Revitalizing Tired Terms: A Language of Anit-Gentrification Planning

Revitalizing Tired Terms: A Language of Anit-Gentrification Planning

Revitalization. Inclusion. Social Mix. Diversity. Vibrancy. This is the jargon of contemporary urban planning. While this kind of language is full of potential and promise, more often than not, these words serve simply as euphemisms for gentrification—for the displacement of socially and economically vulnerable groups.



We are a team of critical planners in Toronto who were charged with the task of developing a revitalization plan for one of downtown Toronto’s last non-gentrified neighborhoods. We were approached by a neighborhood organization comprising two local Business Improvement Areas (‘BIAs’—also called Business Improvement Districts in some cities) concerned about an active drug and sex trade, vacant commercial properties, a dearth of high-end stores and services, and their perception that the streets were under-populated and dangerous. These folks described their hope that, by improving the image of the street and the attractiveness of local stores, residents of the neighborhood (and Toronto in general) would begin to feel like the street had something important to offer them and begin to use it more frequently. As per the familiar logic of Jane Jacobs, this increase in pedestrian traffic would bring more ‘eyes on the street’, increasing safety, creating a more pleasant social environment, and improving business prospects. This would then further increase street traffic creating a virtuous cycle of growth and development.


The BIA model—now a global movement—was developed in Toronto in 1970. In response to the rise of the suburban shopping mall and the collapse of many neighborhood shopping districts, the City created legislation allowing the formation of local business associations supported by levies paid by each business on the street. In this way business owners in a defined geographic area could collectively contribute to the maintenance, development and marketing of their local commercial district. 


The City of Toronto is now home to 68 BIAs. Not surprisingly, despite their humble origins, these public-private partnerships have joined the ranks of popular neoliberal urban governance tools and have become powerful agents of commercial gentrification in and of themselves. “BIAs Welcome Visitors to Toronto,” reads the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas website. The raison d’être of these bodies tends to be more about revalorizing city centers with the aim of improving the business climate than about improving local livelihoods. Such was the landscape in which we set out to advise this local organization on how they could ‘revitalize’ their neighborhood’s main drag. 


Revitalization. This slippery concept tends to invoke unsettling images of market-driven ‘improvement’—of out with the old, in with the new (stores, housing, people). With respect for the abundance of local safety concerns—for we are committed to the principle that everyone has the right to feel socially and personally safe in her neighborhood—we had to find a way of moving beyond a discourse that equates safety with polarizing models of unfettered economic development. How could we challenge the unequal nature of mainstream urban revitalization and creatively re-imagine revitalization as a way to improve the livelihoods of all people in the community? 


There is something clearly contradictory about promoting economic upgrading while encouraging inclusivity. But this very contradiction would become our strategy for diverting what could have been a conventional economic development plan toward anti-gentrification ends. As people recounted their visions of a ‘revitalized’ neighborhood that remained ‘mixed’, ‘inclusive’, ‘vibrant’, we learned to capitalize on the ambiguity of this language. While these pop-planning terms are generally associated with the production of quaint middle-class neighborhoods—inclusive to those rich in cultural capital, but unlikely to welcome social housing, social services, or the poor—we made it our business to re-operationalize these important ideals—diversity, inclusion, vibrancy—in a way that gave them meaning. 


After several months of speaking with residents, shopkeepers, politicians, and local agencies, we presented the business associations with a very conventional looking document: a plan for local economic revitalization. Our recommendations suggested conventional neighborhood revitalization tools: improve the BIA’s structure, create a business recruitment office, create a neighborhood identity, develop an ethnic food market, and so on. 


The creative and radical part of our plan lay in the details. We used the familiarity of these ambiguous recommendations to get people on board; the politics lay in the recommendations’ subtle elements—in the strict sensitivity to how they were implemented. We cared less about the recommendations’ end products and more about the confrontations and conversations that would happen during their implementation. They were designed in a way that would have social services working with businesses working with immigrant women working with affordable housing residents. To this end, while our recommendations did outline concrete actions for increasing local safety, their primary value were as processes: as platforms for revealing structural barriers that hinder the participation of certain groups in safe and secure social arrangements and for challenging the unequal nature of conventional development and urban revitalization planning. The broad strokes of our recommendations were meant to feel familiar to business, but also contained nuanced procedural aspects that made explicit the importance of including all groups in the neighborhood, especially those that are currently marginalized.


When we presented the final plan at a community meeting with business-owners, social service representatives, and residents, our presentation of the recommendations quickly descended into a dynamic discussion about the meaning of gentrification and its likely impacts on this neighborhood. As the shelter representatives began to describe the violent impacts of policing and ‘safe streets’ policy on their clients, perspectives began flying from the various interests in the room, and someone asked “what is gentrification, anyway?” Our little neighborhood planning project managed to open these questions and spark some critical exchanges; this alone left us with a sense of success.


The goal of our project had been to trigger a process of engaging the gentrification question. At the least, we wanted to put in place an ongoing awareness of the issues. Ideally, we wanted to spark sensitivity about the decision-making processes that continue to happen in the neighborhood: we wanted to build a critical attention to how action is taken and to who gets to be there.


We were only able to do this by engaging a group we often overlook: the business community. While BIAs have been agents of gentrification in Toronto and elsewhere, they do represent well-resourced organized groups of local actors. We often overlook the possibility of tackling gentrification through the commercial realm, by engaging with communities whose work, services, and social spaces are threatened by commercial upgrading. BIAs actually have a hand in facilitating, opposing, or redirecting neighborhood revitalization schemes. In working with the business community, we found political possibility lurking in unsuspecting places.


Those doing anti-gentrification work should not dismiss a strategy that works with organized business communities to broaden their local relationships and collectivize control of local development. It requires a lot of—often difficult—conversation and education, but opens doors to resources and real decision-making forums.


More generally, our story is an experiment in re-operationalizing important language. We tried to refuse the disarmament that comes when meaningful language is used to make empty promises by agents of gentrification. This work is relevant to both activists and planners who work at the urban level: by giving these words meaning and using them to make space for those who might otherwise be left out of the decision-making process, barriers to progressive action can be overcome.  


Of course, as much as anything, this type of project is a lesson in the limitations of tackling gentrification on the local scale. Ultimately, we know that most any ‘improvement’ that increases the quality of life in this neighborhood will contribute to the rise of residential and commercial property values that places many of today’s residents and shop owners at risk. When the problem is generated by the systems of urban development that are inherently unequal, the type of community-driven defensive outlined here has its limits: it runs out of power, resources, steam. This scale of response simply does not stand up to the scale of the problem.


But firmly reclaiming language that lets us talk about doing development differently is essential nonetheless. It gives us space to challenge the meaning of cities and neighborhoods: of what they are for, who gets to be there, and who decides how they will change. It gives us the freedom to imagine neighborhoods and cities as places for practicing alternatives and exposing stories of common challenges and visions—for operating culturally, socially, and economically, outside of the normal order of things.