11/05/2013 04:52 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Rahul K. Bhardwaj Reflects On What Toronto Should Aspire to Be

Rahul K. Bhardwaj is the President & CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation. The foundation recently released its 12th annual report that highlights the challenges and successes of our city. Bhardwaj shares with me his biography as well as reflects on the findings of the much anticipated "annual report card on the quality of life in our city".

You left the corporate world as a lawyer to become a noted civic leader in the non-for-profit with the Toronto Community Foundation. Share with me your biography.

As a young lawyer, I was introduced to other ways to contribute to 'city building' and to develop my own leadership capabilities. Through my various Board roles and as a Vice-President of the Toronto 2008 Olympic Bid I had the opportunity to learn so much about 'city building', so that leading a Foundation, particularly a 'city-building' Foundation, was a very logical next step.

As part of the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Fiscal review panel in 2008, I was involved in identifying efficiencies for the City of Toronto. A year later, the Province of Ontario appointed me to the Board of Metrolinx, an organization developing and implementing an overall transit strategy for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. More recently, I was the Chair of the 2012 Ontario Summer Games, the first multi-sport games to be held in Toronto, and I am currently the Co-Chair of TO2015 IGNITE, a program of the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games.

I was recently appointed as Chair of Community Foundations of Canada Board of Directors. I am Vice Chair of the board at George Brown College and a member of Upper Canada College. I have also held board positions at Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, Stratford Festival of Canada and United Way Toronto.

Tell me about some of the unique work of the foundation?

The Toronto Community Foundation has been woven into the fabric of our community since 1981 and is one of the largest of Canada's 192 community foundations. We take great care in managing the philanthropy for many generous, thoughtful and caring individuals, families and organizations. Our mission is to connect philanthropy with community needs and opportunities, all with a vision to make Toronto the best place to live, work, learn and grow through the power of giving.

Our unique position as an independent public foundation enables us to be a catalyst for change. We mobilize hundreds of individual and family donors, a vast array of high-impact community organizations and cross-sector leaders, to tackle complex quality of life issues in creative and inspiring ways to nurture the soul of our city.

We facilitate this by identifying issues in our annual Toronto's Vital Signs Report, convening to explore and develop solutions, and supporting these solutions through grant programs and special initiatives. From transforming the Museum Subway into an unexpected art gallery to equipping students in disadvantaged neighbourhoods with life-changing coaching skills, and building social capital through 'play', the Community Foundation's work supports breakthrough solutions.

The report noted how "despite getting some of the big things right, Toronto faces unprecedented challenges". Please share with me the highlights of the report.

This is the 12th year the Toronto Community Foundation has issued our annual report card on the quality of life in our city. We have some impressive assets. People not only want to live here, they want to come here. That's why this year Toronto edged past Chicago to become the fourth largest city in North America, after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. In fact, Toronto is 4th on the Economist's list of the 10 most liveable cities on earth.

The Toronto's Vital Signs Report not only chronicles what's really happening in the city, it separates us from some of our favourite misconceptions about it. For instance, the Report reveals that most of us live within 500 metres of one of Toronto's 1,600 parks. 94% of households with a blue bin use it and 87% of our green bins are on the curb every week.

The Toronto Public Library has long been the busiest system in North America. In the last 10 years, its usage has risen an astounding 17.8% -- with the last three years being the busiest ever. Funding for the arts and culture rose by $6 million last year, and if the success of this year's Toronto International Film Festival - with its $200 million boost to the province's economy - is any sign, Toronto's creative economy is moving strongly in the right direction.

In terms of crime, the reality is not only not as bad, it's alarmingly good - depending on who you are and where you live. The past six years in a row, the GTA has had the lowest rate of police-reported crime among Canada's top 33 metro areas. The downtown core is thriving. Its population growth rate has more than tripled between 2006 and 2011, and over the same six years, employment in the core grew by 14.2%.

But Toronto has other, bigger issues.

What were some of the highlights of the report that surprised you most especially on the distribution of income?

For me, the most dangerous one is that we are well along the way to becoming a divided city. Not by race or religion, the way Belfast and Johannesburg are, but by income. Back in 1970, only 2% of Toronto's neighbourhoods were 'low income.' Last year, 14% of our neighbourhoods were poor.

In 1970, nearly 9% of our neighbourhoods were 'high income'. By 2010, that had almost doubled to 16%. Meanwhile, middle-income neighbourhoods have been hollowed out. In the same year, Toronto was a proudly middle class city. 58% of our neighbourhoods were middle-income. By last year, that percentage had dropped almost by half, to 29%. In 1970, 96% of Scarborough's neighbourhoods were middle-income. Today, it's the reverse: 83% are low- or very-low-income neighbourhoods.

In fact, more than one million Torontonians now live in low or very-low-income neighbourhoods. Unemployment overall in the city has fallen for the past four years. But last year, youth unemployment rose above 20%. Since 2009, 28,000 youth jobs - ages 18 to 24 - have simply vaporized in the GTA. This, after the 7,800 jobs lost during the 2008 recession itself. For those who do get jobs, many pay poorly, offer no benefits and don't make use of their skills and education.

What are some of the challenges Toronto's youth face these days?

High unemployment isn't the only affliction our youth are heir to. Another inheritance is ill health. Today, 40% of the province's boys and almost 30% of its girls are overweight. Unless we intervene in a big and effective way, seven in 10 of our kids will be overweight or obese when they become adults. There are all kinds of causes, but lack of exercise is certainly one: only 5% -- five per cent! -- of Canadian children meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Children and Youth---- of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous daily activity.

Obesity isn't our only health concern; the so-called Silver Tsunami is as well. In 1993, 7% of Canadians were 65 or older. Ten years later, that has risen to 12%. In Toronto last year, the percentage had risen to 15, and in the next 20 years in Toronto alone, that will rise to 20%. In other words, almost half a million of us will be 65 or older. This is going to place huge demands on our hospitals, our long-term care facilities, our families, our housing and our economy. It already is.

One final trend that stood out was the cost of affordable housing. Toronto has become one of the least affordable cities in North America. In a survey of over 300 international housing markets, Toronto ranks as "severely" unaffordable. Little wonder the number of people on waiting lists for affordable housing has never been higher.

There are many activists in the community doing important community work and are there programs they should pursue within the TCF.

Toronto's Vital Signs Report helps to define the priorities for our Vital Toronto Fund, a community endowment, and its three grant streams directed to charitable organizations. The grant streams are called Vital Ideas, Vital Youth/Playing for Keeps and Vital People.

Vital Ideas supports strategic activities to take community organizations to the next level; Vital People strengthens leaders within the not-for-profit sector; Vital Youth/Playing for Keeps enhances youth leadership by supporting organization offering high-quality recreation.