UN-CITYING OUR CITIES

It started as a sensible idea: workers’ housing shouldn’t be located next to smoke-belching heavy industry. But it has turned into an obsession with separating everything and everyone from everything and everyone else, a denial, on a massive scale, of community and of the bedrock urban reality of mutual interdependence.
Today we find ourselves with, not only separate neighbourhoods for the rich and the poor, but a fetish for spatial segregation that defies rational explanation: One area for $250,000 houses, another one for $350,000 houses, a third for $450,000 houses. Housing for old people where young people aren’t welcome, family neighbourhoods where housing for the elderly isn’t welcome. No housing where there is commerce, no factories (even clean ones) and no offices where there is either housing or retail trade, wide swaths of wasted land to ensure that everything is well and truly separated from everything else.


All these different forms of separation create many problems of isolation and dependency: old people who are trapped in their apartments, having to wait for rides before they can go anywhere; children who are trapped in their back yards except when their parents drive them somewhere else; parents who are forced to waste countless hours acting as chauffeurs for their children, and for workers, punishingly long commutes, often to low-wage jobs.
As usual, it is the most vulnerable who pay the heaviest price, the poor and the marginalized, who, in growing numbers, are relegated to those areas of the city that have been abandoned by everyone else. Being poor anywhere is a big problem, but it’s a much bigger problem yet if you’re living in a neighbourhood where there may be no good jobs, no opportunities for a good education, a neighbourhood that is likely to be terrorized by street gangs and assorted criminals. And, for good measure, the neighbourhood may be besieged by the threat of gentrification, facing residents with the prospect that they will be forced to trade their meagre refuge for absolute homelessness.
Last Saturday’s Globe and Mail carried a series on one of the worst of such neighbourhoods, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The series is honest journalism that asks the right questions and doesn’t shrink from the answers. Robert Matas calculates that Canadian taxpayers have paid out something on the order of $1.4 billion since 2000 without achieving any real improvements in the neighbourhood, and Gary Mason takes up the cudgels on behalf of Vancouverites who share an apparently growing determination to find a way of putting an end to the misery.
We can get some sense of the size of the challenge by reflecting on the depth of the problem. It began with a long-standing unwillingness of wealthy people to live near poor people, proceeded to a growing unwillingness of better-off people to share space with anyone less well off, and ended with a distaste for any kind of human diversity. If cities are anything, they are places where many different kinds of people live and work at close quarters and cannot avoid the reality of mutual interdependence.
We have tried to deny that reality, to un-city our cities, and blind karma has repaid us with places, like the Downtown Eastside, that are a devil’s brew of abandonment, misfortune, drugs and crime. There have, of course, always been places in cities where marginalized people live, but the obsessiveness and relentlessness with which the fortunate separate themselves from those who need help is probably unique to our times.
There is no simple fix for such problems, though a stronger social housing policy could bring hope to many marginalized people, and, with changes in zoning rules, commercial areas could become excellent locations for the cost-effective creation of affordable housing. But in the long run, we all need to reflect on the folly of believing that we can, at one and the same time, enjoy the benefits of city life and separate ourselves from those who are different from us.
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Want to give some thought to this problem? Here are suggested readings:
Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.
Peter Marcuse, “The Enclave, the Citadel and the Ghetto: What Has Changed in the Post-Fordist U.S. City”. Urban Affairs Review 33 (2), pp. 233-43.
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press, 2000.
For other discussions of land use issues, check out these links:
City Hall Take Note: Public-Private Partnerships Won’t Fix This Problem
Stop Trashing Suburbs, Focus on Sprawl
Opposition to Sprawl Isn’t Anti-Rural. It’s Pro-Rural.

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