Urban revitalization and health – more than words

by Rebecca Haber

Creating healthy neighbourhoods and healthy cities is a task often addressed by VanNHouse_0community groups, urban planners, governments, citizens, and researchers.  We often focus on actions we can take to improve physical environments and empower communities.  But what about the words we use to describe neighbourhood spaces and their residents?  How do words impact upon the way we think about and address issues of urban health?

My recently completed masters thesis on revitalization planning in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver, explored these questions. I scrutinized the language of urban planning documents describing efforts to revitalize the Downtown Eastside’s public spaces.  In doing so, I determined how these spaces were represented and whether or not they promoted a vision that is relevant to low-income residents, who make up the majority of the neighbourhood’s population.  I compared the language used in revitalization planning documents to that of low-income Downtown Eastside residents (in the form of interviews about what makes their neighbourhood a healthy or unhealthy place).

I came up with some interesting and important findings that highlight the need for sensitive planning in low-income neighbourhoods. My results show that while the planning texts presented revitalization outcomes as uniformly positive (such as economic revitalization, participation and programming in public spaces), resident interviews highlighted aspects that serve to marginalize individuals (e.g., displacing homeless people) or eliminate activities that currently fulfill everyday needs (e.g., buying goods from informal street vendors).  The planning documents tended to combine the goals of community health with that of increasing economic activity in the neighbourhood; however, the residents interviewed identified ways these two goals are incompatible.

One striking contrast I found between the planning documents and the descriptions put forth by local residents had to do with how diversity and difference were treated.  The planning documents used the word ‘diversity’ in a positive way to describe people in the Downtown Eastside.  But they tended not to describe who is included in this ‘diversity’.  The interviews with local residents provided a bit more nuance to the notion of diversity as it exists in the area and also gave some insight into why it should not be assumed to be unproblematic.  Residents described differences in power among low-income and middle class citizens of the city as well as the concerns of specific groups in the Downtown Eastside such as a lack of safe spaces for women in the area.  While diversity sounds like a good thing to have in a neighbourhood, when it does not acknowledge the power imbalances, inequality, and unique concerns that exist within it, low-income and otherwise vulnerable groups can be marginalized in revitalization planning.

My findings led me to consider how efforts to promote health equity can be integrated with urban planning.  If our concern is with equity, then where do urban revitalization planning practices stand in terms of how they contribute to a fairer distribution of healthy places to live?  Public health practitioners, urban planners, researchers, community groups and concerned citizens can be vocal in pointing out where urban planning promotes health for all and where it promotes health only for some.

If you’re interested in reading more about this, check out my thesis paper online.  And look out for a shorter article that I hope to develop and publish in the coming year.

Photo: Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, Vancouver