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Round Table: Confronting marginalization

Exclusion and the public sphere

MODERATED BY ERIC GORDON, OALA

National Housing Day of Action, Toronto, November 2016. IMAGE/ Alan Pike/Flickr

BIOS/
ZOË DODD IS A CO-FOUNDER AND PROGRAM COORDINATOR OF THE TORONTO COMMUNITY HEP C PROGRAM (TCHCP), OFFERING COMMUNITY-BASED ACCESS TO HEP C TREATMENT AND SUPPORT FOR PEOPLE WHO USE DRUGS. SHE IS CURRENTLY INVOLVED IN THE MOSS PARK OVERDOSE PREVENTION SITE IN TORONTO WHILE PURSUING A MASTERS IN ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES AT YORK UNIVERSITY LOOKING AT THE DRUG TREATMENT SYSTEM. ZOË PRACTISES COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, POPULAR EDUCATION, AND HARM REDUCTION WITHIN A SOCIAL JUSTICE FRAMEWORK.

ERIC GORDON, OALA, IS A GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER AND PRINCIPAL AT OPTIMICITY, A TORONTO- BASED LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN DESIGN PRACTICE THAT MAINTAINS A DIVERSE PROJECT PORTFOLIO REFLECTING AN EFFORT TO SOLVE URBAN AND LANDSCAPE PROBLEMS OF ALL SORTS.

CLARA ROMERO IS A SENIOR URBAN DESIGNER AT PERKINS+WILL AND A MEMBER OF THE STEERING COMMITTEE OF THE TORONTO CENTRE FOR ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION. HER AREA OF INTEREST IS THE ROLE OF THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT IN SUSTAINING URBAN LIVABILITY, AND THE IMPORTANT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN OPEN SPACE AND BUILDINGS IN CREATING FUNCTIONAL, COHESIVE, AND BEAUTIFUL PLACES.

JACQUELINE L. SCOTT IS A WRITER AND PHD STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO. HER RESEARCH FOCUS IS ON RACE AND DIVERSITY IN THE CANADIAN OUTDOORS. A KEEN WILDERNESS FAN, SHE LEADS HIKES FOR TWO OUTDOORS CLUBS. HER ARTICLES AND IDEAS HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL POST AND THE CONVERSATION. HER TWITTER HANDLE IS @BLACKOUTDOORS1.

CHRIS SPOKE IS THE FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF HOUSING MATTERS, WHERE HE LEADS A DEDICATED TEAM OF STAFF AND VOLUNTEERS TO ADVOCATE FOR GREATER HOUSING AVAILABILITY AND AFFORDABILITY IN TORONTO. CHRIS HOLDS A BACHELOR OF SOCIAL SCIENCE IN ECONOMICS AND PUBLIC POLICY FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF OTTAWA.

Eric Gordon (EG): Stress is a complex problem affected by a host of socio-economic, physical, and mental health issues not yet fully understood. But by addressing these complex problems from a myriad of perspectives, we can gain insight. From each of your unique perspectives as urban thinkers, what are some of the prime causes of stresses in the city? Who are the people most vulnerable and disproportionately affected by the stresses of urban life?

Homelessness has reached epidemic proportions in Canada. IMAGE/ Jasper Flores

Zoë Dodd (ZD): There is a pervasive idea out there that living somewhere rural is more peaceful or calm than living somewhere urban. I wouldn’t necessarily agree. I grew up in West Yukon, in poverty. We didn’t have a car, so I used to hitchhike a lot, which is quite stressful. Lots of people in rural environments are living in conditions with no access to transit. Living in impoverished places, you don’t have access to the same kind of schooling—we had just one high school to choose from. And, as a queer woman living in a small town, there was just so much prejudice. There was also the racism that happens in small communities towards Indigenous people from white people. So, there are different kinds of stresses in a rural community.

But the stressors in a city are really compounded by one’s socioeconomic status, like whether or not you can afford to live here, or what your access to society’s resources is like. I work with people who can’t even get access to housing or who are being pushed out of their homes because of development and revitalization projects. Where do people go? Among the homeless and marginalized people I know, they have a big sense of community and they have a network that exists and they take care of each other.

EG: Wherever you are, urban or rural, poverty is going to be stressful, and it can compound any other stressors you might be confronting.

Chris Spoke (CS): Over the past few decades, a lot of jobs have moved to and concentrated within cities. If you look at employment density maps, you’ll see that places like downtown Toronto have more employment than most of its surrounding areas combined, but housing prices are often keeping people away from direct access to those opportunities.

