This month, Toronto Life published its list of the top neighbourhoods in Toronto, ranking every neighbourhood in the city from ‘best’ to ‘worst.’ Lists and rankings have become a mainstay of how we entertain ourselves, and are often harmless fun, but this ranking at best plays up already entrenched perceptions, and at worst will aid in the widening of our city’s growing inequality.
The authors of this article worked to create what they call a ‘(mostly) scientific survey’ of Toronto neighbourhoods, but however rigorous their methodology may be, the result is potentially harmful. In creating this list, the authors focused heavily on their analysis, but seemingly neglected to consider what a list like this means for the people who live in these areas. After all, neighbourhoods are not just divisions on a map. They are places where real people live, work, play, and build relationships. Ranking neighbourhoods from ‘best’ to ‘worst’ therefore also ranks the people who live there – and they are the ones who live with the consequences of what these lists create. The stigma of living in an area with the reputation of being one of the ‘worst’ places in the city can impact residents’ health and life satisfaction, and can even make some residents want to leave the neighbourhood to escape sharing its poor reputation.
It is important to remember that rankings can become self-fulfilling prophecies, adding to one neighbourhood’s reputation, while stigmatizing others. As an area and the people who live there acquire certain reputations, their social and economic circumstances may follow suit. Housing values in well-ranked areas may climb more quickly as the desire of middle- and upper-class people to live there, grows. While people who live in lower-ranked areas will continue to carry the reputation and preconceived notions about people from ‘bad neighbourhoods.’
Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Toronto Life’s ranking seems to invite this process – the print version of the list is interlaced with real estate advertisements. So for some who can afford it, the article may be little more than an enticement to buy property. High-ranking neighbourhoods also include descriptions touting their convenient location, affluent residents, hot-spots and commercial appeal – a perfect guide for keeping up with the Joneses. Yet, they also do not encourage us to learn more about others near the bottom, lacking any discussion of these lower-ranked neighbourhoods. Our attention is therefore drawn only to the ‘top’ areas, and we forget the rest.
It is also worth remarking that although the authors count ‘diversity’ as a positive in their ranking system, a quick glance at their map reveals that many of the neighbourhoods near the top ranks are anything but diverse. White and wealthy areas located close to the city centre predominate the upper rankings. Areas on the outskirts of the city, with higher numbers of racialized groups and recent immigrants, fill out the bottom end of the scale. If the authors’ weighted diversity more heavily, more diverse neighbourhoods would rank closer to the top. Knowingly or unknowingly then, the rankings are not neutral scientific facts, but rather reflect a set of values – where wealth and property values rank higher than diversity.
Furthermore, if demand-driven property values track with these rankings, then Canadian-born white Torontonians will see their home value, and wealth, increase faster than others – in a city where racial discrimination already intersects with economic disadvantage. As we are currently seeing in Toronto with the rise of ‘Vegandale,’ businesses and services can rapidly move into areas with a rising reputation. Neighbourhoods that do not benefit from such a reputation may not see any new businesses or the benefits that come with them. Worse, current businesses may relocate to areas with a ‘better’ reputation.
What purports to be a ranking from ‘best’ to ‘worst’ is little more than a hierarchy by class and status, that promises a city where the rich get richer and the poor are left behind – a picture of Toronto that we desperately do not need and should not want. We shouldn’t exploit Toronto’s rising inequality to create a scale that stigmatizes those who have not, and encourages those who do have, to acquire even more.
Our city, and all of its residents, deserve better.