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Why immigrants can help urban planning

By Rebecca Butler
December 2, 2008

Politically, it is very difficult for planners to criticize the public participation process. The gradual shift from planners as experts in the 1950s, to a more inclusive planning process is entangled with our notions of democracy. Public participation, however, can be frustrating and can seem ineffective, even pointless. Often the same individuals and groups attend participation sessions and use them to further their own agendas. Most often these are people with both time, resources and a knowledge of the process and how they can affect the changes they want. Planners, however, have an interest in ensuring the community is truly represented. Not only for democratic reasons but also because minority groups may offer fresh perspective and innovative ideas. It is, therefore, crucial that planners and local governments reach out to these groups and find ways to ensure that they have equal access to the policy making and planning process.

Robert Putnam’s 2001 study E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century (published 2007) disturbingly found that social capital decreases as a result of diversity. Putnam makes the case, however, that while diversity can create stress, it is this tension that gives birth to new ideas and keeps our communities cutting edge and forward looking. It is becoming increasingly clear that many of the planning decisions we have made in the West have been environmentally and socially disastrous. Many academics agree that as the Age of Oil begins its painful death, planners have to act quickly to mitigate fifty years of planning cities around the automobile. Furthermore, as Putnam and many other theorists have noted, our community bonds and social interactions are in need of revival. Some blame television and the internet, while other blame suburbs and cars. Either way, many people find themselves hunkered down . The solutions to these problems are not clear or simple, but perhaps Putnam is right that the collision of cultures can point us toward a bright future. The presence of immigrants in our communities then, is a wonderful opportunity.

There are major political and social problems in the developing world, however necessity is the mother of invention. In places where there is less access to economic resources, to natural resources and to space people have had to come up with innovative planning ideas. While some of these may have cultural or economic justifications in their country of origin, when transferred they could have positive environmental and social consequences.

One example of this is the effect that Italian and Portuguese immigrants had on inner city Toronto in the 1960s and 70s. As was the trend of the time downtown Toronto was emptying out as Canadians migrated to the suburbs. Southern European immigrants, however, favoured the downtown because it offered the community interaction to which they were accustomed. Many pooled resources and bought devalued homes in newly established slums. Owning a house gave the new immigrants what they saw as a safe investment and acted as a symbolic home-making gesture in their new country. The effect this trend had on the city of Toronto was enormous. These immigrants revitalized areas slated for destruction and kept downtown Toronto alive. Today Torontonians can thank immigrants for an eclectic downtown with healthy social capital and vibrant communities.

The new world is built on Immigrants, and yet we often ask how we can integrate or even assimilate immigrants so that they can better ‘fit in’. Perhaps it is time to start asking a different question. How can we learn from immigrants and integrate their needs and ideas into our communities? This starts with facilitating their participation in the planning process. If we listen to their ideas we can not only make our cities more comfortable places for immigrants to live, but we might just find some innovative solutions to the difficult problems we face, and make our cities and towns better places for everyone to live.