where the “sharp elbows of the middle class” claim the resources seen to be due to them.

Flawed as the Priority Neighbourhood Areas were, what they did do effectively was to re-focus resources away from the noisiest, squeakiest parts of the city, to areas that hadn’t had any attention for a very long time. This leveling of the playing field probably led to some of the strongest critiques of the mayor, David Miller, that he had let things slide in the areas where, frankly, people are more likely to vote.

Instead, the Strong Neighbourhood strategy has evened some things out. The new Community Partnership Strategy is also building an evidence base so that neighbourhood comparisons can be done more accurately.

These strategies show we are a more generous city than these other NIMBY stories tell about us. When given a chance, we can dream of a common good.

But, until we Torontonians see our backyard as the entire city, inequality will continue to split neighbourhoods, into “good” and “bad’ places to live, into places where we fight each other.

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August 25, 2010

Community Partnership Strategy: Community Space

This is a long-delayed follow-up to some earlier posts on the City of Toronto’s Community Partnership Strategy which is currently under development and will measure community resources in neighbourhoods across the city.

Bonnie Green writes in the recent issue of the Agora Foundation’s The Philanthropist about the tale of two non-profit organizations in search of program space in their local communities. The article, Creating Social Space in the New Urban Landscape, captures the challenge many non-profit organizations and neighbourhoods face: a lack of community space.

Good neighbourhoods need more than services; they need the space to deliver these community programs and places where community can gather. Much of the challenge of delivering service in Toronto’s “inner suburbs” has been one of carving program space out of basements and strip malls in order to bring community services to local residents. These community spaces are the places where literacy and health programs are found, where sports leagues and seniors’ groups run, where we can access the services we need or where we organize and work with others, from and for our communities.

Good neighbourhoods also need places where neighbours can meet each other, spaces like front porches, school yards and parks, corner stores, coffee shops, places of worship, recreation centres, school yards, dog runs, and even sidewalks. These are the spaces where we can go, outside of our homes and work, where we can meet each other on neutral territory.

Academics describe both these kinds of community gathering spots as third places, and maintain that they are vital to the social fabric of a neighbourhood.

The website Cooltown Studios describes such places this way:

If you aren’t motivated to leave home or your workplace, chances are you don’t live around too many successful third places.

So, it makes great sense that the City of Toronto’s Community Partnership Strategy (CSP) proposes to use these third places as an indicator of the strength of the community support system within a city neighbourhood, combining it with two other structural components: the presence of community organizations, and funding.

The CSP’s definition of community space will measure “space for residents, informal groups, community-based organizations; meetings, programs, administration; multi-purpose [and] dedicated space.”

Two types of  measurable spaces have been identified: community meeting space, which allows informal and grassroots interactions, and community program space, which is more likely to be booked and permitted for service delivery.

Similar to the work of the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce, the measure could also include the percentage of the population with one kilometre of meeting space, such as in libraries, recreation centres, and community-based organizations.

However, the CSP is more than an inventory of local resources. In consultation with community, city staff are exploring the “when is enough, enough” question to answer what benchmarks would work: how much space is needed in a neighbourhood and what functions does it need to fill? How do the needs of various neighbours differ? What’s the baseline requirement for any neighbourhood?

Not enough research — or policy-wrangling — has been done to determine these answers yet, so the early stages of the CSP are more likely to provide an effective way of comparing Toronto neighbourhoods to each other. Now, thanks to the CSP, that conversation will have a good evidence base.

August 15, 2010

It’s always something: Life and death on a city block

 

The man across the street from me died recently. He is the twelfth death that I can remember on the block during the time I have lived here.

The Dalai Lama once said to remember that whenever you enter a room with others, there is always pain somewhere in the room. This is my remembrance of pain on the street, my own included. It’s perhaps a macabre exercise but one that underscores the thickness of our neighbourhoods.

When I lead Jane’s Walks in the neighbourhood, we fly through the neighbourhood. This tour will pause much more frequently and cover little more than a city block.