At Housing Matters, we focus on housing affordability and availability. In Toronto last year, we saw the greatest increase in rents that we have seen in 15 years. We now have the lowest rental vacancy rate—1.1 percent— that we’ve had in 16 years. A healthy city should have a 3- to 4-percent rental vacancy rate. So, you first have to be lucky enough to even get a rental unit, and when you do, you’re paying a lot of money for it. So, obviously, rents are a big source of stress. People live with roommates for longer than they would otherwise. They put off childbirth longer than they would otherwise. Despite the rhetoric we’re hearing from politicians, the situation is getting worse, not better, and it should be addressed more seriously.

One part of the solution, though not a complete solution, is that we just need more housing to house more people.

National Housing Day of Action, Toronto, November 2016. IMAGE/ Alan Pike/Flickr

If we consider Toronto, for example: in neighbourhoods where you used to be able to take a detached house and carve it up into three or four separate legal units, and house three or four families, you’re no longer allowed to do that. Modern zoning has pretty much prohibited that. In about two-thirds of Toronto’s residential land, you can’t build anything other than a detached house, which is the most expensive type of housing. No triplexes, no fourplexes, no walkup apartments. As people—whether they’re migrants from elsewhere in Canada, or immigrants from around the world—move to the city to take advantage of employment opportunities, there just aren’t enough units to house them. So people are living farther and farther away from employment densities, which contributes to urban sprawl, traffic congestion, and all these other problems.

Jacqueline Scott (JS): In terms of the difference between rural and urban stress, I find that in the city, I am invisible as a Black person. When I go to rural areas— because I’m always hiking, camping, and canoeing in rural areas—my radar goes up. I’m always wondering: Am I going to be safe? Am I okay? The gaze that I get from people—not all people—reminds me, in a very direct way, that I’m considered out of place. Whereas in the city, I can walk anywhere and it doesn’t even occur to me to put that radar up. But in rural areas, I am highly visible, and I’m not sure of the reception I’m going to get.

I don’t mean to paint the rural as all bad. But there are certain kinds of spaces where you expect Black people to be, and the urban is the default one. If you’re not in the urban, you’re in the rural, or the outdoors, and you’re out of place.

So, in terms of the urban and rural, the perception of stress may differ, depending on race.

EG: Traditionally, we look at walking in nature as being a way of destressing from the urban environment.

JS: Going outdoors is a lovely way to destress from city life, but there’s a perception that the outdoors is a white space. Think of all those advertisements you see for outdoor recreation. Where are the Black people? Where are the people of colour, period? Why is it that in terms of outdoor recreation, no matter where you look, it’s a white space?

If you don’t see people like yourself doing something, you’re less likely to try it. You don’t know what reception you’re going to get from the people you meet in the outdoors. If something happens, if something goes down in the city, you know there are witnesses and enough people who have seen you. But if you’re deep in the trails of the woods, with no witnesses, and something happens, you’re screwed.

EG: What do you view as a possible way of bridging that separation? Or of making it a more comfortable space?

JS: I think the number one issue is recognizing that race is an issue. We’re Canadian, we don’t like to talk about race, because it makes us feel uncomfortable. We don’t talk about the 300 years of slavery in Canada, and the fact that the first slave in Canada was sold in Montreal in 1628. We prefer to celebrate the Underground Railroad, rather than acknowledging that this country is founded on genocide and slavery. The Underground Railroad is a more comfortable conversation.

So, in terms of the outdoors, number one is recognizing that race is an issue. And number two: Toronto has beautiful ravines that you can get to by subway, but it’s privileged knowledge. We need to make that knowledge more widely available, for example with wayfinding systems that show you where to go, and having some of those at the subway.

There needs to be lots of education for people in terms of the woods being a safe space. Depending on where you’re coming from, your idea of the outdoors might be that there are dangerous animals.

It’s about letting people know that those little creatures outdoors are not going to bite. That we don’t have bears in the woods. If you’re in Toronto, it sounds ridiculous, but if you’re coming from overseas, you might not know that. So, it’s educating people around that. Those are some things that we could start with.

Clara Romero (CR): For people who grew up in cities, there is this very romantic idea that you go to rural communities to decompress and destress. But the idea that the city could in some way resemble those spaces of peace that we go to, is something that doesn’t cross our minds. For example: some people think, why would you cycle in the city? You go out to recreation areas to cycle, right? But the question is: Can we change the city so that we actually have a more recreational way of moving through it?

