09/05/2012 10:05 EDT | Updated 11/05/2012 05:12 EST

When Building Neighbourhoods, Don't Forget the Poor


Sustainable urban planning, with walkable streets and neighbourhoods, with architecturally pleasing buildings that prioritize liveability, should not be the property of only the wealthy and the middle class. A series on Toronto architecture for the Toronto Star identified a social housing building as being remarkable for an innovative and architecturally pleasing design, for being a place that residents could take pride in, all done on a low budget.

The building's design placed emphasis on community, on being integrated into a walkable neighbourhood in the area and of having a design that allowed for private gardens within the building. As well, the more architecturally unique building served to enhance the neighbourhood as a whole making it a more desirable place to live.

With downtowns and city centres becoming more attractive places to live -- especially with more people wanting an alternative to generic and car-oriented suburbs -- the danger has been that neighbourhoods with walkable streets and architecturally unique and pleasing buildings become gentrified. That is, those of middle and higher incomes move in, driving up housing costs and thereby property tax rates, in the process driving out the poor.

The Richmond Street co-op identified in the Toronto Star article is a welcome contrast to the grey Soviet-style apartment blocks in the city where many of the poor are housed, unfriendly and monolithic buildings that inhibit a sense of community and pride. Overall, having liveable neighbourhoods and buildings for people of all incomes serves as a source of pride for the city as a whole.

In the wider public policy sense, it is important that policy is made for all people and, especially, that the poor are not left behind. This spans the range of municipal, provincial and federal policy and is relevant to actions at the level of the individual building, the neighbourhood, and the country as a whole.

The Wall Street crash in 2008, and the subsequent recession and climbing unemployment rates, brought calls for government action to provide jobs for the unemployed, keep money flowing in the economy so that business continued to be viable and to prevent the recession from becoming a full-scale depression.

These were all wise policy moves. However, the period following stimulus spending and government intervention has now seen greater calls for austerity to rein in spending and cut down deficits.

Fiscal responsibility is an important priority. However, this cannot come at the expense of considerations such as poverty and unemployment. Ignoring this can actually make balancing budgets in the long-term more difficult, with more people out of work and more people excluded from social and economic life. This means lost tax revenues from lower earnings, less spending to spur business and overall lost contributions to society and the economy.

A now widely cited article from the New Yorker magazine by author Malcolm Gladwell, entitled "Million Dollar Murray," brought home the costs of poverty, in particular in the case of homelessness, where there are costs to government in law enforcement and health care that would be deterred if finding housing for the homeless were a greater priority.

As well, children growing up in poverty have a harder time doing well in school. Malnutrition makes it harder to concentrate in class, and where parents from middle-and-upper income backgrounds can provide guidance to their children as well as educational pursuits, such as books and videos for example, outside the school, these options are less available to those children in poverty.

In turn, multi-generational cycles of poverty reduce opportunities for these children to become full contributing members to their societies.

In New Brunswick, the last Liberal government had a comprehensive poverty-reduction program which was developed in consultation with a broad range of stakeholders and which, at the time, had the support of the official opposition.

Unfortunately, the Alward Tories, upon winning government, have eroded poverty-reduction in the name of austerity, something that will have not only humanitarian consequences, but fiscal consequences as well if social exclusion is allowed to continue unchecked.

When there have been loud calls to austerity, centre and centre-left parties have been guilty as well of neglecting the plight of the poor.

For example, it was a federal Liberal government during the 1990s which abolished Canada's national housing program and, more recently, the McGuinty government's austerity measures in Ontario have come under fire from a coalition of community and labour organizations for neglecting the fact that on many indicators Ontario is the worst performer in the country.

Whether it is in the realm of architecture and urban planning, or the broader spectrum of provincial and federal spending on social programs from health care, to affordable housing, to accessibility to post-secondary education, it is important that it is not just those with the most money and the loudest voices who are heard.

This is a common thread -- and common concern -- across what may seem diverse and disparate areas of policy.