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Figure 1: Khalil, a 25 year-old South Parkdale resident, locates his daily social experiences as part of a cognitive mapping exercise. Photo credit: Emma Clayton Jones.

On November 26, Toronto’s South Parkdale neighbourhood lost a McDonald’s. It only took a few minutes for a crane to uproot the golden arches that brought 24-hour light to the southwest corner of King and Dufferin for years. Khalil couldn’t believe it. For the 25 year-old, who has lived in South Parkdale for his entire life, McDonald’s felt like home. “Everybody has been there,” Khalil said. “So much laughter, so many negative times, so many fun times. I feel like it's more than just McDonald's.” The site will soon hold XO Condos, a controversial development containing 300 residential units and upscale retail. XO is just the latest of a wave of residential and commercial investments to hit the neighbourhood. Amidst rapid gentrification, South Parkdale remains home to residents with mental health and addiction experiences, refugees and recent immigrants: 90% of South Parkdale residents are renters, and 34% live in poverty.

Figure 2: Site of the former McDonald’s at King & Dufferin

Khalil lives in subsidized—or Rent-Geared-to-Income (RGI)—housing with his family, so he is not concerned that the ongoing gentrification will price them out of their homes. But for Khalil and his closest people, the loss of McDonald’s threatens their ability to feel at home in the neighbourhood. “It’s sad to see that it moved because when you go in there, you get the feeling like ‘this is like home.’ Usually, when things are there for a long time, they’re like home. These are the places that bring people joy. When you take away things like that, it's like ‘What's my joy now?’ What's the alternative?” In his “Missing Marcuse” article, Tom Slater highlighted how studies of gentrification-induced displacement in the early 2000s—which tended to minimize displacement effects—were missing Peter Marcuse’s conceptualizations of displacement. This essay discusses how we can add and expand on Marcuse’s theorizations to strengthen equitable development approaches by developing alternatives that address the indirect displacement experienced and expressed by Khalil to protect the ‘places that bring people joy’.

Equitable planning initiatives, such as ‘development without displacement’, tend to focus on mitigating direct displacement and often overlook indirect forms of displacement. This shortcoming in many equitable development approaches represents an under-theorization of displacement processes.

Some scholars—such as Mark Davidson—argue that displacement processes are still not well understood. He notes that common conceptualizations of displacement understand it as forced relocation or physical dislocation, for example due to sub-standard maintenance or rising rents. However, Davidson argues that reducing displacement to a simple spatial moment in time strips out the social relations that produce that space. Peter Marcuse’s definitional framework of displacement goes beyond spatial understandings to also include indirect forms, such as displacement pressure. So, even if lower-income residents manage to ‘stay put’ in gentrifying areas, they may still experience displacement pressure. This occurs when the stores and restaurants they once frequented slowly disappear or change to cater to the tastes of more affluent newcomers. For example, the local affordable coffee place–where residents would gather and socialize–becomes a Starbucks or another specialty coffee shop selling organic beans, or the local diner becomes a fashionable vegan restaurant selling craft beers and boutique wines.

Davidson builds on Marcuse’s framework by reasserting the importance of place in a way that “emphasizes the lived experience of space”. Other scholars have also expanded upon Marcuse’s typology with additional forms such as cultural and political displacement. For example, Caitlin Cahill defines cultural displacement as occurring when a neighborhood is changed to such a degree that the social norms and values of newcomers take precedence over the tastes of existing households in such a way that older less affluent residents may no longer identify with their neighbourhood. Cultural displacement then is experienced as a form of neighborhood effacement as the physical signs and cultural symbols of a community are erased (e.g. a local community center is sold for private development or murals commemorating Puerto Rican and Black history are removed). All of these experiences of indirect displacement can lead to a loss of sense of place, as long-time residents no longer feel that they belong in their own neighborhood.