EG: Beyond the obvious infusion of greenery and beauty in the landscape, what role can our public spaces play in reducing stress? Are there any particular projects that aim to create more health and wellbeing in the resident population?

ZD: Consider the criminalization of people in public spaces, especially in public parks, depending on your race and your social status. The level of policing in Toronto is so much greater in, say, Moss Park or Allan Gardens, and so is the targeting of people for open drinking.

People use public spaces. People hang out in parks and socialize in parks. And parks become hubs for people to meet and congregate. But there isn’t the same level of policing in, say, Trinity Bellwoods Park, which is like a giant open bar. There are hundreds and hundreds of people who descend on Trinity Bellwoods with open containers, having picnics, smoking cannabis, whatever. And that has gone on for years, and there isn’t the same level of policing and targeting as there is in Moss Park or Allan Gardens. It’s because of who is using Trinity Bellwoods Park. You have a lot of white, condo-owning people with their dogs in Trinity Bellwoods Park, and it’s just not the same in Allan Gardens or Moss Park.

What you do have, though, near Allan Gardens and Moss Park, is a lot of more privileged people who have moved into the area and who don’t like their neighbours. People who don’t want to see their neighbours hanging out in the park. People who are often part of these efforts to “beautify,” quote unquote, the neighbourhood, which is really about pushing people who are criminalized and marginalized out of their sight. They don’t want to see them.

And so we use police and public parks’ ambassadors to sweep parks and fine people and ticket them. If that were happening in parks like Trinity Bellwoods, people would be so outraged to be receiving fines, but not only do people receive fines in parks like Moss Park and Allan Gardens, they also get warned that they can’t be in the park any more. They’re told that they’re banned from the park for a certain amount of time. We really infringe upon the rights of people who are more marginalized, so those spaces become unsafe for them.

I’m thinking about what Jacqueline was saying about people using the ravines: What would people think if two young Black men were walking through the ravine, and what would be their assumption? There is a lot of selective policing. If police were riding through the ravine, who would they stop?

This is a real problem in our cities. There isn’t a level of safety for everybody, and there are people who are pushed out of our public spaces. We’ve had more than 200 encampments in which people who are homeless have been staying. It’s not their fault that they have to put a tent somewhere in a ravine to find a home, when we have an overcrowded shelter system, and we’ve been taking over all this housing stock where people could’ve lived. The city hasn’t made any attempts to try to secure and maintain rooming houses or single-room- occupancy hotels where people could rent a room for a week. Those have been taken over by developers. So, people are pushed not just into the shelter system, but out into parks. As well, in the summertime, when people’s apartments are really hot, people go out into the parks to get cool. They go out to be in the shade.

On the one hand, we have beautiful public spaces in this city, but it really depends on who you are, whether you’re going to be able to enjoy those public spaces freely, or if you’re going to be targeted and bothered by parks’ ambassadors or police.

EG: If you had a dollar to spend, I’m assuming you wouldn’t spend it on a nice feature in a park, you would probably spend it on securing affordable housing?

ZD: First, I would work on the people in the residents’ associations. I would work on their attitudes because they drive a certain agenda, politically. They’re homeowners and yet they are only able to buy their homes in certain neighbourhoods due to other people’s poverty. It’s not like they moved there because they really wanted to be a part of the community. They want to change the community. So I think we have to work on their attitudes about who actually belongs in a community. There is a lot of racism and classism that goes on, and that is allowed. Politicians will work with these people and not call them out on what they’re doing, and they will elevate their voices.

All of these issues are issues of inequality, and that’s what needs to be tackled—not targeting the person who is living on the street and can’t get into any kind of housing.

CR: There’s a long tradition of consultation and public engagements regarding how we build our neighbourhoods, parks, streets, and public spaces. There are attempts to capture people’s opinions, but that’s something only certain classes have access to. What are the tools we should be using to incorporate minority voices and make them more visible in the way we plan for cities?

ZD: People who are the most marginalized know that those public consultations are a sham and that people come with their own agendas already. Consultations happen, but they’re not safe for everybody. Some things that are allowed to happen at those consultations are very offensive. They’ve basically become hate rallies against poor people, racialized people, Indigenous people in the city, whether people want to admit it or not. There are some really horrible things that people will say, and they don’t get called out for it, even though the city has policies around hateful behaviour and anti-oppression. Poor people generally know that consultations aren’t for their benefit.

