Study finds safety, mobility and local services most important to suburban Toronto residents

A man walking in suburban Toronto, where the Community Voices study was conducted.
Researchers surveyed more than 700 homes across east and west ends of Toronto to find what residents think matters most in their neighborhoods (Submitted photo).

Alexa Battler

A new study found residents of Toronto’s inner suburban communities value the same three things most in their neighbourhoods: safety; transportation and mobility; and local services — in that order.

In a project titled Community Voices, researchers went door-to-door to almost 700 randomly selected homes in seven neighbourhoods across Toronto’s east and west ends. Using different survey techniques, they set out to explore residents’ top priorities for their neighbourhoods, the reasons behind their views and what they believed should be done about them.

“You can have the theory, you can look at the numbers, but there's an inherent wisdom people have about their own lives and their own realities,” says Kofi Hope, one of the study’s six authors and urbanist in residence at U of T’s School of Cities. “I think there’s a major gap in this city between policymakers and racialized working-class communities.”

To follow-up the study, researchers, civic leaders and community members will attend a public event at U of T Scarborough on June 29 to discuss needs and priorities for Scarborough ahead of the municipal election.

A row of houses in Toronto's suburban landscape where Community Voices conducted their survey
The study continually notes the unique nature of Toronto's inner suburban communities, which include Scarborough (Submitted photo).

Safety and short commutes lead priorities among residents

Five of the neighbourhoods surveyed were of a lower socioeconomic status (SES) and two were upper-income neighbourhoods for comparison. Researchers also had semi-structured interviews with 24 residents from each lower SES neighbourhood. Respondents from all incomes agreed — a desirable neighbourhood is a safe place with a short commute and accessible amenities such as schools and parks.

Throughout the 80-page study, created through a partnership between U of T Scarborough, U of T’s School of Cities and the Wellesley Institute, the researchers aligned those opinions with policies that promote social determinants of health — the non-medical factors that impact wellbeing. They offered policymakers nine priorities to bridge the health equity gap in Toronto’s inner suburbs and make community policies grounded in local voices.

Feeling safe was the most desirable aspect of a neighbourhood, largely defined through violent crime (particularly gun violence) and road safety. Concerns around violence were raised twice as often in the west end, though actual violent crime rates are similar among both ends of the city. West end residents also believed their communities were unfairly associated with crime.

“People's perception of violence, I think, is not just driven by the numbers, more traumatic events can really impact communities,” says Dan Silver, co-author of the study and professor in the department of sociology. “People feel their neighbourhoods are stigmatized and they feel that leads to lack of investment.”

A woman sitting in Toronto's inner suburban community, where the Community Voices survey was conducted.
Residents in Toronto's east end were more concerned about traffic safety than violent crime; the area does experience more instances of pedestrian deaths than the west end (Submitted photo).

Residents also reported a long commute as one of the least desirable traits. By collecting extensive data on respondents’ demographics, the study found those who drive to work tend to be homeowners with higher incomes and shorter commutes. Those with short commutes (less than 30 minutes) reported better mental health and feeling safer and more connected to their community.

“There's a lot of legitimate concern about the quality of transit,” says Silver, who notes potholes, long wait times and overcrowded buses were major concerns. “At the same time we had a lot of people talk a lot about the pride they had in the amenities that they could easily access, particularly green spaces and parks.”

A woman walking in suburban Toronto, where the Community Voices study was conducted.
Though it's not often associated with suburbia, residents repeatedly emphasized that walkability was an important element of their communities (Submitted photo).

Residents report strong ties to services, but not to government   

From libraries, restaurants, grocery stores, community centres and health clinics, residents valued amenities and services — and they wanted to know they exist. Respondents who were newcomers, racialized or born outside Canada tended to know of fewer local amenities and services compared to white, Canadian-born residents, even when they lived near one another.

Few respondents didn’t like anything about their neighbourhood, but residents who felt their neighbourhoods were not ideal also reported significantly lower levels of wellbeing.

“There's things that are missing or things that could be better, but on the other hand there's a lot that people appreciate in their neighbourhoods,” Silver says.

A photo of the Rexdale Community Hub, which was noted as a significant source of community pride in the Community Voices survey.
Community members noted that youth services were particularly lacking in their neighbourhoods, and noted those could address safety concerns by supporting young people (Submitted photo). 

The study also probed residents for their views into government and how confident they were in social institutions. Residents tended to think of the government in its visible impacts, such as infrastructure, maintenance and public spaces, rather than an abstract political ideology. They also reported low confidence in the municipal government and felt local leaders needed a more in-person presence.

The study’s policy recommendations included a focus on the assets that exist in these communities, and respecting the individuality and lifestyle choices of residents, rather than trying to force a downtown-centric vision of healthy communities. In the short-term, they suggested prioritizing physical public spaces, such as roads and buildings, while increasing access to the essential local services and amenities that residents valued.

“It’s important to have people who are affected by policies as a part of the conversation, to find out what they think is important and then start to enter them into the dialogue,” Silver says.