How Windsor’s population changes over the next 20 years is going to dramatically reshape not only the city but Essex County as a whole. The ebb and flow of migration into and out of the region is frankly tough to predict as economic opportunities, social connections, cost of living and overall quality of life all play a role in determining where people live. Unfortunately for Essex County, our population looks to stagnate from the current estimate of 401,885 to the 402,302 in 2041. An important caveat are that these estimates do not account for any shocks that could impact our region, the closing of a major industry and large scale job losses for example, as a result it assumes a status quo of growth at a typical rate. If the projections do hold true, they show a stark reality for our region from a population standpoint, we aren’t going to be growing, and given certain demographic challenges that are stacked on top of this lack growth Windsor does face significant headwinds over the next 20 years.
The first of these challenges is an aging population. The impacts of this shift will be added strain on what some would call overtaxed social, health and community services. A good indicator of this change are dependency ratios. These ratios illustrate the number of working age people in relation to the number of dependent youth (under 19 years of age) and seniors (over 65+ years of age). This issue was raised in a recent article by Carolyn Thompson in the Windsor Star. The convergence of a aging population with a retiree attraction efforts and youth leaving the region could culminate in a scenario where a large portion of our senior population is living without family supports. Efforts to attract retirees, although profitable and manageable in the short term when the new residents are in the sprite and spry 60s, quickly can become a huge burden on our health care system and community services when they are in their 70s and 80s.
This past weeks city council vote was an example of this. Bulk garbage pick up, an issue as unsexy as can be imagined was up for debate. What quickly became clear were battle lines between the city centre where young people, lower income residents and immigrants were more likely to live and the location of much of the illegal dumping facing off the more affluent wards, home to older more well off residents whose councilors are looking to maintain fiscal “restraint”. Small issues like this are the ones that give the downtown a bad name, when people walk past an alley or vacant lot and see junk dumped and not removed why would they want to move into that neighbourhood, yet the council voted it down.
This bridges to the second issue, which is, where people are and will be living in Essex County over the next 20 years. Looking at the census profiles for the communities in our region you can see several distinct patterns in the movement of families since 2001. United Way’s 2015 Community Well Being Report outlines that families and individuals are moving out of Windsor and into Lakeshore and LaSalle. This movement has not only hollowed out the city, burdening the remaining taxpayer with higher costs to maintain service. Those who have moved out of the city are those with the means to do so: cars to get to their jobs without the need of transit, income to trade up to a larger home in the suburbs and their basic needs satisfied so they can engage in the broader betterment of their community. Many of those in Windsor are those who could not afford or be able to leave the city, single mother families for example which have a poverty rate over 42%. What has developed are neighbourhoods of have and have not where poverty ebbs and flows depending on which block you are on.
Sprawl into the suburban communities of LaSalle and Tecumseh, and to a lesser extent South Windsor, represents a clear and present danger to Windsor. The livability of our city requires connectivity which is currently missing. Although we have several livable and desirable neighbourhoods in Windsor, they are islands surrounded by other neighbourhoods that are considered “less desirable”. Without some form of regional cooperation and dialogue the city really can’t do much to stem the tide of people moving the suburbs, as new amenities (libraries, ice rinks, water parks) are still accessible following a short drive.
This sprawl is compounded in that the recession that helped hollow out the City created an opportunity for investors and entrepreneurs to buy up property. Although that article sites statistics from the Windsor CMA (LaSalle, Tecumseh, Lakeshore, Amherstburg and Windsor) the fact that our city is home to some of the hottest property investment in the county is particularly revealing. What used to be family neighbourhoods are now becoming rental ghettos. With demand growing and reasonable prices compared to Toronto, Windsorites can easily sell their home in the city to an investor and move to LaSalle or Lakeshore. Whether the investors are betting the Windsor can buck the trend or setting themselves up failure is beyond me, but what they are doing is driving up property values in sections of our city which in turn is eroding a key advantage that we hold, a low cost of living. There is the added danger that a portion of these investors will not properly maintain or engage the homes and surrounding neighborhood leading to a disconnect between residence and land owners in the city.
The third change for Windsor is the growing multiculturalism in our community. Although this is a strength, this growth has largely been driven by immigration and unfortunately, statistically speaking new immigrants face a wide range of challenges arriving in Canada including just making ends meat. Part of the poverty that is experienced in our community comes from new immigrants arriving and struggling to get their feet under them. This is a dangerous trends as by 2035, Statistics Canada projects that 80% of all population growth in Canada will occur through immigration. Given this prediction it could be assumed that much of the population growth that will occur in Windsor (if it does occur) will be a result immigration. This shift in how Windsor and the rest of Essex County will grow and impact services needed in the region but also the look and feel of our neighbourhoods and communities.
There are already a wide range of programs and initiatives to help new immigrants to adjust and settle in Windsor but maybe we need to take it a step further. Erie St. has long be the epicenter of the Italian community in our city why not create a similar districts for other groups in our city. To a degree it is already occurring with clusters of shops and restaurants in certain areas of the city but expanding this concentration into specific district as a means for development of cultural communities in Windsor could be a powerful tool in attracting, integrating and engaging new immigrant communities to our city and Canada.
Wyandotte St. has a couple of prime examples, Between Campbell and the University a cluster of Asian restaurants and markets have a emerged to cater to international students and families. Further down, between the Downtown and Walkerville, Arabic is the predominant language on shop signs. Why not formalize these neighbourhoods, encourage cultural events and activities, Erie St get Via Italia why can’t these neighbourhoods get Eid or Chinese New Year Celebrations? This engagement along with strategic placement of language and other supports will enable new arrivals and their families to more quickly situate themselves in our community while offering existing residence a greater taste experience of the world that can strengthen our community overall.
How Windsor, and the rest of Essex County grows over the next 20 years is frankly beyond the control of politicians or policy itself. Population growth is a result of dozens of socio-economic-demographic factors converging within a defined geography. Windsor’s own population growth is contingent becoming more attractive then the surrounding communities. What makes it attractive are in the eyes of the beholder: jobs, health care, low housing prices, efficient transit and dozens other factor impact this appeal of Windsor. All that we can do is try and improve our community on the aggregate while trying to market our community strengths and mitigating our weaknesses. Given these factors, even if we assume no major shocks to region’s economy that drastic alters its attractiveness, our region is going to look drastically different in 2035.
With projections pointing stagnate population growth, they are just projections and a 5-10% variation either positively or negatively isn’t necessarily out of the question. If I were a betting man I would suspect less growth and possibly contraction rather than more as we continue to bleed residence to Tecumseh, Lakeshore and LaSalle. Unfortunately for Windsorites those people can still use the services offered by the City but are exempt from paying for it, leaving the city and its residents in a precarious predicament.
Despite my downer view over the next 20 years and I could easily be wrong, but we would need to buck the existing trends and have a sea change in our overall economic and social circumstances. Questions of how we keep young people local, attract middle and high income families to the city is a daunting challenge that politics and policy will have a hard time influencing. The result is a conflagration of circumstances that will take the right leaders (Mayor, City Council) the right ideas (policies) at the right time to solve.