Cultural Divergences and Constructing an Intercultural Common Ground

A city has a thick weave of inter-linked land uses and interlocked activities, which mutually affect each other, both positively and negatively. The introduction of cultural differences into this mix injects divergences of social values and beliefs, precipitating potential land-use conflicts among neighbours. This is the arena of what Ash Amin calls "the daily negotiations of ethnic differences" and the "politics of micro-publics of social contact and encounters."44 Frequently, these intercultural differences in the use of specific sites and neighbourly disagreements about particular activities end up at the door of urban planning. It addresses such competing interests by injecting public-interest criteria into negotiations. This is illustrated by the following examples.

The Chinese consider the presence of dead bodies near their homes and businesses to be a source of bad spirits. They do not want to live and work near funeral homes. Yet funeral homes historically are a low-impact (for parking, access, etc.) land use and are conventionally allowed in commercial zones. A number of proposals to build funeral homes in the suburbs of Toronto have run into strong opposition from the nearby Chinese residents. Urban planners tried to mediate the disputes, but found that existing zoning regulations allowed funeral homes as a right. Eventually, the zoning disputes ended up before the provincial appeal board, which invariably decided to uphold the zoning permission, explicitly maintaining that land use decisions cannot be based on "subjective" negative effects, and the compatibility of land uses must be decided on their physical and infrastructural impacts.45 The planning system framed the decision within the parameters of its domain and authority.

Another common case of cultural clash is when mega-homes are built in established neighbourhoods of vintage houses and leafy lots. And if these mega-homes bring new ethnic groups, the design dispute can turns into a racial and ethnic confrontation. Variously called monster or mega-homes in Canada and McMansions in the United States, they often are permissible within the existing zoning envelope, except that the existing homes were not built to the maximum of the permissible volume. Hong Kong Chinese moving into the Kerrisdale and South Shaughnessy neighbourhoods of Vancouver ignited the resident English Canadians' protests. The City of Vancouver's planning department and the city council intervened and mediated between the two communities, coming up with new design guidelines (1993) requiring that new homes have regard for the streetscape and architectural compatibility.46 Los Angeles's McMansions, often associated with rich Iranians, were regulated through special city ordinances in 2008 and 2010 requiring that they be consistent with the lot size, character of the neighbourhood, and steepness of slope.47

The neighbouring towns of Markham and Aurora in the Toronto area were petitioned by numerous Chinese homeowners for a change of their house numbers that had the digit four (4). Even some Anglo- Canadians wanted a change of house number, as they could not sell their homes in the neighbourhood evolving into a Chinese enclave. The digit 4 has the ring of the Chinese word for death and hence is considered unlucky. House numbers have implications for the sequencing of addresses for property identification, ease of deliveries, as well as identification by emergency services. Markham firmly refused to change house numbers, but Aurora passed a policy to allow a change if it does not disrupt sequencing, namely, if a house lot is on the corner and not in the middle of a block.48

Many such examples can be cited, but the point being argued is that highly localized and small-scale issues of land use and services are invested with cultural symbolism and values. Urban planning is called to negotiate this micro-politics of intercultural neighbourliness.

Lest this narrative give the impression that there is a veritable cultural war in multicultural cities, it should be said that it is tilted towards highlighting cultural differences as they play out in the competition for neighbourhood change and local development. A vast majority of people live harmoniously among others of different race, ethnicity, and beliefs, accommodating each other's needs and facilities.

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