The only people I know who have gotten mugged in my neighbourhood both got mugged at the underpass to the railway tracks at the top of the street. And the restaurant at the other end is nicknamed the Kick & Stab.  This is some of what has happened in the spaces between these two places:

  • A corner brick house was built by a man during WWI. The woman who lived in it promised payment when her husband returned. Lost is the reason why, but the builder was never paid. His daughter bullied the new little girl who moved in after that – bullying passed on generationally, and spatially.
  • Further south is the family that raised a crowd of children, one they lost when he was eleven. Four neighbourhood boys had found an open sewer grate and crawled down for an adventure. What they found was a pocket of deadly gas. Only the two quickest boys were able to climb out. The others succumbed. His father bankrupted himself, suing the City for neglect.
  • Walking again south, we come to the house where five-year-old Jeffrey died with his grandparents after his young parents were found incompetent. However, his grandmother, barely better equipped, became overwhelmed. The testimony at the trial which I remember is how one of the neighbourhood mums, a woman I knew by sight from the local school ground, visited one day and found Jeffrey’s grandmother giving him a bath in the basement. The grandmother told our neighbour she didn’t know if she could manage. Within months, the weight of a toddler, 21 pound Jeffrey died of neglect and septic shock. A new, happy family lives behind those walls now, a little girl, who knows of him, in the bedroom where Jeffrey had been locked. It overlooks our backyards.
  • Turning right, here is where Louie ran a store for years, robbed just as frequently. His face was always relieved when he saw you were a customer. He’s gone now, and the owners of the store around the block have bought a big dog. Their faces are perpetually nervous too.
  • Here an old man found in his basement apartment, not having the strength to walk out on his own, relying on his neighbours to fetch groceries. The police found him when there was a fire in the building.
  • Here the brother and sister, grown, the patterns set when they were young. He was suspended, then expelled, from the local grade school. She lured into trading her young sexuality for favours.
  • Here the man who didn’t see his family for fifteen years until he was able to save enough for them to emigrate,  his toddler turned to a teenager.
  • And here the mother who went mad. And recovered. Sort of.
  • Here the man who has depression who won’t tell anyone. His wife miscarried, too.
  • Here the man so alienated from his family that he didn’t attend the funeral of his disabled son.
  • Here the brother who became a drug addict and then committed suicide. His father beat his mother.
  • Here the house that was filled with young people, lost to the world. They burned the house down setting off fire crackers in the waste can. One of them, panicked, rushed to the second floor porch, certain she was trapped, waiting for the fire trucks. Her friends, rushing out to the front sidewalk, chanted, “Jump, jump, jump.” Two households were burned out, neither covered by insurance.
  • Here the man who doesn’t talk to others. He’s in the hospital a lot.
  • Here the elderly mother whose dutiful daughter stayed close until she met a man who took her money. When the mother objected, they found a long-term home for her.
  • Here the woman who moved here with a draft dodger and had a beautiful child. But he lives on the streets now.
  • Here the daughter with special needs so carefully tended because her friendliness makes her vulnerable.
  • Here the daughter who died of cancer in her early 20’s.
  • Here the man who nursed his lover through the final stages of AIDS. Now, a couple who lost a child unborn.
  • Here the man who beat his wife until she left. His grown sons visit sometimes.
  • Here the woman and two children who emigrated here, to follow her husband, then to find they had no status. Her husband beat her too. She left him, and met a woman, a white Canadian who stepped in where her husband left off, we didn’t like her. The mother was almost deported, but neighbours put up the surety, testified on her behalf. The Canadian woman moved her away from this neighbourhood. The last we heard, she was homeless and mad. We don’t know what happened to the children. Now there, a women whose time is occupied with her suicidal sister.
  • Here the husband who was so cheap he wouldn’t let his wife have a visitor over for tea because electricity and tea bags cost money.
  • Here a four-year-old child lived, her Mum her only support, a woman who too became addicted. The neighbours each took turns watching over the child, feeding her, until her grandmother arrived months later and set things straight. I saw her grown and well.
  • Here, two bad landlords.
  • Here the smoker who died of lung cancer, saying, “I feel so stupid. I’m scared.”
  • Here the man who never told his family he is gay. But they never visit.
  • Here the partner who strayed, had a child with another woman, then left.
  • Here another straying man, whose lover left him. His wife wouldn’t take him back. And, then, a woman with a hundred friends who was self-conscious she was alone in life, single.
  • Here a father who swears his son is slow because of an undetected gas leak.
  • Here the couple who, when they moved, left pictures drawn on the wall of the wife having sex with their labrador dog.
  • Here the father who lost his legs and then his life to diabetes. An adult son also died. His wife had bottles delivered regularly to her home until she was put in housing. She’s better now. Then, a tenant who never worked after a construction accident.
  • Here the two half-brothers who lived and aged together for more than 3 decades, the older one passed away first, his brother’s name on his lips, his brother’s arms around him.
  • Here, another alcoholic and a tenant, in the basement, who couldn’t live peaceably with her partner.
  • Here the family that faced with dread that the daughter had inherited the mother’s disease, the men stood stalwart by these wives, only grouching about parking or snow removal.
  • Here the family who bought a home, a dream they could just afford, but it burned down early one morning, grandmother escaping with grandchildren, because the little boy who lived in the basement apartment found some matches. They didn’t have insurance either.
  • Here the mother who shepherded her two sons to school everyday, past her ex-mother-in-law, who would speak to none of them.
  • Here the woman, schizophrenic, who has managed through medication and personal strength and neighbourliness, to raise her child well.

