top of page

Exploring sustainability in Toronto's poorest neighbourhoods

When people are worried about surviving, does it make sense to worry about the climate crisis? Is there a place for sustainable practices in low-income neighbourhoods? Zeina Seaifan, a Master’s in Environment and Sustainability graduate from the University of Toronto, asked herself these questions in the context of one of the most inequitable neighbourhoods in the city of Toronto.

Zeina, your research focused on Taylor-Massey’s neighbourhood which is located between East York and Crescent Town in the Greater Toronto Area. Why this neighbourhood?

This research was done in one year because it was a master’s thesis and, thus, I couldn’t pursue an extensive study, I had to focus on one neighbourhood to deeply understand the subject. It’s really a case study with its own limitations. That being said, this study has the potential to open the way for more research on this topic.

At first, I figured out Toronto’s neighbourhood configuration. I wanted to know what the demographics were across the City and how they varied from each other. That’s how I came across Toronto’s Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy. It’s an action plan that aims to document and address the city’s most inequitable neighbourhoods. In total, 31 neighbourhoods benefit from this program and Taylor-Massey is one of them.

What stood out to me about Taylor-Massey was that it has a very large, racialized population, mostly South and Southeast Asian communities, specifically from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Another interesting thing I discovered was that the neighbourhood had a larger percentage of racialized population than the city of Toronto – which was surprising to me. Statistics in 2016 show that 56.2% of Taylor-Massey’s inhabitants are immigrants. For Toronto, it’s 51.2%.

So – once you identified the neighbourhood you wanted to study – what was the next step?

The goal of this study was to understand how Toronto’s racialized diasporic communities are taking up, accessing, understanding and identifying sustainable lifestyles. I mentioned earlier Toronto’s Strong Neighbourhood Strategy; this program brings together residents, non-profits organisations, local businesses, and community agencies to work in different areas such as health care, education, and sustainability.

In terms of sustainability, organisations offer various workshops about sustainability and the environment like gardening, bicycling programs, or leadership programs to educate the community on sustainability. I used these activities to explore the experience of people living in the neighbourhood. It included ethnographic observations, which meant that I would go on-site, act as a community member and part-take in the same activities as they did while asking them informal questions about their experience with the environment and sustainability. I then interviewed them in a more formal setting.

And what did you find?

Before talking to the residents in Taylor-Massey, I expected that "environmental othering" would occur at a high rate. This basically means that people categorize, distinguish and alienate those who do not fit with societal norm in the context of environmentalism and sustainable life. I saw that to some degree but not as much as I was expecting.

For example, there was a gardening program that I attended. It was a really small program with not many participants. On the one hand, this is great because you have a small network where participants are able to learn from one another, and there is no obvious power imbalance. But on the other hand, I noticed that the participants who have more assertive personalities get to set the social atmosphere.

When you have racialized newcomer participants coming and they want to learn Western values and standards, they can often feel like they are left behind in the conversation if they are not involved in the same kind of activities as those with assertive personalities. And this feeling also comes from mainstream media where whiteness is often associated with sustainability.

And you explore the idea of "being white is being more sustainable" in your research, specifically because it is part of the exclusionary myths that some racialized people believe. Can you expand on that?

Exclusionary myths are often discussed in academic literature, and I was not surprised to see it in my research too. In the case of my study, it has to do with the belief that sustainability-related practices are largely meant for white people.

For example, I had participants express that they felt that white people were engaging in hiking a lot more compare to them. I think this sentiment rings a lot of warning bells because these participants feel like they can learn a lot from white people rather than seeing it as a two-sided network where both have practices to share. It creates this top-down unilateral relationship that is harmful.

In Taylor-Massey, non-profit organisations try to strengthen the relationship between the individual and the outdoor during programming to counteract this. It boosts the self-esteem of the participants and also encourages more mid-term and short-term engagement with sustainable lifestyles. But sometimes, this initiatives fall through…

"I think acknowledging that these non-Western practices are sustainable in nature and are equally as important for the environment is necessary"

What do you mean?

For example, I attended a program with weekly workshops surrounding sustainable themes such as zero waste. Interestingly enough, no one actually explained what zero waste meant. I think there is, to a degree, a disconnect between the actual conversations, the practices and the terms used. Participants were really interested in knowing the specific vocabulary, they felt like that was vital to understanding Western sustainable practices.

On top of that, in terms of relevance of these activities to the community, it was really a hit or miss. A lot of times, while participants valued the practices learnt in workshops, they didn’t always integrate them into their lives because it wasn’t always the top priority to them.

You just mentioned Western sustainable practices and you delved into this topic more in your thesis. Can you go into detail about that?

I found that Taylor-Massey’s residents engage in other sustainable practices that have more proximity to their culture. We often think of sustainability through Western lenses but there are other ways to solve problems.

Going back to exclusionary myths, certain people – even if they live across a building where some of the activities take place – will not necessarily come and use the services in place unless their neighbours or friends invite or encourage them to come.

Interpersonal relationships – through word of mouth or sharing knowledge – play a huge role in getting local residents to participate and get interested in programs about sustainability. It helps them overcome barriers and engage in sustainable practices by allowing them to share Western and non-Western sustainable knowledge.

For example, a participant shared a compostable technique that came from Bangladesh and, now in the community of Taylor-Massey, people use this technique too.

What are the next steps, now that your research is done?

What I realized while researching is that a big next step, is to bridge that gap between the cultural practices racialized residents have and Western practices. I think acknowledging that these non-Western practices are sustainable in nature and are equally as important for the environment is necessary: not only for residents in inequitable neighbourhoods to counteract harmful myths, but also for organisations that offer these types of programs. My study also shows that these organisations need to continue leveraging certain practices, such as word of mouth, to get more people involved.

Hopefully, this research is not the last on the topic and others will explore more of these inequitable neighbourhoods to better Toronto’s action plan in the future.


bottom of page