PLACE & PRIVILEGE: TELLING STORIES ABOUT PLACES THAT AREN'T YOURS
Photo edited by Yumna Bhatti
Planning, Place & Entitlement
As a city planner, I am mindful about how I speak about places, especially those I do not have lived experience with. It is a tricky position to navigate because I think, as planners, part of our “expertise” derives from being able to define the elements of a “good” place – read: well-designed, walkable, vibrant. In truth, a “good” place is subjective, but maybe we can agree that places should make people feel safe, connected, and at home. Many decide to go into the profession because they are interested in how spaces are shaped and used, and any planner you talk to will typically have a story about a place (e.g., a neighbourhood or city) that is special to them that may have inspired their career path. What concerns me about “place”-related professions is that, perhaps because of our educational background, we sometimes feel entitled to pass value judgments on places that aren’t ours.
While this piece is not specific to a planning audience, I want to expand on some ideas and tips that can be accessed by anyone visiting a different part of the city, and how to be cognizant about privilege when telling stories about places, especially those that are lower income, racialized and/or do not conform with accepted notions of a “nice” place.
The idea of telling stories can mean many things – for me, it can mean a social media post about a different part of town you visited, a casual conversation with a friend about a neighbourhood you work in, or a report you are writing about a potential development. The purpose of my piece here is not to debunk specific neighbourhood stereotypes (racialized and Indigenous people often have to “prove” their places are worthy of basic humanity), but rather to pose suggestions for respectful ways that we (planner, urbanist, city builder, geographer, community worker, artist, journalist, pedestrian, citizen, etc.,) can engage with difference in a city. I seek to highlight the importance of self-reflection and questions of privilege in relation to difference, as well as to examine possible classist and racist undertones when interacting with new spaces.
The Importance of Language
We should be careful of the language we use when we are visiting different neighbourhoods, especially in low-income and/or racialized spaces. We are not "exploring" or "discovering" these neighbourhoods -- these places have always existed, even prior to our arrival. This language carries uncomfortable colonial undertones that exoticizes and "others" everyone who lives in that space. Often, our discomfort with place comes when we can’t stereotype, typify, or categorize it easily. When we can’t easily associate a place with an image or an idea (usually derogatory), it makes us uneasy because we can’t claim knowledge of an unknown terrain. The stories we tell each other about places – especially in professional and privileged circles – have the potential to carry a lot of power, especially if the language we use is pejorative or carries colonialist undertones. When describing a place, we should remind ourselves of our sources: was knowledge gained through word-of-mouth from a friend; a problematic news story? Was it based on that one time we passed through in a car and glanced out the window? When we give importance or power to these stories, we are doing those places and the people who live there a disservice. Of course, places have infinite narratives and are more complicated than a single set of adjectives, a paragraph in a report, or a 200-word news story. I write this piece from Toronto, a city that is undeniably divided by class and race, especially evident in our neighbourhoods. In our city, we may already have preconceived ideas of what a space might look like based on local narratives – for example, to supplement our knowledge of the city, we may turn to publications like BlogTO as a neighbourhood guide, past news articles, popular culture, or simply speaking with friends or colleagues. We know, for example, that “Malvern” (largely racialized, lower income) will illicit different images than “Rosedale” (largely white, affluent).
Voyeurism & Respectful Social Media Practice
While it is natural to want to document experiences in a different part of the city, we should remember to ask ourselves: what does our presence mean in this space? Part of this work is to be mindful of our gaze when we are taking photos, captioning them for social media and using hashtags. For example, Scarborough is a stigmatized suburb in the east-end of Toronto and to use a hashtag like #scarberia, #sketchtown or #middleofnowhere when we are in a suburban area carries negative connotations relating to distance from the center or “importance” (e.g., the further a place is from downtown, the more we use terms such as ‘nowhere’), and essentially designates that place as marginal. Writing and using positive captions and hashtags can be a deliberate tactic to dispel negative stereotypes about a stigmatized place, but may be read with colonial undertones if you are not from that place and if your language centers the act of discovery and exploration -- for example, #hiddengem or #discoverscarborough. While the intentions may be good, this kind of presentation on social media can perpetuate the idea that marginalized places do not exist or were not noteworthy prior to your arrival. In their article “Instagram abroad: performance, consumption and colonial narrative in tourism”, Sean Smith argues that Instagram is a form of travel writing that “provides a blueprint of the ideologies underpinning contemporary tourism” and creates a platform to perpetuate colonial-like motifs of “exotic” places (or marginal, racialized in the context of cities). Although social media is a widely accessible tool, it privileges those who have money to travel and it allows people from privileged positions to accrue social and professional capital -- that is, the stories they share are the ones that are likely to be widely seen, circulated and validated. Social media, such as Instagram, presents us with the opportunity to enact our gazes onto spaces and create narratives around places. When we insert ourselves into a place that isn’t aren’t ours -- where we carry more privilege than those who live in that place -- we introduce a power dynamic that should be sensitively considered and carefully treaded through.
