Social Deprivation and Ethnic Neighbourhoods

Although ethnic enclaves and neighbourhoods are generally viable communities of middle-class flavour, they can have clusters of poor households struggling to stay afloat. Such clusters, if large enough, turn into socially deprived areas where unemployment, crime, poor schools, and split families abound. In the United States, there are historical ghettos and minority neighbourhoods sustained by discrimination and public neglect. In Canadian cities, poor neighbourhoods are increasingly inhabited by immigrants and tend to consist of clusters of rental housing in inner suburbs.55 Cultural differences are not the primary source of their deprivations, though race has some bearing on their long neglect. For urban planning, they present the age-old challenges of socio-spatial inequality compounded by racial and cultural differences.

Urban planning has emphasized improvements in physical conditions, infrastructure, and services to improve the living conditions in deprived neighbourhoods and historic ghettos. It has tried large-scale clearance and redevelopment of blighted neighbourhoods, initiated housing and infrastructure projects, and promoted economic development and community-services programs. It has experimented with various organizational models for the planning and implementation of slum improvement programs. They have ranged from public-sponsored mega-projects, to public-private consortiums and community-managed development and delivery of services.

These tools and lessons continue to be a part of urban planning's repertoire for slum improvement and overcoming social deprivation. One lesson that came out of the urban renewal programs of the 1960s and 1970s is that physical rebuilding alone is not enough for overcoming slum conditions. There have to be simultaneous efforts for social reconstruction and empowering people through the provision of social services and community organization. The physical and social-development programs have to be interlinked to unfold a process of comprehensive community renewal. Another lesson from the earlier programs is that the large-scale clearance of slums tears apart viable communities and displaces long-settled residents, and so has to be avoided. Physical blight is not to be treated by extensive surgery.

Yet neighbourhood improvements and gentrification in centrally located areas raise rents and lead to the gradual displacement of the poor. This is the policy dilemma of revitalizing deprived neighbourhoods: such programs improve living conditions but drive out poor residents. In market developments, the gentrification of neighbourhoods also leads to similar results.

From the perspective of responding to ethno-racial diversity, revitalizing programs are guided by the needs of the local population mix. If there are sizeable ethnic groups, provision is made to accommodate their cultural/religious needs, for instance by providing spaces for places of worship and offering culturally appropriate programs in community centres and facilities.

Another new strategy is to promote the mixing of low- and middle- income households and de-concentration of disadvantaged families living in poor neighbourhoods. Rent subsidies, housing vouchers, or homeownership tax credits are the tools used to enable poor families to access housing in middle-income areas, as is promoting infill developments of market housing and businesses to broaden the economic base of deprived neighbourhoods. The idea is to reduce the mutually reinforcing effects of concentrated poverty. This strategy evolved in the 1980s and 1990s, and continues to be applied in the 2000s. Some current examples of deprived-neighbourhood revitalization programs testify to their popularity as tools.

Regent Park, Toronto, is an example of the current revitalization strategies for deprived neighbourhoods largely inhabited by minorities and immigrants. It combines the efforts of public, private, and neighbourhood organizations. On a 70-acre site near the city's downtown that had 2083 public housing units exclusively, an imaginative strategy has been devised to rebuild in phases the entire community at higher density with mixed housing of both rent-geared-to-income and market-value types, complemented by commercial development and social reorganization.56 By increasing density, an additional 3000 housing units will be built at market prices. Their revenue will fund the replacement of public housing for the resettling of displaced tenants. There will be new businesses and an aquatic centre as well as community-managed facilities for recreation and education. The first phase of the project is near completion. This example illustrates the strategy of mixing various social classes and diluting the concentration of socially disadvantaged families, all done with the participation of private developers and the local community, without net cost to the city. This approach of revitalizing ghettos and slums is spreading. Yet Regent Park's strategy cannot work everywhere. It is a publically owned site which is close to the downtown and in high demand. It is premised on generating funds from development that will help reinstall displaced residents in subsidized houses.

In the United States, private and community actors often are the primary driving forces. Cities and states help unlock their energies and resources. This is what has happened in Harlem, the mecca of Black community life in New York. It began to be gentrified in the 1990s, bringing in middle-class households, artists, and investors. That process itself was triggered by city and state investments in the redevelopment of 125th Street, the business and cultural hub of Harlem. The city has rezoned the area, increasing density and promoting the development of cultural and entertainment facilities. Major chain stores have opened and commercial activity is flourishing in Harlem. Former president Clinton maintains an office in the state tower on the street. Columbia University has assembled land for its expansion in West Harlem. Undoubtedly, these developments are not without controversy. There are local groups who see in these developments a threat to Blacks' control of their neighbourhood.57 In response to the community opposition, the plan includes a $20-million affordable housing fund, generous relocation assistance for residents, two parks, and promises of hiring locals.58 From the planning perspective, the point is that the development of mixed housing and mainstream businesses are the tools currently used to diversify the social and economic base of deprived ethno-racial communities.

New York and Toronto have used density bonuses to developers in return for their setting aside a quota of affordable units in their rental buildings. This policy helps mix social classes and ethno-racial groups.

Yet one need not be a Pollyanna about the promise of such strategies. The displacement and squeezing of minorities, particularly Blacks and Latinos in US cities and poor immigrants in Canada, continues to be the fallout from the public and private redevelopment of deprived neighbourhoods. Redevelopment occurs in spoonfuls rather than in the massive doses of the urban renewal programs.

Community-based social development in poor neighbourhoods is another strategy commonly used in deprived neighbourhoods and areas of ethno-racial concentrations. Toronto has a network of multiservice neighbourhood centres in Malvern, Thorncliffe, Fairlawn, Davenport, and other poor neighbourhoods of immigrants. These centres offer youth counselling, job search assistance, English language classes, seniors' clubs, settlement assistance, after-school programs, and so on. Leonie Sandercock refers to such centres as places for building intercultural communities, "where strangers become neighbours," and cites numerous examples from Europe, Australia, and Canada, including the well-publicized example of Vancouver's Collingwood Neighbourhood Centre.59 The United States has a long history of community organization, including the settlement houses of the 1920s and 1930s, helping immigrants' resettlement. Altogether, the strategies for revitalization of deprived neighbourhoods are evolving with the experimentation of strategies and in response to changing political ideologies and economic conditions.

The limitations of public funds and private resources, exacerbated by years of budgetary cuts, also limit the effectiveness of such strategies.

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