There’s more, there’s always more, but that’s enough. As my neighbour June would sum up such events, “It’s always something on [our street].”

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August 10, 2010

Sidewalk exchanges

When the small piano on my front porch begins to tinkle, I know a neighbourhood toddler has ventured up from the sidewalk, tired parent in tow. I keep it there just for that. In the winter, we meet out there when we are shovelling. Or we see each other early in the morning when we are running out with our smelly green bins. Clusters of us appear along the street as we return from our workday, visiting those already on their porch.

This, like any neighbourhood, is a neighbourhood where our sidewalks are important.

Our sidewalks also serve a trading function. Old bookshelves, dishes and lamps are regularly laid out well before garbage day in the neighbourhood for perusal and collection by others.  I recently met a new neighbour and realized I had her discarded lamp in my living room. (In my first house, most of the furniture “free-cycled.” My partner and I even learned the garbage collection schedule of several of the upscale areas around us—sadly, something I would be less likely to do now with the urban spread of bed bugs.)

These outdoor activities have grown out of the density of our neighbourhood where we live cheek by porch, exchanges which occur by design, by happenstance, by tradition and by local culture. They have made our neighbourhood a better place to be.

Flag of Portland, Oregon. Designed by Douglas ...

Flag of Portland, Oregon. Image via Wikipedia

Word now from Portland, Oregon, where a few neighbourhoods have formalized the opportunities for these daily communal interactions, including setting up a local outdoor tea cart and building neighbourhood “sharing posts.” Mike Lanza at Playborhood.com posted  on the this development after he took a trip to the west coast.  When Communities take over their own streets includes pictures of these great communal creations. Read it to enjoy!

Using the same creative approach, Neighbourhoods blogger Kevin Harris was one of the initiators of  a new, fun Facebook group called 50 ways to meet your neighbours (“Give a nod on the bud, Gus”). The group sprang out of a meeting Harris attended and some recent research he described that showed that Brits are shy about meeting one another.

Sounds familiar. Sidewalks are a low-risk way for us all to get to enjoy a little musical (or other form of) interchange.

July 14, 2010

Racialized poverty & academic performance: A tentative exploration of the latent effects of social capital on educational achievement

The power of a strong research report is the way it changes our civil discourse. In Toronto, Poverty by Postal Code, the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce Report, MISWAA, and University of Toronto/St. Christopher House research reports on neighbourhood change have all played a robust part in recent public policy discussions. Such reports re-frame the way we think about our city and each other.

