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The 21st century belongs to suburbia



INCREASING DIVERSITY: GO Train travellers reflect the GTA’s varied ethnic makeup. Immigration is vital to the area as it attracts much-need younger people and skilled workers.

Experts warn of growing disparity between downtown and weathly 905

By Elaine Carey
Toronto Star Demographics Reporter

A decade ago, there was just Toronto and that vast sprawling conglomeration of cities and towns and green spaces around it.

Then in 1993, that unnamed region got its own telephone area code, and promptly assumed an identity as the 905. And that began a dramatic shift in how we view Greater Toronto.

Almost every issue - politics, education, health, even economics - has become a matter of 905 versus 416.

And now, at the turn of the 21st century, the 905 area is set to overtake Toronto in population - a huge demographic shift that could bring a whole new set of tensions and pressures to the uneasy 905-416 split, experts say.

From 1991 to 1996, the city of Toronto’s population grew by 4.8 per cent, while the 905 area grew by 14.5 per cent. If that continues, Toronto’s population will hit 2.5 million next year while the 905’s will reach 2.569 million, says Michael Doucet, a geography professor at Ryerson Polytechnic University.

“The shift in balance to the 905 in the near future will create some real difficulties,” he says. “The suburbs could really gang up on 416. It’s easy for suburban politicians to imagine these problems are not theirs. It’s been an on-going battle in post-World War II Toronto - how do you defend the quality of life in the downtown core.”

That shift is fuelled largely by immigration which increasingly is becoming a 905 phenomenon.

For decades, Toronto has been the main reception area for the tens of thousands of new immigrants who pour into the area every year.

But now, as the more settled move out into the region and attract newer immigrants to join them, parts of the 905, particularly Markham, Vaughan, Mississauga, Richmond Hill and Brampton, have as high or higher concentrations of immigrants as any area of the megacity.

But there’s one disturbing difference: Low income immigrants are concentrated disproportionately in Toronto while the more affluent head directly to 905.

That has enormous implications for the future ecology, political geography and the economy of the megacity, experts say.

‘We’re getting a split in immigration and a split in the social status of immigrants. I think it will very much lead to more polarization in the region which is a very bad things for the economic and political future of the GTA.’

- Ryerson geography professor Myer Siemiatycki

Toronto has public housing, low-income apartments, extensive public transit services and the low-paying jobs that immigrants with little English can get, says Myer Siemiatycki, a geography professor at Ryerson.

“We’re getting a split in immigration and a split in the social status of immigrants,” he says. “I think it will very much lead to more polarization in the region which is a very bad things for the economic and political future of the GTA.”

The 905 area is more conservative and concerned with maintaining its more affluent image, he says.

“Urban problems can be confined and stuck into 416 and ‘don’t look to us to share the costs ‘cause we’re fine’,” he says. “There’s not a lot of public space, public transit, not a lot of collective support in the 905.

“The 905 attitude is ‘This is a refuge from the unsavoury and unwarranted aspects of urban life and we want to keep it that way’. The irony is there is as much diversity and as many foreign-born persons in 905 but the political culture hasn’t caught up with it.”

The problem isn’t one of diversity or immigration but of economics, says Larry Bourne, an economics professor at the University of Toronto.

“The important issue is whether they’re poor, not their ethnic background or the colour of their skin,” he says. “Lower income newcomers, as lower income native-born, will concentrate disproportionately in 416 because 905 doesn’t want to build the kind of housing and services that will attract them.”

Toronto council showed “impressive leadership” last year when it voted to legalize basement apartments anywhere in the megacity as a way of increasing the housing supply in a market where only nine of every 1,000 apartments are vacant, Siemiatycki says.

But zoning policies are very different in the 905 area where for example, Brampton voted to make it even more difficult to rent out units in single family homes.

But every study across North America has shown that city regions are a single economic and social space and they’re only as strong as their weakest link, he says.

“To exacerbate the social distinctions between 416 and 905, would not be very healthy.”

Yet the 905 mayors last week called on the provincial government to scrap their regional governments and cut the number of municipalities in half. Durham, Halton, Peel and York Regions would cease to exist and the 24 cities, towns and townships within their boundaries would be merged into as many as 12 large cities under the plan.

That would be a disaster for the megacity, says Siemiatycki, because those larger municipalities would have “more and more political leverage for themselves and their zoning decisions because they will have more population. It would give those urbanized areas of 905 a strong base of defence against 416 and increase the antagonism between the two.”