The contentious public debate around gentrification often focuses on whether the process is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. However, the more important question is not one of simplistic value judgement; it is a question of ‘who benefits?’, which should be a central concern for planners. Without some kind of planning intervention, disadvantaged groups tend not to reap the benefits of gentrification; instead, they tend to bear the brunt of the negative impacts—such as rising rents, increased housing cost burdens, and direct displacement, which contributes to growing socio-spatial inequality and polarization. Of equal importance is the question of ‘where do you feel most at home in the community?’ This question can serve to re-frame community engagement, allowing both planners and residents to perceive the spatial components of social connection and care through the identification of sites that feel ‘like home’ and ‘bring people joy’, and as a result, to operationalize alternatives to the loss of these sites. In the words of Khalil: “The alternative is [...] having the community involved in the decision-making before you're going to make any decision. Obviously, I know Parkdale doesn't own the McDonald's, but when it comes to major changes, I think people from the community should be at the table.”

Khalil’s comments demonstrate that indirect displacement holds serious implications for equitable planning initiatives, and they raise important issues for planners working to create a more socially cohesive and just city. Planning is not just about land use; it is also about fostering a sense of belonging. As redevelopment and neighborhood upgrading occur, the inclusion of marginalized voices is important in addressing racial and income divisions as well as social exclusion. By documenting the lived experiences of tenants living in a gentrifying neighborhood, we can obtain a better understanding of tenant perspectives, which can help inform more effective social planning interventions that mitigate the impacts of gentrification. In so doing, we can design and help retain more affordable spaces (e.g. grocery stores) and inclusive sites that encourage and preserve a sense of belonging in addition to facilitating interaction and mutual learning between different groups. To achieve this, one suggestion that a community worker had in Detroit was to create a tenant advisory board that would liaise with relevant city departments and provide valuable input regarding tenants’ everyday experiences and needs as they inhabit a rapidly gentrifying downtown.

Figure 3: Map of Parkdale, Toronto. Map sketched by Emma Clayton Jones

In Toronto, Khalil’s experience was part of a master’s paper exploring the complex ties between gentrification and social relationships for residents of rooming houses, subsidized apartments, market rate rental apartments, and owner-occupied houses on Cowan Avenue and Dunn Avenue, two gentrifying streets in South Parkdale. Using the tool of cognitive mapping, one of the co-authors, Emma Clayton Jones, worked with participants to geolocate their daily experiences in the neighbourhood, focusing on spaces where they feel a sense of belonging, social connection and care. She paired the mapping exercise with a series of open questions, asking participants what changes they have noticed in Parkdale, how they view and value their local social networks, whether they hope to stay in the neighbourhood, and what it means—and what it takes—to feel truly at home in the community. What has come from this process is a collection of personal stories, each painting a different picture of the changing neighbourhood. The research does not present one consistent narrative. It does, however, surface an important thread: while many participants describe Parkdale as unified and socially cohesive, Clayton Jones’ research suggests perceptual divisions along income lines. All participants expressed value in social relationships that are rooted in place. Higher-income participants perceived local relationships as pleasant, but for the most part, non-essential; while lower-income participants described the ability to form relationships with other neighbours as a means of survival. They expressed that care-based relationships with neighbours create essential safety nets and sources of information about the services and resources they need to survive. Resources such as: informal systems of childcare, tips about healthcare and legal aid, resistance to social isolation, sharing money or food in times of emergency, and information about gentrification and potential displacement. “I feel like it's a support team,” one resident shared about her all-female neighbourhood ‘crew’. “Also, financial support or physical support, you know what I mean? I remember one time I twist my ankle, and I remember Cheryl and Sonia was literally lifting me to put me in my son’s car to take me to the hospital.”

And like Khalil, lower-income residents located these crucial relationships in sites outside the home, in spaces including McDonald’s, Coffee Time, the public library and public park. They perceived these sites, and their networks more broadly, as under threat—threat of disappearing (as both McDonald’s and Coffee Time recently have) or shifting to serve the neighbourhood’s more affluent newcomers.

Equitable development approaches typically work to prevent direct displacement, and in cases where relocation is unavoidable, fair monetary compensation for tenants is viewed as an important part of an equitable policy. However, this view conceives of housing merely as a commodity or as a place of shelter so compensation can be offered as a fair exchange for the loss of shelter. This conceptualization does not consider the consequent loss of community and social networks of support that have been built up over years, sometimes decades. It does not take into account the social relations that produced and were produced by that space and ignores the sites of belonging that contribute to a strong sense of community. Locating the experiences and relationships of connection and care on a map reveals why understanding the emotional and social attachments to place ought to be an important consideration for planners.