So, when the TDSB’s Inner City Advisory Committee (ICAC) asked the board’s research staff to do a comparative analysis tracking students’ academic achievement patterns against the Neighbourhood Change CURA’s “Three Cities” report, it seemed like a good idea. The Three Cities report had splashed over the front pages of our daily newspapers and underscored the growing inequality and geographic separations within our city. ICAC expected the results would provide further insight into schools in low-income neighbourhoods.

On first analysis, however, the results were disappointing.

Several measures of educational achievement were tested, including:

  • EQAO Grade 3 Math scores
  • EQAO Grade 6 Math scores
  • Grade 9 science results
  • Grade 9-10 Academic program
  • Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT)
  • Access to Ontario post-secondary institute

Yet, the correlation between the “Three Cities” and students’ academic performance was weak — likely for two reasons: first, the Neighbourhood Change/Three Cities analysis used average incomes in its comparisons of neighbourhoods, a known, weaker predictor of academic performance; and, secondly, almost half of the TDSB’s highest-need schools are actually located outside the areas identified as the “third city” or lowest-income areas.

Nevertheless, the school board’s researcher charged with the task, Dr. Rob Brown, persevered in his analysis.

The “three cities,” described by Dr. Hulchanski et. al., break down into further categories. For instance, high income areas are comprised of Elite neighbourhoods which were rich and have remained rich and Gentrifying neighbourhoods which have become high-income in recent decades.

Poor areas of the city break out into four main areas:

  • Youngest suburbs (Lower density, homeowners, larger families, white-collar jobs, high visible minority population, higher Chinese population)
  • Older suburbs (Lower density, more seniors, lower education levels, higher White population)
  • Renters (Immigrant reception areas, highest density, apartment towers, high levels of education, low incomes, more South Asian)
  • Lowest incomes (Highrise rental and social housing, low incomes, lower education, manual labour jobs, higher Black population, more single parents)

So, when Brown looked to see whether academic achievement tracked with these categories, the patterns were more interesting. What he found gives new insight into some of the debates at the school board around race and poverty.

Predictably, the highest performing students were almost consistently the students who lived in the Elite neighbourhoods. However, in two instances they were beaten, in Grade 3 Math and Grade 9 Science — both times by students, in the “third city,” from the Youngest Suburbs. In fact, in all but two of the measures, students in the Youngest Suburbs also out-performed the Gentrifying group of students in “city one”: Taking academic program in Grade 9-10, and the OSSLT.

University admissions tracked a similar path. 53% of Elite students confirmed attendance at an Ontario university, followed by 49% of students in the Youngest Suburbs. These two groups were also the most likely to have applied to post-secondary education. Students in every other neighbourhood type lagged behind in the 33% – 36% range, except for high school students in the Lowest-income neighbourhoods, where only 25% confirmed university attendance (and where 57% did not apply to any level of higher education).

In comparison, students from the other parts of the “third city,” Older Suburbs and Renters, were often within a few percentage points of each other and approaching, or occasionally surpassing, the performance of middle-income students in “city two.” The lowest academic performers were the Lowest Income, except in the case of Grade 3 math, where they beat the Gentrifying neighbourhoods.

So, the analysis shows that while income, or the lack there-of, can be an important predictor of students’ academic performance, it is not a determinant. While Brown himself doesn’t speculate, the interesting part of this work is to imagine what protective factors might be helping some low-income students to compete.

A perfunctory analysis might note that the distinguishing factors between the different “cities” are the racial and ethnic compositions of them. Buttressing the weight of this is the first release of the TDSB’s Student Census which made headlines when it was published because of the analysis which how students of various ethno-cultural backgrounds were performing in school. But that initial report stopped there at these correlations, ipso facto, not looking to control other factors, such as poverty, lone parent status, low education levels and other risk factors found in each of these neighbourhoods.

I would argue a deeper, more nuanced picture emerges from Brown’s ICAC study, one which outlines the structuralist nature of educational achievement. Because the neighbourhood categories were more homogenous, it was possible to examine some of the complex interplays of income and race and, more importantly, the social capital students were able to access.

