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CivicAction Summit tackles city’s main social problems

What are the most important issues that face a city like Toronto at this point in our history? Employment? Homelessness? Transit? All of those, no doubt, but for this year’s CivicAction Summit, dubbed the “Better City Bootcamp,” the priorities may seem a little surprising:

  • Housing affordability
  • Mental health support in the workplace
  • Childhood health
  • Infrastructure
  • Public space

Housing affordability and infrastructure are perennial big-city issues, so no surprise there. But are childhood health and public space really among the most important challenges the city faces?

They are, according to the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance, the group behind the summits, which are held every four years. According to a fact sheet made available, the importance of the “first 1000 days” is critical to childhood development. That first 1000 days is the time between the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy and the second birthday of her child.

Even though Canada has among the lowest rates of infant mortality in the world, and one of the best healthcare systems, there are still thousands of families living in poverty. Such families often have access to fewer social supports and resources, and may not even have access to clean housing and nutritious food. High levels of stress or even abuse, combined with poor nutrition and lack of social support, can put a pregnant mother at risk of delivering a low birth weight child. Those conditions could also increase the mother’s own risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes.

What’s more, poverty early in life can affect a child’s future achievement. With 371,000 children living below the low-income threshold—the poverty line—the stakes are high, both for them and for the city. It costs the GTA an estimated $4 billion annually, including $1.4 billion in indirect medical costs, just to deal with childhood obesity, often the result of poor food choices by parents who can’t afford better.

And what about public space? How does that affect our health? In a big way, say the Civic Action people. The problem is really how we use it. We’re getting closer to being a city of apartment dwellers: 42 per cent of Torontonians now reside in condos and rental apartments. That means access to public space is more important than ever, and we do not have the optimal amount to go around. The ideal is 20 hectares of “green space” per 1,000 residents; as of 2011, we had 8.4 hectares per 1,000 residents.

Regardless of the amount of available space, Canadians on the whole do not get anywhere near enough physical activity each day. It does a person little good to live next to a park if he never sets foot in it. But even more worryingly,  less than half of elementary school kids get even twenty minutes of activity a day. For adults, regular exercise “combined with other factors” can help avoid most—90 per cent—diabetes cases, as well as improving mental health. It is estimated that diabetes cost Ontario $5.5 billion in 2014. Each year, 57,000 new cases of diabetes are diagnoses in the GTA, of which 25 per cent are “preventable” through greater physical activity.

Besides not having enough green space, and people not making good use of what we have, there is also the permanent threat that we could lose ground, literally. Civic Action says that the Toronto District School Board has sold sixty-six sites that contained green space in the last seven years. It calls for different sectors to “collectively contribute” to the optimal use and accessibility of public space.

Both Premier Kathleen Wynne and Mayor John Tory were scheduled to participate in the Better City Bootcamp. The federal Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt, was also set to speak.

Will the Better City Bootcamp lead to any real change? CivicAction CEO Sevaun Palvetzian is sure it will. “We’re civic action, not civic chit chat.” The group uses the ideas that come from the summits to create “forward momentum” on the issues. “This event is the gas in CivicAction’s tank for the next four years.”

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