Accidentally green & inadvertently poor? The strange case of the District of Scarborough Ontario

First it was a community, then a city, then a municipality and now a District in the Toronto megacity. Scarborough is a very interesting place to live in the new millennium because it is accidentally green and inadvertently poor.

When I began analysing the data on the working poor in Toronto for the Metcalf Foundation, I began to notice that the community I have lived in for 35 years was becoming poorer.

Here is an excerpt from the Working Poor in the Toronto Region

“Although increases and decreases are largely in balance west of Scarborough, far more increases in working poverty (increases of more than 10%) occur east of Yonge Street. More decreases occur west of Yonge Street. In other words, the … working poor seem to be moving eastward.”

And here is a longer excerpt – to set the scene – that I wrote for the introduction to the report:

“If you get into your car at Steeles Avenue and the top of Birchmount Road, you can drive almost all the way down to the lake — 15 kilometres — in about 25 minutes. What you see changes as you motor south. First, you see block upon block of older rental properties with seas of vacancy signs. Then the rental buildings give way to what seems like endless blocks of strip malls and auto repair shops although there are also businesses, schools, and social agencies.

For more than half of the trip, you’ll be passing by or through the designated priority neighbourhoods of Steeles L’Amoreaux, Dorset Park, and Kennedy Park. On the southwest corner of Lawrence and Birchmount, you will see one of the city’s largest and newest complexes containing subsidized housing, gleaming white and modern-looking.

You’ll be glad you’re in your car. A lot of the people you see waiting at the bus stops along Birchmount are on their way to work, and they can spend a couple of hours making the same trip you are making. They will have to transfer to an entirely different bus line at St. Clair. They can’t make the whole trip on Sunday, because service stops at Finch. The southern section of Birchmount has bike lanes, but on July 13, 2011 Council voted to “de-install” them.

I started to think about how and why Scarborough is different.  I started to think about the ‘eastification’ of poverty and the ‘westification’ of affluence. Here is my story.

Transit and Highways

Scarborough is the only community in the Greater Toronto Area that is not criss-crossed by a 400 series highway.

Stop to think about it. Toronto has the Don Valley Parkway, the 400, the 401 and the Gardiner. Etobicoke has the 427, the 401 and the Gardiner. Vaughan has the 407 and the 400. Markham has the 407 and the 404.

Shall I go on? Mississauga has the 401, the QEW, the 410, the 403 and the 401. Halton has the  403, the 401 and the QEW.

Scarborough has the 401… period. This is important because goods, services and people can only flow east and west along a limited access highway. This means a lot.

Scarborough became accidentally green in the 1960’s when the expropriation notices my parents received in the mail in east end Toronto were cancelled. You see, the Gardiner was going to go through the east end and link the downtown to Scarborough. That didn’t happen.

What happened was the movement that stopped Spadina. Jane Jacobs happened. Stop Spadina happened. And Scarborough was the last visitor to a party showing up just when the party was over.

Scarborough started to become accidentally green … And poorer.

The Pickering Airport

In the early 1970’s the Pickering Airport was cancelled by the same essential movement that stopped the 400 series linkup in Scarborough. This meant that by default, what was to become Pearson Airport became Toronto’s only really big airport.

Now Billy Bishop airport (officially in west Toronto) is growing while Buttonville in Markham is closing down. But that’s another story. Air travel and the industries it spawns and those that it relies on are at the west end of Toronto.

Free Trade, Globalization and Manufacturing

In 1993, the Free Trade agreement with the United States was finally signed and Scarborough’s metrics really started to tank. Big manufacturing began to leave Scarborough and the rust belt east of Scarborough began to go into decline.

In contrast, the parts west of Toronto (with their big airport and crisscrossing 400 series highways) started to prosper. Where are you going to locate if you trade with the United States: Burlington or Scarborough? You have one guess. Scarborough got accidentally greener and inadvertently poorer.


Universities create knowledge jobs and spawn knowledge-based spinoffs. So let’s look at how many universities are located within 125 kilometers of Yonge Street and the 401.

There are seven west of Yonge: University of Toronto (Downtown and Erindale), York, McMaster, Wilfred Laurier, Guelph, and Waterloo.

There are two east of Yonge: Scarborough campus of University of Toronto and the University Of Ontario Institute Of Technology. Ryerson is central.

Universities are about infrastructure, quality of life, high end work, specialty hospitals and are places of choice for people to raise their kids. Is it any wonder that Guelph was chosen as the best place for Santa Claus to relocate if the North Pole became less hospitable?

Less infrastructure and fewer high end facilities locate in Scarborough. Scarborough became greener and poorer.

Gridlock: a tale of ‘eighteens’

Come with me some day for a ride from west Toronto to east Toronto along the 401 at 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon. Eighteen lanes across, dead stopped, and with literally hundreds of eighteen wheelers, engines chugging noisily littering the main east west artery connecting east with west.

If free trade was the death knell, then gridlock was the death blow.

You’re a trader. You got a product to sell. You need the airport, you need roads. You want a clear run to the United States and the movie in your head is eighteen wheelers dead stopped on eighteen lanes?

Scarborough beckons….. Not!

And is it accidentally green… yes?

And is Scarborough Poorer… definitely?

Solutions: Reimagining Scarborough

Although building the next university in Scarborough would be fair and just, the parents of the generation that would attend it would not be happy. They want to live close to their kids and if possible have them live at home. If mom and dad work in the ascendant knowledge industries, they are less likely to live in Scarborough and if they have a choice, will want to live in a district west of Yonge.

But a university is just one solution. We don’t really want to build a 400 series highway down the Birchmount corridor. We don’t want to build a new airport. The traditional ways of growing richer that helped all the other GTA communities cannot be employed to help Scarborough especially if we want to keep our ‘accidentally green’ status while growing more prosperous.

No. We need to reimagine Scarborough. Here are some ideas:

Stop talking about east west solutions and start talking about ‘North –South’ in the most north south deprived community in southern Ontario. Let’s imagine a green corridor down Birchmount, the only four lane road bisecting both the 401 and the 407 that has:

  • No VIA service
  • No Subway service
  • No LRT service
  • No GO service; and…
  • No bike lanes (Thank you Mr. Mayor!)

Is there any wonder that four of Toronto’s 13 priority neighbourhoods are bordered or bisecting Birchmount Road?

Think about it.

We could imagine new north south trade routes to the US and abroad by opening up Markham road from the 401 to the 407. Perhaps it’s a little less green but it would have a much smaller carbon footprint and help equalize our industrial growth.

We could solve the cross-Toronto transportation nightmare. This almost goes without saying.

We could develop ‘Rouge Valley’ High tech high value enterprise zone. We could develop a ‘grow east’ urban planning strategy.


Scarborough has been grossly mistreated by accidents of history. We are accidentally green because of progressive thinking. But we are also inadvertently poorer.

Because of our poverty, well-meaning advocates have called for increased services to help the poor live better lives.

But services acknowledge poverty and serve the poor; they don’t solve poverty and make the poor prosperous.

Let’s reimagine a ‘purposely green Scarborough’ and solve our growing poverty.

It’s in all our interests and the right thing to do.