For the past few years there has been a remarkable amount of research looking at immigrant settlement patterns in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. While these articles rely upon the latest data from the 2006 Census, they are informed by models of urban growth and change that are decades old. This, and their American origins, may influence their application to Canadian cities.

A recent example of the media coverage of immigrant settlement patterns is Doug Sanders article in The Globe and Mail (Are poor ‘ethnic’ areas cages?, February 28, 2009). Sanders asks whether areas with high immigrant concentrations are ethnic ghettos, “where people are trapped in a culturally isolated island of poverty and permanent segregation” or ethnic enclaves, “where people choose to live among fellow immigrants in order to forge ties to the new country, launch small businesses and help one another become members of Canadian society so that their kids can live elsewhere.” Sanders criticizes other writers who have implied that Canadian cities are becoming increasingly polarized and segregated. He also points out that many groups who have more segregated residential patterns are wealthy, such as the Jewish and Italian populations in Toronto.

Although Sanders never mentions them, long-standing theories about how cities grow and change underlie his article. The four most important are the concentric growth model (Charles Booth, 1902), the spatial assimilation model (E.W. Burgess, 1925), the housing career model, and the spatial mismatch model (John F. Kain, 1969).

The concentric growth model is by far the oldest; in fact, Booth was merely the first modern scholar to write about concentric patterns in cities. Burgess further developed the concentric model, arguing that socio-economic status increased towards the edges of the city. Concentric zones were the financial and office district, central retail district, wholesale and light manufacturing zone, heavy manufacturing zone, zone of workingmens’ homes, residential zone, and commuter zone. In 1920s Chicago, when Burgess was writing, the poorest areas of the city were next to manufacturing districts, while the wealthiest were located in rail and streetcar suburbs on the edge of the city. Chicago’s ethnic groups (main Italian, Chinese, and African American) lived in the workingmens’ zone. It was Burgess’ assumption that since the periphery of the city was the most desirable area to live, immigrants would eventually move outward as their socioeconomic status increased (the spatial assimilation model). Although the two models were criticized and found inaccurate only a decade later in Homer Hoyt’s 1939 study of 142 American cities, they have remained remarkably influential.

The housing career model is one of the most commonly used in research dealing with immigrants’ settlement patterns. It likely originated with the Federal Housing Administration (US) and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation early in the postwar era. Home ownership was then considered more stable and socially acceptable than renting; housing also quickly became a valuable consumer product in the late 1940s. The housing career model is based upon the idealized human life cycle, which includes pre-child, childearing, childrearing and launching, post-child, and later life stages. The model is linear and progressive; families are assumed to move towards single family home ownership and then to downsize as they get older. The model is used extensively in economic and housing forecasts, and in municipal planning documents.

The spatial mismatch model was developed by John F. Kain. In his view, a major reason behind spatial mismatch was the segregation of African Americans due to housing market discrimination. As cities grew and employers increasingly located in the suburbs, African Americans were unable to move to suburban housing, and in many cases unable to travel to suburban settings due to low car ownership. This resulted in longer commute distances and decreased labour market participation for African Americans.

Interestingly, these models were all (perhaps with the exception of housing career) created in the American context. While Canadian culture is similar, there are a number of marked differences between Canadian and American cities. First and foremost, Canada’s population is concentrated in very few large cites, and a good number of mid-sized ones. Toronto (5.1 million), Montreal (3.6 million), and Vancouver (2.1 million) are the Big Three. Following them are Ottawa-Gatineau (1.1 million), Calgary (1.1 million), Edmonton (715,500), Winnipeg (694,600), and Hamilton (692,900). Sixty percent of immigrants settle in the Big Three; the vast majority end up in Toronto (over 40%). Almost half (2.2 million) of Toronto’s population are immigrants.

Secondly, even back in the 1970s, researchers remarked that Toronto did not have a “race problem”. This is not to deny the racism faced by Chinese and South Asian Canadians a century ago, nor that faced by the Jewish and Italian communities until the 1960s (in fact, these four groups are still among the most segregated in Canadian cities). However, Canadian cities are devoid of the large swathes of inner city segregation common to many American cities. University of Toronto researchers Alan Walks and Larry Bourne studied residential segregation in all 27 Canadian Census Metropolitan Areas. While largest cities had the highest proportion of segregated neighbourhoods, there were no ghettos (which were classified as census tracts having at least 70% minority residents, 66% from one single ethnic group and at least 30% of ethnic group members living in such neighbourhoods). Although some groups were segregated, none approached the level of segregation experienced by African Americans in the US. Further, Walks and Bourne found that residential segregation decreased from 1991-2001, but many visible minority groups were moving into areas with high proportions of other visible minorities. The researchers linked this to the availability of low-rent apartment housing and increasing affordability problems among new immigrants. Other researchers have found that rising rates of segregation are in fact due to the fact that a commonly-used method, the Index of Segregation, measures the extent to which minority group members are exposed only to one another in their neighbourhood. As Canadian cities become more diverse, this likelihood increases, resulting in higher rates of segregation.

These differences between Canadian and American cities are crucial. In addition to this are trends common in postindustrial cities. Toronto and Vancouver in particular have tight housing markets and competitive rents. Combined with structural changes like immigration policy and economic restructuring, immigrants cannot possibly settle in Canadian cities following the concentric pattern established in the interwar period in the US. Numerous articles have explored the causes behind immigrants’ settlement directly in suburban areas in these two cities (see ‘Immigrants prefer suburbs to living in core areas’, Globe and Mail, March 31, 2008). Some, like Anthony Reinhart, imply that while the housing career model is incorrect here (immigrants are settling directly in single-family housing rather than transitioning into it gradually) the core principles of spatial assimilation are intact (immigrants are choosing the most desirable housing location). But in a city with high housing prices and high rents, are immigrants choosing the most desirable housing, or simply the most affordable? Are they, in fact, ‘choosing’ at all, when inner city neighbourhoods are increasingly dominated by luxury condos beyond their means? This remains to be seen.

Finally, should these models continue to drive our planning practices? For example, is it acceptable that the most desirable areas to live in are at the edge of the city? Is this true in today’s postmodern city with a strong demand for urban loft living? Should we focus housing policy on homeownership, at the expense of rental housing, co-operatives and other tenure types? When the average family cannot afford a home in Toronto or Vancouver, perhaps it is time for policy shift. In our multicultural country, is it acceptable that we expect immigrants to integrate into suburban neighbourhoods with the Canadian-born? Or have we finally accepted the idea that ethnic neighbourhoods and mixed neighbourhoods can co-exist? The media storm on this issue indicates that we have not.

Leave a Reply