Instead, with 70,000 new immigrants flooding into the area every year, Greater Toronto needs to restrict its urban sprawl and its costs, he says.

“We need more recognition that different kinds of housing stock are needed in the 905 if we are ultimately to balance income distribution between 905 and 416.”

The 905 area is changing far more rapidly than its politicians are willing to acknowledge, Bourne says. Despite its image, there are pockets of low income, low education, and single parent families throughout the region.

“Parts of Peel look more like Toronto than other parts of the 905, like Caledon,” he says. “The suburbs are increasingly changing. It’s hard to get across the idea the whole area is very diverse, including 905 and increasingly 905.

“They may say they don’t have these problems but they’re getting them,” he says. “We have to see these things as regional. If something happens in Scarborough, we can’t say ‘It’s Scarborough’s problem’. I don’t buy that argument.”

The transformation of Toronto socially and culturally by immigration has been “absolutely dramatic,” Bourne says.

Just over a fifth of the Greater Toronto’s total population came to Canada since 1981 and a tenth have arrived since 1991.

Greater Toronto had 1.8 million immigrants in 1996, according to the latest census, a 21 per cent increase in just five years, making it the most diverse city in North America.

“Make no mistake, Toronto currently is a world-class cosmopolitan city, far and away the most multicultural urban centre in Canada,” says Doucet in a report on Toronto’s transition. It’s home to immigrants from more than 100 different racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

In the five years up to 1996, 441,000 more immigrants or 42 per cent of all new arrivals to Canada settled in the GTA, nearly three times its share of the Canadian population. In contrast, just 18 per cent settled in Vancouver and 13 per cent in Montreal, the other two main immigrant destinations.

While there are huge pocket areas of certain immigrant groups, “the immigrant population is so enormous they’re all over the map,” Bourne says. “Literally they’re everywhere. You expect to find them in every neighbourhood and you do.”

‘They may say they don’t have these problems but they’re getting them. We have to see these things as regional. If something happens in Scarborough, we can’t say ‘It’s Scarborough’s problem’. I don’t buy that argument.’

- University of Toronto economics professor Larry Bourne

“There doesn’t seem to be anywhere these people are excluded except by income.”

As well as the number, the source of immigrants have also changed dramatically.

Before 1961, immigrants were composed almost entirely of people born in the United Kingdom and Europe. But that group has steadily decreased to just 17 per cent of new arrivals, replaced by immigrants from Asia and the Middle East as well as Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa.

Six out of 10 new immigrants in Toronto in 1996 were born in Asia and the Middle East, the majority from Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and the People’s Republic of China.

Those groups will probably continue to dominate our immigration because of Canada’s policy of seeking out more affluent immigrants, Siemiatycki says, and those immigrants will continue to head for the 905 area.

“More and more suburbs and suburban houses will be built in the 905,” he predicts.

Immigration will bring many advantages to the area, including skills and expertise from around the world. And it will keep the population younger on average than the rest of Canada.

Canada’s huge baby boom population is aging but most immigrants are young and once settled, start their own families here.

By 2021, 1.058 million people in Greater Toronto - 15.5 per cent of the population - will be 65 or over, more than double the 424.230 in 1996. That will lead to a higher dependency ratio of young workers to retirees.

“But that would be far worse if it weren’t for the immigrants coming,” says Tom McCormack, an economist and head of Strategic Projections Inc. “There will be huge declines in some age groups across Canada but they won’t occur here because of immigrants. In many ways, we won’t have as many challenges.”

The area will need those immigrants to fuel a growing work force with growing labour demands, says David Baxter, executive director of the Vancouver-based Urban Futures Institute.

That demand will draw the majority of the 200,000 to 250,000 immigrants a year to the area as well as young people from the rest of the country who will be drawn to this economic engine, he says.

And immigrant settlement could be an important stimulus for the region to transform itself, Siemiatycki says.

“When mosques and temples and ethnic commercial centres spring up, you start to realize your not an enclosed little world any more,” he says.

“I would like to think immigrants can be one of the major bridges between 905 and 416.”

In that sense, we’re much more fortunate than American cities where the “white flight” from the central core of the major cities has led to a racial divide, he says,

“Our situation, where ethno-racial and multiracial diversity is right across the whole GTA, gives us one more basis for commonality.”