How many housing consultations have we had and yet people still have no housing? We still have more than 100,000 families on the waiting list for social housing. Marginalized people are on to the idea that this is just a sham to try to include their voices.

CS: I’ve been to more than 40 public meetings, and if you speak up in favour of new housing, you’re immediately yelled at. I’ve had people hiss at me. The crowd is overwhelmingly older, homeowning, wealthier. I was at a public meeting for a rental building that was going to be built in midtown Toronto, replacing a handful of semi-detached homes. It was going to be 21 storeys’ worth of rental stock, which we need in this city, and everybody who showed up was against it—very, very aggressively against it. And I said, “If this building doesn’t get built, the people who would’ve lived there don’t disappear, they don’t stop existing. They have to go somewhere. Where are they supposed to go?” And somebody yelled, “Scarborough!”

You might have a claim to your property, but you don’t have a claim to your neighbourhood in a way that is as exclusionary as it is today. And I agree that the prime culprits are the residents’ associations who have this status quo bias, who like things a certain way, who don’t want to see renters in their neighbourhood. And they have the ear of city council. In fact, they elect the councilors. The councilors know exactly who shows up to vote for them.

The whole system needs to be blown up, in my opinion, because it’s not working.

EG: Is there any way, within our current public engagement system, to give voice to those who haven’t been included and to ensure that those voices are heard in a meaningful way? Or, if we scrap the current model of consultation, what could we have that’s better?

Overdose prevention sites save lives. IMAGE/ Jasper Flores

ZD: Consultations are generally about people living in poverty, but the people living in poverty aren’t actually elevated to say, you know what, I think you don’t need a consultation when you have more than a thousand people on a waiting list for social housing. You actually just need to build social housing and maintain it so it doesn’t fall apart. And improve the conditions of the buildings that already exist. You don’t need consultations for that.

It’s the same with consultations about opening an overdose prevention site. People think we need to have a consultation so they can have a say in it. Well, a lot of people hate people who use drugs. They don’t care if they live or die. People have written me horrible messages, telling me they wish me, or the people I work with, dead. People walk up to us in Moss Park and say hateful things. We have to stop elevating those people’s voices, and, unfortunately, these consultation processes are places to amplify their voices. In an emergency situation, we shouldn’t have to consult with anybody.

The Moss Park overdose prevention site in Toronto is operated by community volunteers. IMAGE/ Google Street View

EG: As landscape architects, we’re often involved with a lot of these consultations, and it’s easy to see that there are obvious flaws. Even when you’ve got the best intentions, it all depends on who’s there, it all depends on what the framework is.

CS: Irrespective of consultations, we need to update our zoning. I wanted to build a 25-unit rooming house, and it’s effectively impossible to build new rooming houses without substantial subsidy. It’s very easy to buy a rooming house and turn it into a mansion. That’s happening every day in Parkdale [a Toronto neighbourhood]. But if you want to buy a mansion and turn it into a rooming house, or just buy land and build a rooming house, zoning rules make it effectively impossible.

CR: The new estimates say that, by 2041, the downtown area of Toronto is going to double in population. Where are we going to put all those people? I fear that we’re building communities that don’t have the parks and services and schools that are needed. If the population is doubling, are we doubling the width of the sidewalks? We need to make enough space for this.

EG: When I’ve worked with cities that are dealing with population increases, I have enjoyed taking the empowering and energizing perspective of saying, “Great, you have the opportunity to do things right and build a whole new city, and you get to do it right here where you already live!”

JS: Along with the housing issue is the lack of paths connecting green spaces in the city. The bike lanes start in the middle of nowhere and end in the middle of nowhere, and walking trails are not connected—they’re like little islands. We need to figure out how to have green corridors so you can walk from here to there through green spaces. It’s not only good for humans, but it’s good for other creatures such as birds and butterflies, as well.

Two summers ago, I worked in Rouge Park, and the thing that struck me was how terrified the urban and suburban kids were of the wilderness. When you lead hikes, the first job is actually calming the kids down, so they feel okay about being in the woods. Because they’re panicking. If they’re so disconnected from nature, it’s hard say, “go hug a tree” or “care about the whales.” These kids think that the outdoors is meant to be manicured grass, with one little tree.

CR: That goes back to the idea that some groups don’t go into the wilderness because they don’t see somebody like them there, and so they don’t feel safe or comfortable. We have to design in a way that makes everybody feel more welcome. Is it safe and comfortable for your grandma to go for a walk? If there are trees and shade, she can do it.