Within the context of the City of Toronto, these factors play out along a racial dimension, in other places, they may play out along other lines of identity, of accent or class or another form of “othering.” We need to think though the root cause of the barriers. For instance, racism, rather than race, per se, may be a barrier, but so is limited access to social and economic capital or access to strong, supportive social networks. Race, ethnicity and culture are the shorthand for a much more complex picture, which encapsulates access to resources and opportunities, individual and systemic racism, community expectations and a wide range of other social determinants.

So, for instance, students in the Youngest Suburbs were part of a cultural heritage that holds scholarship in esteem, where white-collar jobs were more common, and where family structures were wider. In contrast, students in the Lowest Income neighbourhoods were more likely to live in low-quality (rental, crowded) housing, with poorer job prospects, fewer family supports, and fewer role models who had attended higher education. Students in the Youngest Suburbs and the Renters have also more likely been exposed to a second language, which can improve learning.

These apparent racial divisions are the evidence of deeper divides within the city. They represent the unequal division and distribution of resources among us. These racial divides allow the easy concentration of resources within family, kinship, and friendship networks, encasing the economic and social capital that families and neighbourhoods bring to bear on its own young. The result is that those with the fewest resources are least likely to apply to university, whereas those who still have a strong sense of aspiration, positive supports, and role models are more likely to have better outcomes.

This peer effect is underscored by the work of David Harding at the University of Michigan. He found that “disadvantaged neighborhoods exhibit greater heterogeneity in college goals and that adolescents in more heterogeneous neighborhoods are more likely to change educational goals over time and are less likely to act in concert.” Essentially, more kids in richer neighbourhoods attend university because they are expected to do so.

What Brown’s research underscores is that poverty is about more than income. It’s about the inoculative supports which many lack.

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June 12, 2010

Cynthia’s Walks

On Cynthia’s passing: It was peaceful. She was surrounded by family. And it was too soon. “Damn, damn, damn.” Her memorial has been set for September 11th, 1 p.m. at St. John Norway.

She had a long stride, so she moved fast. It’s the way I remember Cynthia, arms swinging, backpack on one shoulder.

Neighbours at the 2009 Terry Fox Walk

Cynthia’s wearing her Breast Cancer T-shirt on the Terry Fox Walk. We were walking for another dear neighbour.

We walked a lot, me less eagerly, hoping instead to sit on her couch, she striding ahead, explaining that she couldn’t walk slowly. There were the shopping trips, brisk evening walks with other neighbours, and longer fundraising walks. Always walking.

When Cynthia heard about the first Jane’s Walk, she said, “We should lead one in our neighbourhood.” She had already talked to the head of a local community agency. I was working, at the time, at United Way Toronto on issues around building strong communities. But, as a researcher, stepping out in front was not my first inclination, so I demurred, offering only to speak at one of the stops. That first walk became Ashbridges to Little India. The next year, Cynthia and I led a group of forty through a torrential rain, stopping at the Mahar Restaurant for chai and samosas that Cynthia had arranged through the local BIA.

Cynthia Brouse, award-winning magazine writer, editor and my friend and neighbour for nearly fifteen years, I was proudest of a Toronto Life piece for which she hadn’t won an award: Indian Summer, the story of living in our east-end neighbourhood. (She was kind enough to omit the story of our first meeting, when, toddlers in tow, I had brushed her off and, instead, she included a quixotic story about my son and I dancing with a sparkler. And about how “dense, multiplex networks” function.)

Last year, our Greenwood Coxwell walk gained some profile, being written up by a Globe columnist, but Cynthia wasn’t well enough to lead the walk again with me. Her breast cancer had returned. Another neighbour, a historian, stepped in graciously to help, and Cynthia came to listen this time, her mother pushing her wheelchair.

However this year, within days of the annual walk, Cynthia said good-bye to her home and, for the last time, has been admitted to hospital.

Still, we talked about this thing we had joined together, this celebration of neighbourhoods, and the convergent theme of neighbourliness. I told her how this year the walk had grown again. Crazily, I had decided to do two walks, a reprise of our earlier ones and a new one I had thought up. And, crazily, two new walks had sprung up in the neighbourhood, led by others!  (The media coverage also grew with a Spacing radio podcasts of my walk and of Jane Farrow’s east end tour and also a CBC interview on Fresh Air about Jane’s Walks across the province which profiled our neighbourhood.) Our conversations had taken a life of themselves.

