Finally, Torontonians have something to feel good about – themselves. Compared to other Ontarians, we are more likely to be open to increased immigration, concerned about the environment, believe in the government and feel a stronger sense of attachment to the place we live.
So much for the alienating effects of life in the big city.
Such are the results of a survey undertaken by the Mowat Centre, an “independent” think tank at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. The study, released February, measured attitudes across the province. Though it debunked a number of stereotypical assumptions about urban versus suburban versus rural values, it did confirm Toronto exceptionalism.
“One important conclusion of this study,” write authors Andrew Parkin and Kiran Alwani, “is that Toronto in many ways is a region unto itself in terms of public opinion in Ontario – that is to say, it is frequently somewhat of an outlier. This is especially noticeable on issues such as immigration, climate change, taxes, and – least surprisingly – the need to transfer more resources to the country’s big cities…. The frequency with which opinions in Toronto stand somewhat apart from those in the other regions of the province suggests that the factors and experiences that shape these opinions in the inner metropolitan 416 area are somewhat unique….”
Though the report points out that “significant numbers of people across all regions think alike,” the inescapable conclusion is that to a greater or lesser degree, Torontonians tend to be more liberal in their approach than either suburban or rural Ontarians.
No surprise there: in high-density cities where so many live and work in close proximity, get around by mass transit and share a public realm, residents have no choice but to adopt a more collective mindset.
Interesting, too, that “while Ontarians in all regions say that they feel attached to their city, town or region, this sentiment is the strongest in Toronto. More than one in two (54 per cent) Torontonians say that they feel very attached to their city, compared to 42 per cent in the neighbouring 905 region and 40 per cent in the more rural East. Among other things, this suggests that the sense of attachment to the local community is not, in fact, a distinctly ‘small town’ phenomenon in contemporary Ontario.”
This may sound counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t. To a large extent, the populations of Toronto and the 905 – especially the 905 where new subdivisions pop up regularly — are self-selecting. In other words, people choose where they live. The civic values of each region are integrated into its layout and built environment; that’s why someone who doesn’t drive a car is unlikely to choose to live in suburban sprawl.
Canada has never made a secret of its distrust of big cities. That was true in the 19th century and remains the case even though more than 80 per cent of us now inhabit cities or suburbs. That’s partly why a rural vote, for instance, can be worth as much as twice one cast in a city. In the last provincial election, the loudly anti-urban Premier Doug Ford won 40 per cent of the popular vote across Ontario, but only 33 per cent in Toronto. By contrast, 46 per cent of suburban GTA voters supported Ford. That’s a difference of 13 per cent.
Though density is widely considered psychologically and physically unhealthy, nothing could be further from the truth. We have been building cities for 7,000 years. Indeed, human history as we know it doesn’t begin until the advent of urbanism. Without cities there would be no civilization. No us.
Some might argue the issue isn’t that the Doug Fords of the world fail to understand the connection between civilization and cities, but that they fear it. Addressing a January meeting of the Rural Ontario Municipalities Association held, ironically, in Toronto, Ford spoke about how happy he was “to talk to the real people.” In the same speech, he dismissed Toronto as a “bubble.”
The truth is otherwise. For example, according to the survey, 53 per cent of Torontonians believe that dealing with climate change is a priority. In the rest of the GTA, that figure falls to 39 per cent. Who’s living in a bubble?
Toronto also appears to be more realistic about immigration. “About 40 per cent of Ontarians in all regions say that Canada should maintain current immigration levels,” the authors write, “while another 40 per cent say that the country should accept fewer immigrants…. The exception to this pattern is Toronto, where the proportion saying that Canada should accept fewer immigrants is lower (at 30 per cent), and that saying Canada should continue to accept the same number of immigrants that it accepts now is higher (at 49 per cent). While there are no stark urban-rural differences in opinion, populations in urban centres such as the Ottawa Belt (19 per cent), Toronto (19 per cent) and GTA (18 per cent) are somewhat more likely to say that Canada should accept more immigrants, compared to the rural regions of the North (11 per cent) and Southwest (10 per cent).”
Given that Canada is a nation of immigrants, cities seem to be more aligned with reality.
If the report tells us anything, it is that city dwellers are better equipped to handle change. It’s not that every urbanite welcomes the looming unknown, but perhaps that they accept its inevitability. As every city dweller knows, only change is permanent.