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Workshop Brief: Building Neighbourhoods That Thrive


On March 9, 2017, CIFAR, in partnership with the Toronto Child & Family Network, held a Change Makers dialogue that explored how social inequalities within and between neighbourhoods can impact social capital networks and in turn neighbourhood outcomes. With this understanding, participants also discussed what neighbourhood settings can best support the well-being of children and families and how to work collectively to improve outcomes.

Moderated by Robin Cory, Colbeck Strategic Advisors, the event included presentations from: Candice Odgers, Fellow in CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program and Professor at Duke University, Sanford School of Public Policy; Mario Luis Small, Senior Fellow in CIFAR’s Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being program and Professor at Harvard University’s Department of Sociology; and Daniele Zanotti, President and CEO, United Way Toronto & York Region. Elaine Baxter-Trahair, Co-chair of the Toronto Child & Family Network (TC&FN) and General Manager of Children’s Service of the City of Toronto, opened the event and gave an overview of the TC&FN work. This report provides a summary of the key research-informed insights presented by CIFAR’s Fellows and the group discussions that followed.


Income inequality influences emotional, educational, and behavioural outcomes of children with low-socioeconomic status. Research examining the relationships between children and poverty has shown that children experience different emotional, educational, and economic outcomes depending on the income level of the area in which they live. For example, studies have shown that children from low-income areas tend to exhibit worse outcomes than those from more affluent neighbourhoods.

Unequal resource distribution negatively affects child well-being. Research at international, regional, and local levels has explored the relationship between income inequality and child well-being, examining the impact of the economic gap between children from low-income settings and their affluent peers. These studies have shown that children living in countries with high income inequality tend to have worse well-being outcomes than children living in countries with more equal distribution of resources. This effect is also seen within countries where level of income inequality differs by region.

In low-income neighbourhoods, community cohesion and supportive parenting can protect children against potential negative outcomes. Neighbourhood factors that contribute to child outcomes have been explored through studies in the UK and the US. For example, a UK study found that some of the neighbourhoods with the highest rates of poverty also exhibited high levels of community closeness and supportive parenting, which helped to mediate harmful effects on children of socioeconomic disparity, such as aggressive behaviour at school.

In mixed-income neighbourhoods, the effects of income inequality can leave low-income children worse off than their peers in low-income neighbourhoods. A desire to close the opportunity gap for low-income children has led to a trend of moving low-income families into affluent neighbourhoods. Studying such mixed-income communities provides one way to explore the impact of income inequality on child outcomes. Compared to low-income children in concentrated poverty, those living in mixed-income settings have exhibited negative effects including increased antisocial behaviour and poorer educational performance for boys and children of colour, in particular. These findings translate across UK and US communities.

The “shadow of wealth” present in mixed-income neighbourhoods may create a double disadvantage for low-income children. Contributing factors to the negative outcomes for children in mixed-income neighborhoods include the threat of stereotypes and a child’s subjective self-perception. These children may be at risk of conforming to negative socioeconomic stereotypes held by others who perceive them to be a potential 2 | CIFAR | Building Neighbourhoods That Thrive threat and who are less likely to fully accept them into the community. Further, they may perceive themselves to be of a lower social ranking relative to others, resulting in depression, anxiety and conduct disorder. In these ways, the mixed-neighbourhood economic gap between low-income children and their high-income neighbours could be creating a double disadvantage: the adverse effects of limited resources, objectively measured, as well as the adverse effects of negative subjective social self-perceptions.

To ensure the potential benefits of mixed-income settings for low-income children are realized, policy and practice measures must support continuous data analysis that checks hoped-for outcomes against children’s actual experience and informs positive change. Mixed-income schools and communities can be built in ways that are isolating and reinforce economic distance, but many can and do support positive outcomes for low-income children. We need to better understand how mixed-income communities are affecting children’s outcomes and how to ensure more positive effects. This requires continuous data collection and analysis to determine how low-income children are actually doing in mixed-income settings and to enact changes that build their sense of belonging and inclusivity.


Neighbourhood-level institutions can serve as important avenues for improving the well-being of children and their parents. It is important to better understand the potential roles these institutions can play in community well-being. In the US in the past 40 years, there has been an increase in the number of women participating in the workforce as well as the number of young children entering childcare institutions including nursery school, preschool, and kindergarten. Recent research has focused on the role of community-level institutions, such as childcare centres, in improving neighbourhood outcomes. By expanding our conception of what a childcare centre is, as well as who it serves, we can develop a much richer understanding of how we can use these institutions to improve children’s mental and material hardship.

Social capital provides direct and indirect benefits. Social capital is made up of the core resources we derive from our social networks. Primarily, these include: information, social support (such as close friends who buffer emotional and material hardship), and reinforcement of norms (such as normalizing a child’s consistent attendance at school). Different networks provide different levels of each resource.

There is a positive relationship between childcare centre enrollment, social capital, and mothers’ well-being. A study of US parents and their children from birth to age five found that mothers with a child enrolled in a childcare centre increased the number of friends the child’s mother made compared to mothers without a child in childcare centres. This friendship formation had positive effects on mothers’ well-being such as lowering depression rates.

Strategically mobilizing the power of social capital can improve the lives of children and mothers. It is a resource that neighbourhoods can mobilize at the institutional level in low-cost, high-impact ways. Social capital is often taken as informal in nature and difficult to influence structurally. However, research in the context of childcare centres has shown that structuring social capital into childcare institution operating models improves outcomes for children and mothers — without the use of costly additional incentives. A pilot study comparing models of childcare classes found that when classes were grouped by neighbourhood and parents encouraged to pair up as “attendance buddies,” mothers reported higher numbers of close friends (along with lower rates of mental and material hardship) and childcare attendance over the winter months improved.


Community is the solution to social challenges. To address complex social challenges, United Way takes a community-focused approach that can be captured by a quote from one community member: “We are who we are with and where we are with them.” United Way has developed a model that takes community itself to be the solution to social challenges.

To change the continuum for support and achieve lasting change requires a holistic understanding of community and research-informed investments that follow community data. United Way’s approach to working with communities is upheld by six pillars: research, investment, evaluation, strategy, partnerships, and advocacy. United Way uses research to identify how and in which communities to invest, measures the effectiveness of investments, monitors partnership networks, and brings the research into communities to connect residents around key issues.

Research provides the evidence needed to make responsive investments. Research has informed much of United Way’s work over the past years connecting geography and poverty. For example, the United Way report Poverty by Postal Code (2004) examined the impact on vulnerable groups of increasing poverty across Toronto in the previous two decades. Informed by their findings, the United Way shifted funding from Toronto’s downtown core, where the majority of agencies in the network were centred, to the city’s suburbs. The United Way report Poverty by Postal Code 2: Vertical Poverty (2011) examined the growing number of high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto’s inner suburbs and the further concentration of poverty in high-rise rental towers in these neighbourhoods. This report informed the 2012 Tower Neighbourhood Renewal Initiative convening stakeholders to revitalize tower communities. Currently, the United Way is examining whether intensification in the city’s core means increased services are now required there.

While direct investment in children is still needed, holistic investment in communities will help to deepen community service. Currently, United Way is exploring increasingly holistic investment into communities, such as their 2017 $87M commitment to programs and agencies across the Toronto region that will deepen their work in poverty and geography. This commitment brings together a partnership network of 62 anchor agencies working together over the next 5 years to create an inner core across the region. To best serve communities across the region, United Way is also opening funding for new programming for the first time in a decade to connect existing and new partner agencies through nine program streams.

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