These ideas of local community, social networks, neighbouring, how we manage, or how we come to rely on each other, these themes were what Cynthia and I considered, continuously, until the end.

Earlier this spring, when things looked pretty gloomy, I joked with Cynthia, “I’ve had enough of sick and dying neighbours.”

Looking at me steadily, she said, “You will be happy again.”

Now, I remember that, and I imagine her offering me a cupcake to enjoy — because we can always walk it off.

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April 24, 2010

My beautiful laundromat, grocer, library…

While some espouse the merits of a clothesline, I like laundromats. Stories about them stick in my mind.

Early British suffragettes did some of their best community organizing in the town laundries, away from the strong pitching arms of visiting farm boys who lobbed rotten produce at them when the women stood on the back of wagons at village markets calling for the vote. Describing this scene in her autobiography, Hannah Mitchell, a working class suffragette, explained how community laundries were invariably a safer space where they had a legitimate right to gather.

Or, there is the kindergarten teacher who could not convince local families to visit the school. So she took a pile of books to the nearby residential building’s laundromat, sat down on a stool and began reading out loud. Drawn in, the children loved this reprieve from their long, dull waits, and families began to trust her. It’s a technique well-recognized in community development circles.

Even Jane Jacobs reflected this lesson in her critique of the “tower-in-a-park” style of public housing, according to author Alice Sparberg Alexiou. In a speech at Harvard University in 1956, Jacobs described the basement laundromats as the “heart” of the buildings, the only adult social area, lying in the bowels of the buildings. Laundry rooms are one of the few spaces with the buildings where tenants have any sort of extended contact.

Laundromats are fundamentally social places – third places, according to sociologist – places, outside our homes and workplaces, where we meet each other.

According to the New York Times, laundromats are becoming scarcer, as are many local businesses.

E.B. White once described the elements of his mid-century New York city neighbourhood:

no matter where you live in New York, you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar, a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen, a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drug store, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.

It was this commercial chaos which inspired Jane Jacobs, soon afterwards.

Jacobs joined the board of the Union Settlement Association, a New York neighbourhood house, after seeing the good work it did documenting the shifts in East Harlem as housing projects were introduced. One of Union Settlement’s social workers, Ellen Lurie, documented the effects in detail.

Lurie described the effect of the disappearance of local stores which had been razed,

Shopping, which was a time in which neighbours met, now is a long, impersonal, tiring business, especially with children in tow. (Alexiou, Jane Jacobs Urban Visionary, 2006 — a great book)

Canadian research is showing how, since the 1970s, grocery stores have been growing larger and more dispersed with urban environments, and because of restrictive covenants are not returning to urban neighbourhoods. We now have to go further to bigger stores to buy our food among strangers.

There is push-back. The call for walkable neighbourhoods has focused on these dynamics. Chris Smith, for instance, cleverly describes his 5-, 10- and 20- minute neighbourhood in Portland Oregon. Green Changemakers offers tips regularly on “living responsibly.” The American Institute of Architects is even bringing this design sensibility to offices and seniors’ housing.

A walkable neighbourhood ensures two important ingredients of a strong community:

  • access to service, especially to those among us who cannot range far, such as seniors, families with young children, and low-income people, and
  • strengthened social connections which allow us to work together for a common good.

If, as Lewis Mumford said of suburbia, it is “a collective effort to lead a private life,” an urban neighbourhood is impoverished without its laundromats, coffee shops, corner stores, public libraries and other spaces where we meet each other.

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April 11, 2010

Community Partnership Strategy: Neighbourhood Well-being Index

(Updates – July 1, 2011: The NWI is has been re-branded and launched as Wellbeing Toronto. July 29, 2010: This should now be referred to as the Neighbourhood Well-being Indices. Revised by the City researchers.)