Value capture tools, such as inclusionary zoning, which are often used to enable more equitable development, tend to also facilitate luxury residential development, as Fei Li notes in her article on inclusionary housing in London. She illustrates that affordable units are typically embedded in private market, often luxury condo developments, and the level of affordability tends not to be accessible to those households most in need. Samuel Stein, in his article on market-driven planning in New York City, also illustrates how massive upzonings and luxury residential developments, which were heralded as the solution to the affordable housing crisis, helped to create new affordable units but also resulted in “dramatic increases in luxury apartments” and rising rents.

This is not to say that inclusionary housing is not a useful tool when designed properly, but it can also serve to dilute political resistance to gentrification (see Filip Stabrowski’s work), as the promise of some additional affordable housing often forestalls opposition. The key questions, though, are: how affordable are the units and for how long? In the end, as Humphrey Carver noted decades ago, those making very low incomes generate a social need for housing but not market demand. Fei Li’s and Samuel Stein’s work illustrates that housing policies are now embedded in market logics and tend not to help those who demonstrate a social need for housing. While developers reap substantial profits and the city’s brand and status gain in prestige, what do low-income and disadvantaged residents gain in return for significant tax incentives to facilitate market-rate developments?

One way planners can help ensure that low-income households benefit from growth-related initiatives and help mitigate indirect displacement is to leverage new development and capture benefits to protect and enhance these spaces of belonging through the use of planning tools, such as community benefits agreements (CBA). Toronto’s Parkdale People’s Economy (PPE) has worked with community members to create a framework for community benefits, one of a number of collaborative projects to ensure that the neighbourhood’s diverse members can shape decisions about the place they call home. The People’s Economy—a network of over 30 community-based organizations and hundreds of community residents—infuses this ethos into a number of projects, including a participatory community planning process, a community land trust model, a local currency program, and a community-based food distribution and procurement initiative. In addition to advocating for measures to prevent the direct displacement of low-income residents—including decent work, shared wealth, and equitable development—PPE is piloting community-led initiatives to tackle indirect displacement. In 2018, the group partnered with The Public Studio to launch the Parkdale Leadership Training Series, a paid program for racialized women, trans, and nonbinary residents to build capacity around community building and neighbourhood resilience. This program led to the creation of the Parkdale Women’s Leadership Group, which has launched the Parkdale Wellness Drop-In, a peer-directed mental health support program for Parkdale residents. Edward Soja once argued that there is a dialectical relationship between social processes and the built landscape. He wrote that “not only does the social comprise the spatial, it is also comprised by it”. In other words, social processes are shaping spatiality at the same time spatiality is shaping social processes. Thus, space is not just a neutral container or background, but the geographies in which we live are socially produced and can be enabling or oppressive, just or unjust. And if unjust space is socially produced then that space can be remade into a just space through human agency—this is where we believe that planning and planners can play an important role.

Planners have been complicit in helping to facilitate gentrification in mundane, everyday ways, such as recommending the approval of property tax abatements. However, given the central role of planners in shaping development patterns and socio-spatial landscapes, we are also uniquely positioned to address this problem. This places a burden on planners to act with more agency than they perhaps possess within a capitalist urban development system. Though, as Norman Krumholz once said, planners are not powerless to act and “even when severely constrained by relations of power, the planning questions remain: What can and should be done?” How will this affect our disadvantaged residents? As this essay has argued, planners should also ask: how will redevelopment change the neighborhood context in terms of retail and services composition and what are potential conflicts over the use of public space? Where and what is home for low-income residents? By asking these simple questions, progressive planners can work to recommend and implement alternatives wherever possible, even if it is only in small incremental ways that will help advance equitable development and achieve social justice.

Julie Mah recently received a Ph.D. in Planning from the University of Toronto. Her research examines the impacts of gentrification on the housing affordability landscape and explores tenant experiences with direct and indirect displacement.

Emma Clayton Jones is a Toronto-based settler, currently living in South Parkdale. She is a Master's of Urban Planning candidate at the University of Toronto, specializing in social planning and policy, and a multimedia journalist with national bylines. She is passionate about co-creating equitable communities and cities. Twitter: @emma_cjones



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