Social media, of course, is a performance tool. We use it to share a curated version of our lives -- and this piece should not be read as being the “social media police.” However, my hope is that those of us who care deeply about places, people and equity can have open and hard conversations about how we present ourselves in relation to places.
It is important to be aware of how we are documenting our visit to different places. For example, many suburban areas in the Toronto area are visibly racialized – strip mall signage present different languages and services, places of worship dot industrial zones, people at a bus stop or at the mall may be predominantly non-white – so it may be tempting to take photos that depict these differences. Before we do so, we again should turn to self-reflection: How am I reading this space right now? Am I inadvertently exoticizing this place? Am I sharing this picture to gather social capital points on social media? If you have lived experience in this place (or a similar place), how are you trying to present it to people who may come from more privileged backgrounds? What story are you trying to tell?
In 2017, a CityLab article discussed an app called Hoodmaps that features crowdsourced, colour-coded maps of cities to allow people to stereotype the kind of person they would encounter in different neighbourhoods – categories included hipsters, “normies”, tourists, university students, tourists. In the article, Martín Enchenique notes:
“The categories users can choose from are also quite limited, not to mention white-centric. The stereotypes speak mostly to how wealthier, white people might see a neighborhood—the ”hipster” label is especially common in lower-income and more diverse parts of cities, while “normies” is so vague that it’s nearly useless for understanding anything about an area. These broad strokes in particular brush over the varied realities within a city’s neighborhoods.”
Another place-centered app that has received criticism in the past few years is SketchFactor, a community-driven app that uses crowdsourcing and public data to depict where the “sketchy” parts of a city are. In effect, the app provided a platform for people to further stigmatize places through racist and classist characterizations.
Place & Judgment
It is difficult not to make snap value judgments based on what we see in a new neighbourhood. But it is important to remember that we do not experience that space on a daily basis. Instead of noting how a neighbourhood isn't "functional", take note of how residents make use of their surroundings and create a sense of community. For example, the historic design of the suburbs may be misaligned with the principles of “good urbanism” but when we vilify space/place, we are also passing judgment on the folks who live there, who often have to contend with the conditions with which they are presented. If a friend is offering to show you their neighbourhood, think of a way to show your appreciation. Perhaps you could share a meal with them, cite them in your work, or offer to show them your neighbourhood.
Place & Standpoint
Part of our job as a planner is to interpret space from an objective point-of-view. Often those without lived experiences of difference are asked to explain spatial difference. The idea of the privileged outsider parachuting into low income and/or racialized communities to take up space represents a kind of colonization and consumption of land. The perception of objectivity when it comes to judging place is tricky and does not fully tease out a standpoint or meaningfully grapple with questions of privilege. In planning work, for example, site visits are common and usually compliment desktop research about a place informed by other policy documents, City council minutes, other official reports, and sometimes media. Site visits put a “face” to the name – sometimes in parts of a city that are unfamiliar to the researcher.
Armed with a checklist of questions or a table to fill out, the researcher will scrutinize their surroundings – brand new to them – and evaluate a particular aspect of the place. How is it performing? What are the current conditions? Who is using these spaces? These observations will be included into their report, supporting a claim that the area may require something or does not require something. The problem with this type of approach is that it obscures the realities of that place that are not experienced by that observer. We need to acknowledge who we are when writing these places into existence in a report (or news story, essay, etc.). Before we spout our sources -- let’s ask ourselves: Who am I? What is my standpoint and how have I historically moved through spaces like the one I am writing about? What has my privilege afforded me? What perspective is this information coming from and what should we take with a grain of salt? Data is important, but it cannot tell the whole story or even a just story. When we write around agreed-upon credible data sources, acknowledge the gaps in that data – who may be missing in the methodology or the categorizations – it is our responsibility to write ethically, to acknowledge that this isn’t a complete picture and who is at a disadvantage here.
But acknowledging our standpoint, position and privilege is not enough. I think the next, and maybe most critical step, is to let go of the reins. What if we didn’t author that report? What if we didn’t insert ourselves as an expert into place that isn’t ours? In practice, this requires us to reframe what we mean by “expert opinion” and interrogate how traditional planning practice and processes have harmed marginalized communities: whose voices are louder in conversations about place and whose voices are prioritized and validated, due to profession or educational background? It is not enough to simply solicit the opinions and advice of people who live there and insert them as a footnote in our report, or to round out our recommendation. The conversation needs to shift to and be led by the people in those places -- to those who have lived experience and connection to their places and who are aware of the issues, gaps and opportunities.
As planners, we are well aware where there is stigma in the cities in which we work, we know the impact of negative connotations, we know the weight of being a “bad neighbourhood.” How can we mitigate harm? We should not be using local voices for our personal or professional gain. We should know the moments to step aside, and honour community memory, local stories, and not strive for an all-knowing and complete understanding of a place – this is impossible from a position of privilege. Knowledge of a place comes with connectedness and history.
