Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Fri Oct 22nd 2010 at 9:17am UTC

No Longer One Toronto

Here’s the long version of my column published in today’s The Globe and Mail.

Canadians often point to the angry red versus blue divide that is such a hallmark of American politics, with higher-income, more economically advanced places voting Democratic and less-affluent, more working class locales trending Republican, as a problem that Canada has risen above. But this same kind of cleavage has become increasingly apparent in Canada – glaringly so in Toronto’s upcoming mayoral election.

The most recent Nanos poll shows Rob Ford leading in Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough, while George Smitherman leads in old Toronto. The conventional wisdom is that this is a product of amalgamation and the rise of the mega-city, which brought two distinct constituencies into one political jurisdiction in 1998. But it runs far deeper than that.

My Martin Prosperity Institute research team overlaid a map of the strongholds of the various mayoral candidates with another showing where creative, service, and blue-collar workers work. The division isn’t just urban-suburban.  Toronto’s economic and political geography takes the shape of a “T” that divides the city on an east and west as well as a north to south axis.  Higher-paying, higher-skill, creative class jobs – in fields spanning science and technology; business and management; arts, culture, and entertainment; health care and education – are concentrated along subway routes radiating out of the downtown core of the city in both directions. Lower-skill, lower-wage jobs are concentrated at the periphery of this T in both the core and more outlying areas. There are only a handful of districts left in the city where working class jobs predominate. One of them, up in the far left hand corner of the map, is Ford’s. Smitherman’s former riding and Pantalone’s ward are right smack in the middle of the T.

In the United States, that political divide is also a jurisdictional divide – pitting city against suburb. Joel Kotkin, who I have debated many times, has written about the increasing Balkanization of California along competing lines of class and occupation, with its affluent clustered along its coast and its farmers and middle class suburbanites concentrated in the state’s interior. The result, he writes, “is two separate…realities: a lucrative one for the wealthy and for government workers, who are largely insulated from economic decline; and a grim one for the private-sector middle and working classes, who are fleeing the state.” He might as well have been writing about Toronto.

But in Toronto it is taking place inside the city itself.  This inconvenient but unavoidable truth runs counter to a deep and long-standing perception: A social and political consensus – shared by NDPers, Liberals, and Conservatives alike – that Toronto, for all its demographic and economic variety, is at bottom “one” cit, and that it is a fair and equitable place. George Smitherman, Rocco Rossi, Joe Pantalone, and even John Tory, despite their differences, all reflect that same consensus — one that has streteched all the way from David Crombie and Mel Lastman to David Miller. The current election campaign shows how frayed that consensus has become. Ford, as Chris Hume wrote some time ago, “has tapped into a deep well of exurban fear and loathing… He personifies anti-urbanism, which makes him a hero.”

There has been considerable discussion in this campaign about whether we should concentrate on building more subways or light rail; much has been made of Ford’s adamant opposition to new bicycle paths. But these discussions ignore the basic fact that transit is bound up with Toronto’s class divide, as MPI research has shown. The members of Toronto’s struggling service and working classes – the ones who need public transit most — are woefully underserved. Forty-five percent of creative class members work within 500 meters of a subway line. Among the service class, that number drops to 31 percent. Buses could pick up some of the slack, but they don’t — they all too often run infrequently and on indirect routes. A five kilometer commute to the central city can take up to 40 minutes. Whether justly or not, Toronto’s working people feel that the city’s government is bloated and elitist and complacent, they believe that it benefits upscale urban dwellers and does not work for them.

Government did not cause Toronto’s (or for that matter, California’s) cleavages — they are the result of a fundamental economic restructuring that has brought enormous boons to some and left others out in the cold. As manufacturing shifts abroad and the technology and knowledge economy burgeons, innovative companies, highly skilled people, and the jobs that employ them have formed dense clusters. It is this very process which drives economic development forward, spurring innovation, generating new entrepreneurial firms, and creating new opportunities. But it also drives up housing values and splits up and sorts people by work and income.

The logic of capitalism is filled with contradictions. Those contradictions create new wealth and simultaneously bring new divisions and new social costs. Toronto, like virtually every other major city in North America, stands at a critical inflection point. Its recent economic success has, in effect, split it right down its middle.

When I first moved to Toronto, I believed we still had a chance to avoid the fraying of the social compact that is eating away at the states. But it has happened here too and it will not go away.

This, it seems to me, is the real subtext of this election, the understory that we have not wanted to acknowledge. Toronto has fallen victim to the same spiky structural forces that are concentrating economic assets and dividing communities across the globe, here in North America and right here in our very own city. We cannot push this under the rug. Regardless of what happens on election day, we must all face up to the fact that we are no longer one Toronto. That is the central challenge that the next mayor and all of us will be dealing with long after this election is past.

4 Responses to “No Longer One Toronto”

  1. Sean Says:

    Could it not be argued that the lack of public transit service to lower income neighborhoods is a product of the basic land rent theory. Access to the subway increases the desirability of a neighborhood, making it more expensive. For example, if you create a new subway line in TO that basically follows Dundas st., north up Jane st. and east on Kingston rd. wouldn’t these areas get gentrified just like so many others in the city? Thus, potentially pushing lower income working/service class folks further to the margins of the city.

    I am for more/better subways/public transit. But I don’t think that the disproportional lack of service to lower income neighborhoods can be solved without making public transit virtually ubiquitous.

    On the idea of political polarization. Yup, it is pretty bad in Toronto. But polarizing politics is so much easier for both the politicians and electorate. Arguing is much easier than debating. Arguing is just telling others why they are wrong , while debating is providing a logical argument for why a certain course of action is correct and working on creating solutions.

  2. Wendy Says:

    Good summary of the challenges in Toronto. I also agree with Sean that more transit will likely lead eventually to greater desirability to live in certain neighbourhoods, thereby driving up prices. But, it could take 10-20 years for that gentrification to really set in, in the meantime service industry specialists who make lower wages may have an opportunity to buy into a new condo in an up-and-coming area with great transit.

    For example, some of Vancouver’s neighbourhood’s first connected to the Skytrain in 1986 have really only seen demand from the wealthier segments of the creative class since about 2005. Also, because of zoning changes to allow for higher density in the blocks around transit, a greater price range and housing type range opens up, which is also helpful to a wide spectrum of city residents from newcomers to the economy (immigrants, migrants, new university grads), to couples buying a first places, to downsizing empty nesters.

  3. Ren Says:

    That’s what one would think in theory… walk around the following stations and you’ll see reality…
    Dundas West, Landsdowne, Woodbine, Main and you’ll see it’s not true. The higher valuations are downtown and around the Yonge line… with a few exceptions (Bloor West Village, High Park)

  4. Steven Forth Says:

    Excellent analysis. I would like to see it applied to other major Canadian cities as well. In many scenario thinking projects ’social coherence’ is called out as a critical uncertainty (it is over used in my opinion). How do we reestablish some coherence in our cities, especially between the urban and exurban domains? I hope we can find some answers soon. I think real transit options are part of the answer, but probably only a small part. It will be critical to invest broadlyin education, life-long education and learning, and to maintain healthcare. It is also likely that a radical rethink of zoning is going to be needed. We need to avoid purely residential areas and strive for economically mixed neighbourhoods. We also need to bring back local production of food, goods, entertainment – I can see investment opportunities in many new generation and very local production facilities that weave information and network effects into the equipment and organizational structure.