Two lecturers from the School of Planning took the topic head-on in the latest installment of the Faculty of Environment seminar series, Oct. 27.
The first to tackle the question was Dr. Brian Doucet, a distinguished author and associate professor of the school of planning, whose research has centred mainly around gentrification and neighbourhood change.
Yet, as Doucet stood before the audience, he admitted, “the term ‘complete communities’ was a little bit of a new term to me…”
Having completed the entirety of his post-secondary education in the field of geography, Doucet does not have explicit experience in urban planning.
Doucet used the opportunity to discuss with the audience members his concept of the “urban renaissance,” by which the city has once more reclaimed a central and role in society. He found this to be true around the world.
“We’re in this era where we celebrate the city,” Doucet said, noting the example of Rotterdam, in which a festival is entirely dedicated to the celebration of city space, from reclaimed industrial spaces to creative hubs.
In addressing the question, Doucet brought forward the example of Detroit, which has gained huge momentum in recent years and been the recipient of international kudos for its growing reputation as a “comeback city.”
However, as Doucet pointed out, this narrative describes only five to 10 per cent of the city.
As a result, cities such as Detroit and Rotterdam, gentrification is celebrated for its effects on the overall area, which Doucet described in terms of a Field of Dreams-like “build it and they will come” mentality.
While not untrue, Doucet drew note to the fact that the application of this ideology by way of policy is fundamentally threatening to affordable housing, small businesses, and low-income areas under the guise of “rebalancing.”
“My idea of complete communities is oriented towards social aspect or that question of ‘who is the city for?’” Doucet said.
When cities gentrify to the point of exclusivity, he concluded, conversations and narratives surrounding gentrification — and thus, the cities which develop as a result thereof — risk becoming incomplete.
As the second speaker of the afternoon, Kevin Curtis, researcher, lecturer and former student of the Univerity of Waterloo had a different — and more domestic— take on matters.
In his portion of the lecture, Curtis addressed two small towns in Southern Ontario: Smithville of the Niagara region and Wasaga Beach in Simcoe County.
Each these locations, Curtis noted, are effected by the implementation of growth plans across Canada and represent the “two poles … of the kinds of dilemmas being faced when planning for small towns.”
According to Curtis, the task in Smithville is to ensure that the community remains complete with all its existing factors, whilst in Wasaga, the priority is to generate more widely varying factors to augment what is currently a single-faceted tourist town.
The challenge is that growth plans such as the kind being applied to these areas are as much a tool of economic development as they are a manner of planning, and so push the agenda of urbanization.
In order to develop as such and compete with other global cities, the government thus allocates grants to regions and counties to be used for infrastructure of various kinds.
“What you get is a focus on transit and urban growth centres, employment areas and office parks, things of that nature,” Curtis said when explaining the result of a community focuses solely on infrastructural projects.
Issues which these communities should instead focus upon include an aging population, an appropriate mix of jobs and services, transition of retail, transit options, and the like.
The dilemma herein becomes that these smaller communities are often on the outskirts of larger areas and are thus of lower priority on Federal agenda, despite their incredible growth rates.
In order to become or otherwise remain complete communities, these areas – and areas across Canada like it — require more complete planning efforts.
The solution? “Align actions with goals of the government,” Curtis said, who also noted the importance of service upgrades, affordable housing, and updated zoning.