“It’s going to be St. James Town all over again”

St. James Town

If you ever want to strike fear into a Torontonian about the current high-rise construction boom tell them their neighbourhood could be the next St. James Town, a low-income high-rise neighbourhood on the east side of downtown Toronto.

Predicting what community will become the next St. James Town is a well discussed  topic on online forums such as UrbanToronto and Skyscraper City and in papers such as the Grid Star, and Globe and Mail. The general consensus is the neighbourhood most at threat of becoming like St. James Town is CityPlace.

CityPlace is new community of high-rise towers rising out of the former rail yards on Toronto’s waterfront. As Ivor Tossel mused, predicting that it’s going to be the next St. James Town is as old as CityPlace itself. Even the wikipedia article on CityPlace makes mention of the comparison.

Despite the ominous quotes and fear mongering, would it really be so bad if CityPlace had more in common with St. James Town?

Before rejecting the idea outright it’s worth recognizing that St. James Town is a pretty successful and vital place. It’s less like St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe and more like 1950s Kensington Market, a vibrant immigrant settlement area.

As Doug Saunders explains in his book “Arrival Cities” gateway neighbourhoods like Kensington and St. James Town are vital for the success of immigrants and for cities.

“[Immigrant neighbourhoods] benefit from [their] tight clustering of poor, foreign residents: this helps [them] function as an instrument of integration, a platform for urban inclusion … [It’s] a springboard or gateway community where people settle for a couple of years while they get a job, and then they move on. [Immigrant neighbourhoods] appear unchangingly poor and segregated only if you fail to observe the trajectory of each resident. And for half a century, those trajectories have generally been upward.”

St. James Town remains one of the few pockets of relatively affordable housing for families in downtown Toronto where new residents get a shot at beginning their lives in Canada. In a city region where 80,000 immigrants settle every year this is important.

St. James Town is also safe. Crime rates are close to the Toronto average.

Looking at the statistics this neighbourhood is no more dangerous than the neighbourhoods of Mimico or High Park North. Meanwhile CityPlace’s Waterfront neighbourhood is perhaps one of the most dangerous in the city, likely due to the presences of the entertainment district.

Crime Rates

If CityPlace became an affordable downtown neighbourhood, where new Torontonians could afford to settle with their families as they prepare for their lives in Canada, Toronto would be better off.

So instead of wondering how CityPlace can avoid the fate of St. James Town, we should look at how can we find ways to bring the best of both places together.


Who Lives Where?

I’ve always been interested in how researchers sort and label neighbourhoods. That is why the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre report, Eight Canadian Metropolitan Areas: Who Lived Where in 2006?, caught my eye. The report uses statistical analysis to pin down what kind of common neighbourhood “types” exist in Canadian cities.

Looking at the maps below, it’s obvious that the authors found cities that are far more complex than the urban/suburban view of cities would suggest.


The authors identified six broad neighbourhood typologies in Canadian cities:

  • Older Working Class, generally found in the inner suburbs;
  • Urban/Suburban Homeowner, located in stable residential areas constructed after 1945;
  • Old City Establishment, situated in older high-income, inner city areas associated with gentrification;
  • Young, Single, & Mobile Renters, which are found downtown;
  • Disadvantaged Groups, exhibit the most complex and diverse clusters around city regions; and
  • Family Ethnoburbs, which are found in the suburbs of only four of the cities studied.

The researchers use these typologies to highlight the complexity of social geography in Canadian cities.  A scan of the maps reveals quickly that the social geography of Canada’s largest cities is more complex than that of its smaller cities.

For example, the city regions that are attracting the countries  most immigrants, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary,  also have a unique neighbourhood typology called the “Family Ethnoburbs.” The Ethnoburbs are located in newer neighbourhoods on the cities edges.  The existence of this typology is a powerful indicator urban growth over the last two decades has become critical for our big cities to attract global talent and the importance of new housing to accommodate growth and attract immigrants.

What I find most interesting is that these maps are not static. Twenty-five years ago we would not have had Family Ethnoburbs, or an identifiable group of Young, Single, Mobile renters located downtown.

It will interesting to see how this social map of Canadian cities will change over the next twenty-five years. These categories are very much a product of Canadian cities today (do American cities have similar ethnoburbs?). The social structure and population of our cities is constantly changing, so these maps provide an interesting perspective of our complex and always changing city regions.

Take a look at the full report here.