JS: And benches.

EG: And if it’s accessible to her wheelchair or walker or other physical accessories.

CR: Exactly, the city needs to be designed for the most vulnerable population, so that everyone feels invited to join activities.

ZD: I’m going to retract some of my comments on consultations, because there are people who have really brilliant ideas in the city, who have solutions they want to put forward. Those are the voices I want to hear elevated. I think we need urban design that is inclusive of people, and that also recognizes race and class and the ways in which people are engaging.

EG: In a past Ground Round Table [Ground 37, Spring 2017], we talked about pre-consultation, and the idea of consulting the community before you have a plan, in order to develop a plan. Before you come to a community with “Here’s the development we’re doing,” instead, you say, “Anyone else have any ideas?”

JS: Yes, but your pre-consultation has to look at gender, race, and class, so that it doesn’t end up being exactly the same thing. In park development, for example, you have to go to the actual people who are using the park right now. And put the questions in language they understand. You don’t get the people to come to you, you go to them, where they’re at right now, and ask questions. And they will talk.

How do race and class enter into that? If we want consultation that’s recognizing our class privilege, and for the people that we’re trying to reach, it’s to go to where they’re at, and ask them the same questions. That’s a lot more work. It’s a lot more messy. It’s giving them a voice, in their territory, on their terms. It’s a very different process.

EG: The big stressors in our city are not how tall the buildings are, or how loud the traffic is, or how stinky the air is. All of those things arguably cause stress, but the bigger issues are about how one feels about oneself in the city, in terms of opportunity and access. We know how to make a nice-looking street, and we know in theory how to make a well-functioning street. But enabling everyone to have access to the nice things we create, or to live in the city without having to worry about some of these basic needs, that’s something we need to engage with as designers, as well.

ZD: Historically, white people fled urban centres and went and lived in suburban places, and now they’re coming back to the city because they can afford it, and they’re pushing other people out who’ve lived here and who’ve built these cities, and have communities and roots here, too. There’s a sense of entitlement to space, and people who can afford it feel more entitled to it. And this is a problem we have to tackle, beyond just policies—tackling this very toxic way that people think they’re entitled to neighbourhoods and space.

EG: We’re seeing a lot of artists move out of the city to pursue a creative career because the city is too expensive for them, and that devalues our community greatly, including from a stress standpoint. Arts and culture are a source of stress reduction, and we’re creating an environment in which artists and those who create culture aren’t able to afford cities. That doesn’t help anyone.

CR: We’re half a generation away from having a real crisis in the suburbs, with an aging population that is losing their independence, and so they might not have access to cars, and yet they still need services. How are we planning to serve all of those communities?

JS: It’s important to remember that what you see on the streets does not necessarily reflect the power in the community. I live in Regent Park, an area where, as a Black person, walking the streets, I fit right in. But when I went to my first condo meeting, I was expecting what I see on the street to be in my condo building, and that wasn’t the case. What you see on the street does not necessarily reflect the power holders in the community. So, when we talk about space, you have to link it to race. When you look at the standard models for how people use space, that model is based on a white person.

ZD: I’ve worked at the Regent Park Community Health Centre for fifteen years, and when the revitalization started, all the billboards for the development, all the people in the billboards, were white.

There was talk of having a methadone clinic built just down the street, and there was a lot of community organizing against it. A lot of talk like, “We don’t want these people in our neighborhoods, we don’t want them here.”

Toronto ravine walk. IMAGE/ Michael A.J. Rumig/Flickr

JS: When we think of stress in the city, there’s a level of stress that people of colour and Indigenous people face because of racism. And that racism cuts across everything, whether it’s housing, access to housing, transit, access to green space.

Regent Park is within walking distance of the Don Valley ravine and a place like Evergreen Brick Works. But you go there, and who do you see in that space? Where are the Black people who live within walking distance of the ravine? We are not there. Why? Race is not seen as a fundamental category of analysis, but if it were, then the question would be: “What do we need to do to get those people from down the street, a five- minute walk away, to come here? Maybe we need to go and do some outreach.”

If you don’t look at the human dimension in terms of race, and who’s using it, then it’s designed by white people, for white people, doing white activities. But in Toronto, 55 percent of the population are people of colour.

You need to ask what is it about those spaces that people of colour are not going to them. And you can’t just say, if we build it, they’ll come. There needs to be a bridge between communities.

THANKS TO DALIA TODARY-MICHAEL FOR HELPING TO ORGANIZE THIS ROUND TABLE.