Calgary City Council adopted a resolution on May 27 that commits it to cutting poverty in the city by 50 percent over the next decade. While social policy is generally considered the primary responsibility of the provincial, territorial and federal governments under Canada’s Constitution, municipalities across the country have increasingly been forced to deal with community-level effects of growing poverty and inequality, including the impact on population health.
Some municipalities, including those in Ontario, have assumed responsibility for a range of services that are key measures in tackling poverty, such as affordable housing, income transfers, child care and public health. In addition, municipalities have a key responsibility in land use planning, which has clear connections to improving the health of communities. Land use planning, and our built environment are an increasingly important social determinant of health to be considering.
The combination of administrative control over vital human services and other municipal powers, including land use planning, means that local governments can play a key role in tackling poverty and other social crises.
Calgary’s poverty reduction commitment is more than just cheap talk, and is based on a plan that is “realistic, affordable and well-articulated,” notes Globe and Mail health policy expert Andre Picard.
Key to the Calgary strategy is the active engagement of Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who has emerged as a champion for healthy and equitable cities on the national stage.
“The cornerstone [of the Calgary plan] is a belief in the power of community or, if you prefer, community building – tapping into people’s sense of belonging and neighbourliness,” writes Picard. This sense of belonging, is yet another social determinant of health, social cohesion, which also has links to improved individual health when a community is also healthy.
The Calgary plan recognizes the strong connections between fundamental social determinants of health, and their impact on the personal health of individuals and the population health of communities.
The Wellesley Institute’s Making the Connections work, including a video, draws the links between the complex set of interconnected and dynamic social factors that help shape the way that people live, grow, work and age. It takes these ideas of community, neighbourhood, housing, health care, food and income into account and shows how they are all connected, and that policy solutions can be found to solve a variety of health issues in a community.
On June 10th, the Wellesley Institute is hosting a community forum on Our City, Our Society,Our Health at the Urbanspace Gallery that will draw out these themes in more detail.
The Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative was launched in 2012 as a joint initiative of the United Way of Calgary and Area and the City of Calgary. The 18-member stewardship committee built a network of 250 stakeholders from the private sector, government, non-profits, people with lived experience of poverty, advocacy groups and academic.
In December of 2012, the process delivered a set of 150 recommendations which were forwarded to the board of the United Way and to Calgary City Council for action. The action plan is built around four themes: Re-building community; good jobs; reducing financial vulnerability; and, ensuring access to services.
In addition to the newly launched poverty reduction initiative, Calgary has been recognized nationally as being a leader in innovative business-community-government alliances to end homelessness. The Calgary Homeless Foundation has pioneered new initiatives to tackle homelessness and create more affordable housing.
Toronto, under its current civic administration, has largely failed to take leadership on critical social policy issues like poverty reduction. Instead of the dynamic partnerships and community engagement of Calgary, Toronto’s municipal leadership has mostly concentrated on an austerity agenda that has included attempts to cut a range of social initiatives from student nutrition programs to community grants. These deep cuts have a negative impact on the health of all Torontonians. What Toronto needs to think about is how we can put our own poverty reduction strategy into play, and make it stick, because poverty is making us sick.