How many close friends or relatives could you call in an emergency?
If you lost your wallet, would you trust someone in your neighbourhood to give it back?
The answers to these questions are part of what researchers call “social capital,” a key ingredient to a good quality of life, a healthy population, safe streets and economic prosperity.
Toronto — a city of more than 2.8 million people where 51 per cent of residents are visible minorities — exhibits remarkably high levels of social capital, according to a groundbreaking report being released Tuesday.
And surprisingly, the research shows robust social capital among some groups where it was not expected, including first-generation Canadians and seniors living alone and in highrise buildings, says the report by the non-profit Toronto Foundation and Environics Institute for Survey Research.
“In contrast to some of the research evidence for U.S. cities, this study found no evidence in Toronto that increasing ethnic diversity is linked to lower levels of social capital,” says the report, the first comprehensive look at the issue in a Canadian city.
Social capital is the “lubricant” that drives social networks, determines trust and makes it possible for people who may have little in common to live peacefully with each other, says the report. This kind of mutual support, trust and connection are not simply “feel good” notions, but as important as economic capital, it says.
“Social capital is absolutely critical to our lives, to our happiness, to our well-being, to progressing in society,” said Sharon Avery, president and CEO of the foundation. “And while there is clearly something to celebrate (in the Toronto results), I don’t want us to celebrate and walk away.”
For example, the research shows just 6 per cent of Torontonians don’t have a close friend or relative. But that still represents 100,000 residents, Avery noted. “That’s the population of Pickering and not something we can ignore.”
To lead the way, the foundation is using the research to make grants of up to $25,000 each to nine resident-led projects aimed at strengthening social capital and urban resilience in neighbourhoods across the city.
The foundation hopes the research, which will be freely available through Environics, will help academics, planners, activists and philanthropists guide investment in communities and help those who are most vulnerable.
Avery also hopes other cities across Canada do their own studies.
“Until another big city does this, we won’t be sure we are as good as we should be,” she said.
The report, which cost about $275,000 and another $100,000 in in-kind support, examined four dimensions of social capital — social trust, social networks, civic connection and neighbourhood support.
It found people in Toronto generally trust others, including those who are different from themselves, feel a sense of belonging to their community, have family and friends they can rely on, give back to the community and are interested in politics.
However, the research found a significant number of residents with low levels of social capital, including those who are isolated from their neighbours, living on low incomes, residents in their late 20s struggling to get established, and in some cases, racialized minorities.
At a time when Toronto faces a rapidly-aging population, high rates of child poverty and a growing polarization of high- and low-income neighbourhoods, “social capital becomes even more important to our collective well-being,” the report says.
It is also “an important measure of how well residents are doing and how well they are able to recover from setbacks and crises, both individually and as a community,” it adds.
Environics surveyed a demographically representative sample of 3,207 residents over age 18 earlier this year and asked participants a series of 60 questions.
In addition to questions about personal connections and trust, the Environics survey asked about civic connections, such as participation in groups, community associations and interest in politics. It found civic connection is highest among those who know their neighbours, have relatively high incomes, are religiously active and live in the central part of the city. Among ethnic groups, those who identify as Black were most active, while those who identify as Chinese were least active, according to the study.
Despite concern about low voter turnout, the survey shows higher rates of political engagement since Statistics Canada’s 2013 General Social Survey, a national survey that included a small sample from Toronto.
In terms of neighbourhood support, the Environics survey found a large majority of city residents believe “people working together as a group can make a big difference” with the highest scores among those who identify as Black or South Asian and among residents of “neighbourhood improvement areas” targeted for extra municipal support due to high socio-economic needs.
“Listening to those populations and asking them what they think the solutions are … is a key bridge we’d like to build between neighbourhoods,” Avery said. “Assets aren’t just about money, they are also about the relationships we share.”
Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, one of several community partners that helped fund the project, said most people understand the value of having friends and relatives to count on — in fact, 54 per cent of Torontonians said they had up to five close friends.
