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Kate Parizeau: Urban inequality in Canada


Inequality is often described as differential status among individuals or groups. However, places can be unequal too. Canada’s cities are sites of growing urban inequality, and it is entire neighbourhoods that are experiencing these changes. About 80% of Canadians live in cities, and that percentage is rising. What does inequality look like in Canada’s urban communities and on city streets?

Canada’s cities are becoming more polarized, with greater geographic segregation into both rich and poor areas. Researchers have observed the decline of middle-class neighbourhoods in Canada’s largest cities, although the patterns of increasing wealth and poverty in these cities are distinct. In some cases, the suburbs are becoming increasingly rich areas while the central city languishes, while in other cases downtown revitalization increases wealth in central areas and concentrates poverty in older suburban areas. What is apparent across these cases is an intensification of uneven urban living environments.

Increasing income polarization in Canadian neighbourhoods can affect the social and physical fabric of the city. As more residents flock to cities, average housing prices are high and rising over time in some of Canada’s biggest cities while poorer urban residents may make do with low quality housing and extensive repair backlogs. In cities like Winnipeg, revitalization of the downtown core threatens the housing security of low-income residents, who face increasing risks of displacement. Those most vulnerable to housing insecurity are also faring worse over time: in 2012, homelessness doubled on Vancouver’s city streets. Shelter is a fundamental need, and rising inequality threatens the ability of urban Canadians to adequately meet their housing needs.

Transportation infrastructure in unequal cities does not always best serve those who rely on public transit the most, and pedestrians in lower income areas may have to navigate outdated car-based infrastructure designed for an earlier era. A study in Ottawa found that neighbourhoods of higher socioeconomic status offered more extensive infrastructure for pedestrians, and that rates of pedestrian-traffic collisions were highest in an inner-city neighbourhood of lower socioeconomic status. Creating more equitable access to urban transportation can improve the social and economic well-being of city residents. A study of low-income public transit users in Calgary revealed that subsidized fare passes increased the quality of life of 97% of users. Respondents reported that the low-income transit pass improved their financial situations, improved their mobility, and provided enhanced social opportunities. 

Food outlets are not evenly distributed throughout our cities, and gaining access to healthy foods can be more difficult for people living in low-income neighbourhoods and for those with mobility issues. A study in Toronto found poor access to food outlets in many low-income neighbourhoods.  Reports from a number of medium-sized cities across the country indicate that it is vulnerable populations (such as low-income individuals, elderly persons, single-parent families, and students) who are most affected by living in urban food deserts. 

Access to social resources is also unevenly distributed throughout urban environments. The City of Toronto has identified priority neighbourhoods with insufficient social services and community infrastructure (such as libraries, community recreation centres, immigrant settlement services, and food banks). These underserviced areas house higher than average proportions of visible minorities, single parent families, and recent immigrants, and residents experience higher rates of unemployment, despite high rates of foreign education. A combination of vulnerable populations and insufficient community resources can make it very difficult for individuals and communities as a whole to break cycles of poverty. 

These multiple experiences of uneven city life suggest that income inequality in Canada is not just a pocketbook issue. Our communities and the quality of our neighbourhood life are also at stake since uneven cities mean unequal opportunities for urban dwellers. Improving the quality and distribution of shared city resources can create more equitable and inclusive urban environments.

Dr. Kate Parizeau is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Guelph.