Toronto is introducing ‘cultural districts,’ but who gets to determine the culture?

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The City of Toronto is trying something new with some of its neighborhoods – formalizing them into “cultural districts.”

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But for many urban planners the initiative begs an important question: Who gets to determine and legitimize a city’s culture?

The Cultural Districts program, first proposed as a response to ongoing calls to secure heritage designation and preserve Little Jamaica, was announced at a city economic development committee meeting in October.


In addition to Little Jamaica on Eglinton West, three other areas are being considered for the program: Church-Wellesley Village, Chinatown and Geary Avenue, an area once known as Toronto’s ugliest street, now Art. The center has turned into stores, breweries, restaurants. , fashion houses and music shops.

At the October meeting, the city’s policy development officer, Elena Byrd, said the Cultural Districts program is about examining how to celebrate and empower communities “beyond current policy tools.”

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“How can we protect regions from displacement through potential solutions such as community ownership?” asked Bird. “How do we avoid the loss of character and identity that provide a safe space and a sense of belonging to communities?”

Listen to Danica Samuel discuss ‘Cultural Districts’

Much of the specifics of the cultural districts’ program has yet to be determined, but the city said it would hold extensive public engagements throughout the winter and would be looking for places like San Francisco, Singapore and Boston to find out where What has been done. The research will determine the implementation plan, timelines, resources, governance and financial and community benefits.

But Jameela Mohamed, senior urban planner at Urban Strategies, points out that a cultural districts program should not be implemented from top to bottom – meaning this government cannot determine what is best for marginalized communities. Is.

“Who decides what he (designation) is eligible to receive, such as (what) culture is deemed worthy and benefits from the designation and (which culture) is not?” It is not clear what the conversation between the city and the residents looks like, Mohammed asked.

“This really should be a community-based initiative,” Mohamed explained, emphasizing that process development, application eligibility and definitions of a cultural district should be created with the cooperation of all community members.

“Particularly focusing on the needs of communities that are systematically marginalized – low-income, racial communities, indigenous populations,” she continued. “(We) should be thinking about how we can take advantage of this Cultural District designation to create a more livable, better, equitable city for all.”

When asked how the city would determine the cultural influence of a district – whether through the historical presence of a specific group or its current identity, the city said it was identifying cultural districts as “important areas of the municipality”. Businesses, non-profits and residents that (when) jointly uplift the cultural identity and cultural heritage of the neighborhood.”

In addition, Bird said at the city meeting that cultural districts would take existing business improvement areas a step further by “connecting businesses, but also with residents, and with the local community, with that kind of cultural community in the neighborhood.”

gleno Castanheira, General Manager Montreal Downtown, a non-profit organization made up of nearly 5,000 businesses in the city of Montreal, has previously spoken with Granthshala about how its city’s urban planning compares to Toronto.

Like Mohamed, Castanhera agrees that what determines culture may be a concern, but he also thinks that the concept of formalizing districts in general can be narrow-minded. .

While Castanheira supports the protection of cultural heritage in the neighborhood, he fears that formalizing a designation for the area through government policies may hinder the natural development of culture in a city.

“I think (districts) are mostly what you see in American cities, which is terrible,” Castanheira said.

He says that whether it’s art, finance, or entertainment, that kind of experience “has much more than a geographic element. It really needs to be organic and go everywhere.”

As for the formalization of cultural districts, Castanheira wonders what happens when neighborhoods full of ethnic heritage and culture develop organically – not through gentrification, but exclusively through migration.

He uses the example of New York’s old Chinatown in Manhattan and its modern Chinatown in Queens. He says the same thing about the community he grew up in Montreal – informally known as Little Portugal – where he says there is “a fraction” of the Portuguese community left.

“Little Portugal used to be Montreal’s Jewish Quarter, right. Have the Portuguese erased the history of the Jewish community in Montreal? No, they build on each other and it will continue to happen,” he said.

“What I’m finding is that the more restrictions you place around a certain area and identify with a certain cultural heritage, the more risk you are of driving it into a ghetto or isolating it from the rest of the city.” There’s a real risk. There’s a beauty to the way cities develop organically. And if it’s done well, it’s to ensure that those communities keep their power and power over the city itself. Keep the impact.”

Danica Samuel is a Toronto-based staff reporter for Starr. Reach him via email: or follow him on Twitter: @danicasamuel

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