The Toronto Board of Trade released an important new report card earlier today that ranks Toronto along with 20 global cities. “Toronto’s tied fourth-place ranking is a decent, if unspectacular, result. However, it is disappointing that Toronto only manages a ‘C’ grade overall, particularly in a field where a Canadian CMA – Calgary – earned the only ‘A’ grade,” reports the TBOT. On the economic side, TBOT says Toronto is “challenged by mediocrity” and weak on annual GDP growth and other factors. On the social side, TBOT says Toronto is “dynamic, diverse and affordable”, yet acknowledges the city has a “high percentage of the population living at or below the low-income cut-off”.
The danger of report cards is that they can over-simplify complex realities. By choosing certain indicators, and rejecting others, a skewed picture can emerge. TBOT President and CEO Carol Wilding acknowledged in her opening remarks the old saying that “what gets measured, gets managed.” To its credit, TBOT’s report card measures 25 social and economic indicators, and the board has said that future report cards may include additional indicators.
The Wellesley Institute’s CEO, Rick Blickstead, is on the TBOT’s board of directors, and is vice-chair of the policy and advocacy committee. The Wellesley Institute has been encouraging the TBOT to ensure that “liveability” is high on the prosperity agenda for Toronto; and that means paying attention to critical social, health and economic factors. The board’s prosperity report card contains a dozen social indicators as part of its “labour attractiveness” domain; and has 13 economic indicators in its “economy” domain.
Overall, the TBOT report card is a valuable analytical tool, and will make an important contribution to city-building as Toronto seeks to recover from the current economic recession. But there are some critical gaps.
First, the report card doesn’t measure some of the things that matter most to Torontonians. For instance, there are no health indicators even though current and recent research from the Wellesley Institute, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health and others point to deep and persistent health inequalities. And there is no measurement of the city’s vital social infrastructure – the critical web of non-profit, voluntary and charitable groups that deliver some of the most important services to the people of Toronto. The TBOT housing indicator is restricted to ownership affordability, even though half of Torontonians are renters. Newcomers are a dynamic and important part of Toronto and the surrounding region, but many indicators that are important to immigrants (including income and health) are not fully developed. The Wellesley Institute, and our partners, will continue to produce vital research on these significant indicators. And we will encourage the TBOT, through its upcoming roundtables, to fill out the statistical picture of Toronto, and our ranking with other global cities.
Second, some of the analysis in the report card requires more careful scrutiny. A number of the TBOT’s indicators are statistical averages, which can often conceal inequities. Many of the per capita measures in the TBOT report (such as that old standard, GDP per capita) only offer averages, when the real dynamic may be different. The “three cities” work by Prof. David Hulchanski at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre, shows that Toronto (both the ‘416’ and the ‘905’) is becoming increasingly divided along income lines. Sometimes it is necessary to dig beyond the averages in order to get to the realities. And the role of taxation in city-building requires more study. The TBOT notes that Toronto has higher taxes than the surrounding ‘905’ region (which is a negative for the board), yet notes that the “city centre is a magnet for liveability”. Which begs the question: Does the slightly higher tax level in Toronto purchase a better quality of life?
The final comment goes to Dr. Anne Golden of the Conference Board of Canada, which provided research support to the TBOT: When asked at the launch event for specific policy options that arise from the report card, she replied, “new social housing, that’s an opportunity”.