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Report on Toronto quality of life paints bleak picture, calls for civic action, engagement

Torontonians are less civically engaged, are more lonely, and are struggling more with mental health, according to a report that tracks the city’s quality of life. 

The 2023 Vital Signs report, from the Toronto Foundation, released Wednesday, paints a picture of a city struggling with social isolation, and failing to rebound from trends that worsened during the pandemic. 

However, it also aims to offer an optimistic look to the future, and serve as a call to action for Torontonians to work together to make the city a better place to live. 

“We can see in the data that people are walking away from volunteering, donating, engaging in their city,” said Sharon Avery, president and CEO of the Toronto Foundation.

“Now we’re really asking Torontonians to get back involved.”

The report compiles and analyzes information from various studies and reports, along with interviews with civic leaders. 

Social disconnection 

The report looks at a number of areas, ranging from health to civic engagement, to housing to arts and culture. 

Throughout the report, isolation and a lack of social connection and civic engagement are an overarching theme. 

“At the most basic level, we believe the number one vital sign for the city is actually our sense of trust and belonging with each other,” Avery said.  

Sharon Avery sitting with her arm leaning on a table, looking at the camera.
Sharon Avery, president and CEO of the Toronto Foundation, says she’s optimistic small individual and community actions can help drive broader change, and improve overall quality of life in Toronto. (Paul Smith/CBC)

The report references data from the  2022 Toronto Social Capital Study, which found that 28 per cent of respondents indicate having six or more close friends, down from 37 per cent in 2018, and marking a continued trend. 

Pete Bombaci has been thinking about the effects of loneliness, and the importance of human connection for two decades. In 2016, he launched the GenWell Project, which educates about and advocates for the importance of face-to-face social connection. 

Bombaci said while the pandemic worsened isolation for many people, it is in fact a decades-long trend, which he likened to “death by a thousand cuts.” 

Pete Bombaci smiling in front of a plain background.
Pete Bombaci founded the GenWell project in 2016, with the goal of encouraging human connection, and combatting isolation. (Camilla Pucholt Photography)

Bombaci notes it’s not just individuals that are affected, but the health of society at large as well. 

“There’s also research that shows when we feel socially isolated or disconnected one another, it can increase anger, aggression, hate, racism, random acts of violence. So we can see that when we build a stronger fabric in society, it doesn’t just impact us as individuals, it actually impacts the society that we live in,” Bombaci said. 

Lower rates of volunteerism 

Among the data highlighted in the report is growing rates of depression and anxiety, and lower levels of civic engagement and volunteerism. 

Close up photo of Joanne McKiernan.
Volunteer Toronto executive director Joanne McKiernan says volunteering is not only beneficial to organizations, but also helps invididuals build skills and social connections. (Submitted by Volunteer Toronto)

Joanne McKiernan is the executive director of Volunteer Toronto, an organization that connects volunteers with organizations that need them. She said the number of available volunteer roles is up 90 per cent, while volunteer interest is down by 20 per cent. 

“I think that it’s critical that we draw attention to what’s happening and we focus on not just ringing alarm bells, but driving action,” said McKiernan. 

Acts of ‘civic optimism’ 

That idea of action is a big focus of this report. Avery said seeing similar — or worsening — results year after year has been “frustrating,” and that inspired a shift in focus to not just outlining problems, but problem solving. 

Coinciding with its release, the Toronto Foundation is also launching a campaign, encouraging people to commit to acts of “civic optimism.” 

Avery said that could be anything from volunteering with a local community centre, to playing soccer with friends, to organizing a community street party. 

“These small acts actually make a big difference,” she said. 

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