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U of T graduate students explore new wards for Urban Policy Lab program to help Toronto voters

Alex Gold-Apel, one of the students who studied Toronto's Ward 18, says many people he talked to say they won't be voting because they don't believe politicians will do anything to solve the ward's problems (photo courtesy of Alex Gold-Apel)

Transit problems. Traffic congestion. Lack of affordable housing. They are three of the leading issues on the minds of Torontonians as they get ready to cast their votes in Monday's municipal election.

To find out more about the issues at play and what matters most to Toronto residents in this election, University of Toronto graduate students have been heading out to each of the city’s new 25 wards as part of a newly launched initiative called Munk in the City. It is run by the Urban Policy Lab, a teaching and research hub at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

Assistant professor Gabriel Eidelman, the founder and director of the Urban Policy Lab, says the project allows students in both programs -– global affairs and public policy – to work together and think more about the city and its issues. There is value, he says, in comparing what they learn with other cities and then applying the takeaway lessons.

“This is the advantage of being in and teaching in cities,” he says.  

Seventy-five students in the Master of Global Affairs and Master of Public Policy programs have been pounding the pavement in teams, talking to residents and local businesses. 

One group explored Ward 18 – Willowdale. This is a rapidly growing area, with highrise buildings springing up on the main arterial road, Yonge Street. As one turns east or west onto quieter side streets, condos and apartments give way to single-family homes. The ward is diverse on many counts: from ethnicity to income to household size.  

Alex Gold-Apel, one of the students in the Ward 18 group, says he found transportation was almost a universal concern among the residents: too much congestion and construction, and not enough transit.

The area is home to a younger segment of the population – one-third of the residents are between 25 and 44 years old, according to the most recent census. Gold-Apel says he found that affordable housing is one of the most important issues for young people in the city.

Gold-Apel and his group members also learned that there is a high population of recent immigrants in Ward 18 who have not yet obtained Canadian citizenship. These are permanent residents who may be passionate about city issues but are unable to vote and have a direct influence on the makeup of city council.

The group also encountered residents who will not be voting in this election by choice, sometimes because of  a lack of knowledge about the candidates and their views.

For those residents, the Urban Policy Lab has partnered with Vox Pop Labs, whose cofounder Clifton van der Linden is a U of T PhD student, and the CBC in a civic engagement tool to help: Vote Compass. The online tool makes it easy for voters to learn how their political views align with those of candidates running for office.

The Urban Policy Lab’s contribution to Vote Compass comes in the form of the Council Scorecard, a civic education project, developed in collaboration with journalist Matt Elliott, that aims to present municipal voting records in compelling and accessible new formats.

Read more about Urban Policy Lab's Council Scorecard

Thanks to data from the Council Scorecard – collected with the help of two recent Master of Public Policy alumni, Alex Petras and Emily Frauts – Vote Compass users can now learn not only what mayoral and council candidates promise to do if elected, but also how these promises compare to the actual voting records of council incumbents.

“There are thousands of council votes each year,” says Eidelman. “All these votes are on the public record. But the information isn’t made available in a format that’s easy for people to understand. 

“What we’ve done with the Council Scorecard is cut through the noise to make it possible for the average person to make sense of how their representatives are voting on the issues that matter most.”

Gold-Apel suggests doing some research in your own community. There is value in knowing the different perspectives of neighbours, he says.

The students’ dispatches take the form of blog entries, photo essays, podcasts, and video documentaries. Their findings will be exhibited at the Munk in the City showcase and election viewing party on Monday.