Place & Stigma
It is important to stay attuned to which voices are telling stories about a place, and which ones are circulated, consumed and validated. Mass media plays a role in perpetuating certain images of places marked by difference (race, income): crime-ridden, in decline, violent, hopeless. Similarly, developers, large property owners, business owners and others in similar positions will have a particular interest in place that may not coincide with those actually living there. Just as negative stereotypes are damaging, an assertion of choice positive assets of a place can trigger erasure.
In her article “The Re-branding Project: The Genealogy of Creating a Neoliberal Jane and Finch” Suzanne Naraine, traces the re-branding project of Jane and Finch (a stigmatized, lower-income neighbourhood in Toronto) into “University Heights”, and documents the lack of community input and engagement. Ultimately, Narain argues, the re-branding would benefit those in power (politicians, developers), while attempting to dislocate local residents from their sense of place and rootedness in the Jane and Finch community.
The re-branding is a part of a larger threat of gentrification and displacement – Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) expansions completed near the community, a proposed LRT line through the intersection, proximity to York University – and developers are eyeing property and aging buildings in Jane and Finch. Narain notes: “The goal of the re-branding project is twofold: it attempts to create an image of a ‘safer’ Jane and Finch, one in which outsiders would feel safe travelling through; it is also trying to create a new type of inside by gentrifying the space and insisting that residents begin to take more responsibility for their individual circumstances and living conditions.”
The response to negative stereotypes of a place should not be to overwrite stigma in an attempt to erase local issues. Recognizing the realities of the social issues that exist in a place as a result of planning practice and historic marginalization is important. Planners often overlook how that place was designed, arranged, or harmed by their very practices and power structures, and how residents have long contended with the spatial inequities in their places and have developed tactics of survival and tactics to build community. We need to acknowledge the hardworking, racialized organizers and workers in these communities addressing systemic barriers and social equity.
The Dynamics of Displacement
Quite often, older neighbourhoods close to the inner core offer unique architecture and streetscapes that reveal layered histories. While it is okay to fawn over the beauty of these particular spaces, we should reflect on if and how gentrification has impacted the neighbourhood. There is almost always a story of violent displacement and removal of communities associated with that space. A practice known as “slumming” or “slum tourism” has a history that spans roughly 150 years and is generally defined as wealthy or otherwise privileged folks visiting poor urban areas in their leisure time. The “slum” is characterized as the “dark, unknown side of the city – areas that contain ‘the Other’” and “slumming” derives from the desire to experience and gawk at ‘the Other.’ The practice has origins in late nineteenth century US and UK. From the rapid growth of London, emerged a spatial divide between the rich and the poor, and so as London’s East End became more characterized by poverty, that space began to elicit fear in the wealthy Londoners. The East End represented a “loss of control” over the city and was seen as “chaotic and uncivilized.” Alongside this fear, however, also emerged this almost perverse intrigue of wealthy Londoners to confront the East End and see first-hand the living conditions through “slumming.”
There have been similar practices, such as organized tours of inner urban areas that have experienced trauma. In New Orleans, there have been tours that capitalized on disaster voyeurism (Hurricane Katrina), bringing bus loads of mostly white folks to literally stare at areas of the City that were most impacted by Katrina. This type of tour is patronizing and deeply disrespects the residents of the area, who are essentially being treated like objects. It got so bad that the City halted tour buses from entering certain parts of New Orleans. Can tours like this, of poor and traumatized neighbourhoods, ever be ethical if the proceeds are supporting local businesses, providing exposure to microscale economy and dispelling myths? I would argue that we can provide financial support in other ways without objectifying people. If we look closely, there are local organizers from these places who are supporting their people and do not need outsiders gawking, belittling or worse, telling them what’s best for them. We should do the research and provide financial support to those organizers.
Place is sacred. Places that are primarily used by Indigenous, racialized and/or lower income folks should be honoured and protected. Where do planners, urbanists, and geographers – in particular, those from privileged backgrounds -- fit in within all of this? I think we need to reconceptualize our relationship with land and planning practice. Developers capitalize on place – they see marginal communities, especially those in desired locations, as opportunities to make a profit. We know this instigates gentrification and displacement, and perpetuates uneven power dynamics. Planners, urbanists and geographers in privileged positions can fetishize place in a similar way. Many of us enter these fields because we care about place but can also can be guilty of approaching our practice with god-like omniscience. This too creates a power dynamic that favours those who are in professions that manage land.
Until we can completely overhaul the capitalist relationship with land, the best we can do is to continue to interrogate the position of the planner. Can we allow ourselves to get uncomfortable with our multiple privileges? Why did we become a planner (geographer, urbanist, etc.)? What does our professional status mean to us? We also need to know when to stop talking and step aside. Community leaders, activists, and organizations ought to be at the forefront; these are not merely engagement stakeholders but people who should be leading the process without our gaze. The weight, the power, the word and the vision of the planner (and other similar professionals) should be shifted to those of Indigenous, Black and people of colour in their own communities.
Sunjay Mathuria is a city planner living in Tkaranto/Toronto. He is interested in spatial theory and exploring the intersections of race, class, space and equitable planning practice. Sunjay has a Master of Planning from Ryerson University, and a Bachelor of Journalism and English from the University of King's College.