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The Growing Urban Class Divide, Vancouver Edition

The Growing Urban Class Divide, Vancouver Edition
Josef Hanus / Shutterstock.com

The 21st century is shaping up to be the century of the city. But global cities are not only becoming increasingly-important economic forces of the world economy. They are also becoming increasingly divided and segmented.

Several years ago, my colleague J. David Hulchanski of the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre issued a landmark report on the growing socio-economic divides besetting Toronto, entitled "The Three Cities within Toronto: Income Polarization among Toronto’s Neighbourhoods, 1970-2005." The study mapped three distinct cities within the city, an affluent core surrounded by a disadvantaged and disconnected periphery, with a shrinking middle class in between.

A new report, by David Ley and Nicholas Lynch of the Cities Centre, takes a detailed look at Vancouver’s growing class divides and geographic segmentation. Vancouver is a very different city than Toronto. It is a city of tremendous natural assets and physical beauty, noted for its mild climate, perched on the Pacific coast. It is widely thought of as an affluent city, with some of the highest housing prices in North America. It has attracted a huge influx of immigrants, especially from the Pacific Rim. It is a frequent winner of "livable cities" titles, as the study notes. This city is sometimes referred to as "Dream City" or "Lotus-Land."

But their recent report, "Divisions and Disparities in Lotus-Land: Socio-Spatial Income Polarization in Greater Vancouver, 1970-2005," paints a Vancouver riven with inequality and the growing geographic segmentation of its classes.


Map courtesy of the report, "Divisions and Disparities in Lotus-Land: Socio-Spatial Income Polarization in Greater Vancouver, 1970-2005" [PDF]

The map above, from the report, charts the general pattern. As in Toronto, the three cities could not be more visible.

City #1 is affluent Vancouver, made up of neighborhoods where average individual incomes grew by more than 15 percent of the metro average between 1970 and 2005, comprises roughly 30 percent of the region’s census tracts and covers three distinct areas: the central core, the North Shore suburbs, and scattered areas with high-priced condos and houses close in proximity to valued amenities, such as waterfronts, views, and green spaces.

City #2 is middle class Vancouver, with income changes of plus or minus 15 percent of the metro average. It includes nearly half (47 percent) of the region’s census tracts.

And City #3 is disadvantaged Vancouver, areas where incomes fell by more than 15 percent of the metro average between 1970 and 2005. These areas account for some 22 percent of the region’s census tracts; and as the authors note, they "are relatively concentrated in the southern and eastern neighborhoods of Vancouver and extending out to the southern and eastern suburbs."  

While City #1 consists overwhelmingly of native-born Canadians and is more than three-quarters white, City #3 has an immigrant majority and is 61 percent minority. It has the highest population densities too, as well as the lowest gross incomes, and despite its lower property values, a lower share of homeowners. More of its residents are employed in working class and service occupations than in either City #1 or #2.


Map courtesy of the report, "Divisions and Disparities in Lotus-Land: Socio-Spatial Income Polarization in Greater Vancouver, 1970-2005" [PDF]

The study concludes:

As a result, the dominantly middle-income City of 1971 is now divided three ways: one-third lower income, one-third higher income, and one-third middle-income. The middle-income city of the 1970s has become the polarized city of the 2000s.

Examining this polarization not by city and suburb but by the three Cities (#1, #2, #3) focuses the lens of income change. City #1, where income gains are at least 15 percent ahead of the metropolitan average, has moved unequivocally from middle-income to high- and very high-income status. In 1970, 70 percent of its tracts were of middle- or low-income status; by 2005 this figure had fallen to 33 percent, and the largest of the five income classes, comprising 43 percent of tracts, was very high-income, at least 40 percent above the metropolitan average...This represents a dramatic transition toward income polarization. We see the other side of the coin in City #3, where overwhelmingly middle-income status in 1970 (100 percent middle- or higher-income tracts) has slipped into lower-income territory by 2005 (58 percent of tracts).

To paraphrase W. B. Yeats, "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." While Yeats’ next line is at present too apocalyptic – "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" – the erosion of the middle-income class and the movement toward a two-class society brings back dark memories of older divided societies and their social theories. We have not yet returned to those Dickensian times – 46 percent of CMA residents still live in middle-income City #2 – but the trend lines are unsettling.

Indeed they are.

Even the city widely recognized as the world’s "most livable" cannot escape the growing class polarization of our increasingly spiky and divided world.

Top image: Josef Hanus/Shutterstock.com

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

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