Diagnosing the Sick City

by Jeff Masuda

sickcityResearchers, policymakers, and the media spend a great deal of time pontificating about “problems” in the inner city. No matter the city, there is often a similar story told of gang shootings, hotel stabbings, violent home invasions, frozen homeless ‘stiffs’, often along with calls for new police helicopters, more beat cops, or, as seen in recent headlines, bigger prisons. Few would disagree that the inner city is commonly viewed as a spectacle of urban decay with derelict buildings, run down parks, and refuse run rampant.

A more ignorant response would be to support recriminatory policies and turn a blind eye to the many law-abiding, hard working folks who choose, or have no choice but, to live within the inner city. But even progressive perspectives advocating for more funding, new programs, or perhaps more supportive public sympathies are sometimes naive about what it might take to “fix” our broken inner cities (see the image below for an illustrative example from a Globe and Mail series that ran just prior to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver).

Taking a different view, have you ever considered that the “problems” of the inner city are actually not “inner city problems” at all, but rather are symptoms of a sick city? While we certainly fret over the scrape on our knee when we fall from a bike, we obviously blame the careless or distracted rider, not the bleeding wound. In the same way, it might be more useful to consider the state of the inner city as symptomatic of a careless or distracted city – one that has permitted whole city problems to concentrate in those places where people are least able to afford the time, energy, or costs to fight for the public and private investments necessary to protect their families and for their communities to thrive.

To relocate the problem means to call into question the status quo that allows some communities to thrive while others decay. A good starting point would be to find out what inner city communities themselves see as the problems and solutions – because too often, no one bothers to ask them, even when designing programs and policies meant to help them.

time to fix itSo how did the city “fall off its bike”? This is exactly the question we had in mind when we approached residents of the inner city to ask them to participate in our recently completed SUCCEED research project. Between 2007 and 2010, teams of community researchers set out with cameras to document observable differences in the environmental quality between lower and higher income neighbourhoods and to discuss their own ideas as to what the problem of inner cities really was, and to offer solutions.

Our final report, “Where everyone is sort of “Me and Mine” to their impressions of the contrasts between more affluent areas of Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto and the inner city neighbourhoods in each. What they found might be surprising to some. It turns out that the symptoms of the sick city are actually to be found in all of its neighbourhoods. Just as the inner city suffers from underinvestment (resulting in crime and degrading infrastructure), inner city researchers felt that middle class neighbourhoods are suffering from a culture of individualism that has eroded a sense of community.

Symptoms included fenced yards separating atomized homes, ample but under-used green spaces devoid of community gardens and other forms of collective life, and pedestrians-enter-at-your-own-peril automobile strip malls. While certainly envious of the obvious cleanliness, spaciousness, and opportunities to be found, these individualized, consumer-oriented neighbourhoods were not what inner city researchers readily aspired toward.

So what, then, is their solution? The work is ongoing, but the findings tell us something about how urban problems – environmental health inequities – are really everyone’s problem, not just for those in the inner city. They tell us that the only way to solve our shared problem of inequity is to somehow see through the differences and to do something about the injustices that we find. They tell us that we, the middle class, can learn a thing or two about the sense of solidarity that is so apparent in the inner city – solidarity that, by the way, has been built on a foundation of social and economic exclusion permitted by our collective carelessness).

Such solidarity, the kind that can cut across socioeconomic and racial divisions, will be necessary if we are to build a shared community in which we can all benefit from a sustainable, crime free, fun and family-friendly city. Indeed, our inner city researchers have told us that they, and we, have the same “right to the city” where all citizens have equitable access to public investments, planning decisions, health resources, and lifestyle amenities no matter where one lives.

I invite you to read the report and comment below on your reactions as well as your own “solutions” to environmental health inequity in the city.

(photo credit: “Time to fix it” reproduced from The Globe and Mail ,February 13, 2009)