“But what many people may not realize is that a society where (groups from different cultures) are better linked is actually more important for your health and … a vital component of well-being,” he said. “We need to ensure that we build better links between groups in the city if we want good health for everyone.”
Michelynn Laflèche, vice-president of research and policy for United Way Greater Toronto, another community partner, said social capital is linked to opportunity.
“In a region with growing inequality, it’s important to have a picture of what social capital looks like: Who has how much, and what they can do with it,” she said.
And when it comes to cold hard cash — and getting your wallet back, the survey shows 75 per cent of Torontonians trust someone in their neighbourhood to return it.
Portraits of social capital:
Marilyn Cancellara, 73, is typical of seniors who have among the highest levels of social capital, according to a new report by the Toronto Community Foundation. Despite being widowed six years ago and living alone in a highrise near Earl Bales Park, Cancellara is an active volunteer with North York Community House, helping newcomers with conversational English.
Many of the newcomers she helps have become close friends, an important form of social capital researchers call “bridging capital” or the ability to form connections with those who are not like themselves.
“I’ve worked with people from almost every country,” Cancellara said. “And I find most people are the same. We think the same. We’re not that different at all.”
“They come to my home and they have coffee. I get Egyptians and Iranians, people from Iraq, Afghanistan . . . everyone gets along with everyone.”
Nancy Li, 53, who came to Toronto from China with her husband and 11-year old son in 2005, knows what it is like to be a newcomer who doesn’t speak the language and is struggling to convert foreign skills into employment in a new country.
“It was very lonely,” she said. But Li, a teacher in China, learned English, went back to school and found a job as a community worker at the Agincourt Community Services Association, where she sees other members of her community suffering from the same sense of disconnection.
Chinese immigrants have the lowest level of social capital, according to the report. Although researchers are not sure why this ethnic group ranks lower than others, Li speculates the intense pressure to provide for their families may be a factor. Chinese seniors are especially vulnerable as they are often isolated in their homes helping their new immigrant children and grandchildren get established. It is why Li’s agency supports the Happy Healthy Friendship Association. “The group helps seniors form friendships and make connections outside their immediate community, says Li, who co-ordinates the group. “Everybody needs a friend to talk to.”
Ana Barbakadze, 27, is one of roughly 6 per cent of Toronto residents — or about 100,000 people — who have no friends or family to call in an emergency. And yet the refugee from Georgia, in Eastern Europe, who came to Toronto two years ago, alone and pregnant, believes in miracles.
Barbakadze had nowhere to turn when she was illegally evicted from a rooming house shortly after she arrived. She faced homelessness again last summer when the couple running her new rooming house announced they were moving.
“I just broke down crying, sobbing in the stairwell with my baby. What kind of mother takes her baby to a homeless shelter?” Barbakadze said. But “miraculously,” a passerby — who turned out to be another immigrant from Georgia — offered the mother and son a room in her home. “It is a miracle that I could come here,” said Barbakadze, who worked as an emergency services telephone operator, but fled her homeland due to racial persecution. “When I get on my feet, I want to work with people to help them. Because I know what it feels like to have no one.”
Vivien Green director of settlement services for North York Community House, says Barbakadze’s story is not unique and underscores the important role settlement workers play for refugees.
“For many refugees, their settlement worker is their only contact,” she said. “They deal with everything.”
Samantha Luc isn’t surprised a new report shows young people between the ages of 24 and 29 are among those with the lowest social capital in the city. “Many people in my age group are just out of university, new to the city and trying to get established,” said Luc, 25, who moved to Toronto from Halifax with her spouse Lars Boggild, 27, four years ago.
“It took us some time to find our feet when we first got here,” said Luc, who works as an events co-ordinator for a specialty chocolate maker. “We had no family here and didn’t really know anyone, so my partner and I were feeling a bit isolated.” But 4-1/2-years later, as more university friends moved to the city and they became more secure in their jobs, the couple have formed a wide social circle and have joined local clubs and community groups.
“I have joined a figure skating club and Lars has joined a tennis club,” Luc said. The couple has also joined Vision 2020, a group of young philanthropists working with the Toronto Community Foundation to give back to their community.
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb