Image shows city graphic on white background in black box with text to the right that says: Balancing Act: Revitalization Without Gentrification

Let’s not love this place to death

By Shaun Tyakoff, instructor, Douglas College, Humanities and Social Sciences
and Peter Hall, instructor, Urban Studies, Simon Fraser University

As academics who live happily in New Westminster, we constantly marvel at our good fortune to live in a city that seems to offer so much to so many different people. It is a city of neighourhoods, with heritage areas that range from colonial estates to now-valuable worker’s bungalows. It has solid rental stock and much-needed social housing, alongside gleaming towers similar to Vancouver. Its schools are public and private, and social services range from employment agencies to yoga studios. Even its rapidly changing waterfront remains a mix of industrial, residential and commercial, and it includes public spaces, such as parks.

By moving here and gaining access to this community wealth – Peter in 2007, Shaun in 2018 – we hope that we’ve also added something to this rich milieu. But did we instead take something away from anyone? In a recent blog post, our colleague, Dr. Rini Sumartojo, asked the following challenging questions about the transformation of New Westminster: “Is it possible to prevent the displacing effects of gentrification that may accompany redevelopment? … And ultimately, what vision is the city crafting, and for whom?”

Did we price out someone who grew up here? Did we subtly change the mix of restaurants, shops or services in ways that others might not welcome? Are we supporting the valued local institutions – the festivals, libraries, small businesses, recreation facilities, waterfront industry and more? Or are we detracting from them because we don’t understand where they came from, and why some residents love them so dearly?

The train clattering, the noise on the Fraser River from the pile-driving machine on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning – these are all reminders that this is shared space and we are the newcomers. It is so tempting to see homeless people with shopping carts around the Salvation Army and Front Street as problems needing solutions. Even small fixes that would make the area just that little bit nicer for strolling and walking the dog in the early evening might inadvertently make those spaces less friendly to others.

The literature on gentrification is vast, and it is multiplying as we recognize new forms of gentrification, which depart from the original definition of gentrification as ‘the gentry’ – or people of high social class – moving into decaying neighbourhoods of single-family homes. These new forms include master-planned gentrification, artist-led gentrification, studentification, eco-gentrification, retail gentrification and more. We are also seeing progressive alternatives to these new forms of gentrification, such as the “just green enough” strategies identified by academics Winifred Curran and Trina Hamilton. These strategies are designed to meet the environmental clean-up and health concerns of local residents, without leading to their displacement.

Our interim conclusion is that to sustain this diverse and inclusive place, we have to do something that humans seem to find incredibly difficult: We have to recognise our own role in changing the city, and we have to keep a vision of the city beyond ourselves in mind at all times. Let’s not love this place to death.

Join the discussion about how to have urban change without displacement at the next Urban Challenges Forum – Balancing Act: Revitilization Without Gentrification, Oct. 17 at the New Westminster Campus in room 2201, 6:30-8pm.

This is a free event and open to the public.


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