Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Diversity

September 14th, 2016

subdivided-coverIn the following excerpt from SubDivided: City-Building in an Age of Diversity,  co-editor Jay Pitter reflects on a formative relationship between herself as a schoolchild and a teacher that expanded “the perimeters of my neighbourhood” and allowed her to imagine herself “beyond its narrow margins.”  Today that includes asking uncomfortable questions about diversity in order to move beyond what Pitter calls  the “superficial rhetoric, policies and celebrations” of diversity in contemporary discourse.

As I think back to this relationship, which shaped my life, I see how it could exemplify multiculturalism, as championed by Liberal Prime minister Pierre Trudeau. It was an instance of how the lives of two people situated in opposite social locations – Black and white, male and female, child and adult, poor and economically stable – intersected meaningfully within the context of a fast-growing city. It seems like a story that supports our proclamation that diversity does, in fact, work. Yet as I observe today’s teeming city-region, I know that such stories, and the intricate forces that create them, are far too rare to validate the efficacy of diversity and the paint-by-numbers politics of urban identity. It isn’t that diversity is bad; it’s inherent in the urban project’s built environment and natural ecology. But when it comes to the human beings who collectively make up a global city like Toronto – a place with accelerating social, economic and ethnocultural divisions – the over-emphasis placed on diversity is lazy social shorthand, an attempt to smooth over ragged edges we struggle to understand. Civic leaders endlessly repeat the catchphrase ‘diversity is our strength,’ as if it could resolve our issues or conclude difficult discussions.

Cities and Social Diversity

Cities are a constant negotiation of distance and difference. Across time, people have cast their hopes toward these collectively conceived places of possibility that are at once immutable and fragile. Within a few city blocks, towers of industry and influence preside over cars and cyclists competing for space, parkettes constrained by concrete and pedestrians navigating the new homeless – entire families huddling atop street grates.

As a result of unprecedented migration and intensification, we are building global cities in which we literally live on top of one another. We have created a complex convergence of stories that reveal growing social disparities. More than ever, many urban dwellers exist in a daily dissonance of economic despair and polarized ideology, while others revel in an affluent world of chic boutiques, high-end restaurants and impossibly expensive homes.

In recent decades, we’ve wrongly deployed the language and paradigm of diversity to address – or in some instances avoid – a complicated range of issues arising from, among others, improper policing, nimbyism, gendered violence, transit inequality and an increasingly precarious urban labour force.

While there isn’t a single agreed-upon definition or approach to diversity, the phenomenon is generally understood to be a way of defining and responding to the increasing number of ‘others’ within cities. Of course, everyone is diverse: we are all distinct and different. However, in the language of municipal policy and planning, someone like me – a visible ‘minority’ and woman – has come to be understood and widely accepted as ‘diverse’ while my teacher turned lifelong mentor – a white male – would be considered ‘normal,’ the centralized status. Unspoken notions of power, differently valued bodies, spatial entitlement, and economic and social capital are all implicit in a term we have come to consider virtuous.

Using this flawed framework, which reinforces rather than redresses social power dynamics, we’ve developed public policy, business-based programs and mandated workplace training to increase our collective capacity to deal with difference. In fact, diversity is so knitted into Canada’s national identity and its values that, for some, any critique of this rhetoric amounts to a challenge to our collective sense of respectability. But while we’ve been focused on embracing the identities of ‘others’ and celebrating their differences, the economic disparities between city dwellers – and not just in Canada – have greatly increased.

In an urban context, accelerating income disparity has created an insidious form of social segregation within and across neighbourhoods. Here in Toronto, the most culturally diverse city in the world, University of Toronto sociologist David Hulchanski’s ‘Three Cities’ research has shown how, over the past two generations, wealthy and poor neighbourhoods have become increasingly concentrated and isolated from one another, producing a social geography that offers a ground-level rebuke to the redemptive rhetoric extolling the virtues of diversity.

Conversations focusing on social disparity are on the rise. … [but] we’ve ignored the more uncomfortable matter of economic inequality. … Our preoccupation with racial or ethnocultural categories precludes a more fluid and holistic way of seeing the world, one that allows us to identify ourselves with other points of reference, such as economics, passion, politics, belief and the kind of society we value.

Race and economic inequality are obviously not mutually exclusive, nor do we live in a post-racial society. However, [such] important and uncomfortable questions should prompt us to strive for a discourse that goes beyond diversity’s superficial rhetoric, policies and celebrations.

 Source: Excerpted and reprinted with permission from “Introduction” by Jay Pitter, from Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Diversity. Edited by Jay Pitter and John Lorinc. Toronto, Coach House, 2016.

headshot-jay-pitter-september16Jay Pitter, MES is an author, placemaker and senior stakeholder engagement professional. Throughout her career, Jay has spearheaded noteworthy projects with organizations such as the Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Community Housing, The Health and Safety Task Force, the City of Toronto, the Toronto District School Board and DIALOG, a national architecture firm. Her work has consistently resulted in increasing the capacity, resources and relationships required for co-creating more inclusive, safe, and vibrant cities. Jay has been a guest lecturer and faculty member within post-secondary institutions and has also co-led a number of participatory research processes. Most recently she collaborated with Westbank to increase community engagement in the Honest Ed’s redevelopment process, co-edited Subdivided, a Coach House anthology exploring inclusive city-building and signed on to produce a “walk show” with Bell Media.



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