Statistics and geography is about to get a whole lot more fun in the City of Toronto. City staff are working to create interactive, flash maps which allow users to explore neighbourhood-level indicators.

This fresh concept of a way to measure the vitality of a neighbourhood has now evolved into a first draft of the Neighbourhood Well-being Index (NWI). The NWI will collect neighbourhood-level information from a broad range of sources, including Statistics Canada demographic data and the City’s own administrative databases.

The NWI  is a new and separate initiative from City of Toronto staff, but it dovetails neatly with Council’s newly adopted Community Partnership Strategy, providing the broad evidence base for the strategy. The NWI also complements the move towards open data initiative, OpenTO, acting as an open data warehouse.

Some of the data to be mapped data is already available, in less friendly formats, through the City’s neighbourhood profiles, the Community Social Data Strategy and TO iMapit. The NWI will enable users to identify key populations groups or services of interest and then produce a user-friendly map of the data.

Several good examples from the U.S.A. give a preview of what the NWI might look like:

  • The New York City website Envisioning Development Toolkit is a friendly tool which compares neighbourhood rent and incomes.
  • California’s Healthy City is a more data-rich site which allows users to map local services and demographics.
  • The Reinvestment Fund’s Policy Map compares a range of data across numerous American cities.

In a sophisticated web-based interface, Toronto residents will be able to select the indicators and identify their own “priority neighbourhoods,” a shift from the current Priority Neighbourhood Areas that were selected using more universal indicators which don’t always match specific local priorities. Service-providers for youth or newcomers or seniors will able to identify the highest need neighbourhoods for each of their own populations.

Two overarching data clusters will be used as measures of a neighbourhood’s wellbeing, allowing a more granular examination of Toronto neighbourhoods. These are

  • Population Characteristics, such as Age, Gender, Language, Ethnicity, Family structure, Income.
  • Human Service Infrastructures, from and about Community Centres, Libraries, Parks, Police Stations, Schools, etc.

The NWI’s ten domains and particular indicators will likely expand as additional neighbourhood-level data becomes available. The first draft is exploring the following areas:

  • Arts, Culture and Heritage: Agency Funding & Grants; Community programs; Neighbourhood-permitted events
  • Civic Engagement and Social Inclusion: Agency Funding & Grants; City Beautification Initiatives; Community Meeting Spaces; Donations; Volunteerism; Voter Participation
  • Economic Security: 211 Calls for Service; Child Care; Community-based Services; Debt Load (excluding mortgages); Local Neighbourhood Employment; Long-term Employment; Social Assistance; Unemployment; Variety of Local Businesses; Wages & Benefits.
  • Education: Community-based Services; Early Development Instrument (EDI); High School Students applications to college/university; High School Drop-out Rates; High School Students passing Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT); Library Circulations
  • Environment: Open Space; Pollution/Toxic sites; Soil conditions
  • Housing: social housing waiting lists; property taxes; affordability (sales); adequacy (standards); rooming houses; Streets-to-Homes placements; Long-term Home Care Services survey; Toronto Community Housing tenant profiles; Homelessness & Hidden Homeless; 211 calls for information; and community based services.
  • Recreation and Leisure: Participants and drop-ins users of parks and recreation programs; waiting lists; facilities capacities
  • Safety: By-law inspections/Standards complaints [although these tend to rise with the income of a neighbourhood]; Calls for EMS; Community-based Services; Crime by major categories; Domestic Violence; Fire Code inspections; Firearms shootings and victims; Fires & Arsons; Grow Ops; Pedestrian & Cyclist Collisions & Injuries; Toronto Community Housing Safety and Incidents;
  • Transportation: Commuting; Public Transit Access; Wheel Trans Use; Traffic volumes. [One potential but unnoted measures is walkability]
  • Personal and Community Health: Birth Outcomes; Communicable Diseases; Community-based Services; Vulnerable Children (with data from Children’s Aids Societies)

Reviewers, both academic and from the community sector, are being asked to review the indicators, help identify priorities for the roll-out, and advise in the creation of an index for each domain.

The hope is that the NWI will be ready to launch in the next 16 – 18 months.

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