[Hpn] Facelift alone won't fix Regent Park problems

Graeme Bacque gbacque@colosseum.com
Thu, 17 Feb 2005 04:36:09 -0500


Feb. 17, 2005. 01:00 AM

Facelift alone won't fix Regent Park problems


Despite the much touted novelty of current redevelopment plans for the 
Regent Park public housing project, they are being driven by the same 
market-driven policy agenda, paternalist notions of the poor, and 
environmental determinism that motivated the urban renewal programs of 
the 1940s to 1960s.

Almost all commentary on the design of Regent Park highlights the 
blandness of the buildings and unwieldy layout of the project, the 
unsuitability of high-rises for children, the segregation of the 
development from the surrounding neighbourhood and the lack of private 
space within the project.

These factors are said to have led to crime, drugs and stigmatization. 
Critics conclude that only wholesale redevelopment of public housing  
physical redesign and mixing of poor tenants with the condominium class 
 will create safe and prosperous communities.

Such arguments repeat the unthinking environmental determinism of 
post-war planners and the state that are rightly criticized for ripping 
up families from their homes and relegating them to poorly conceived, 
undemocratic and underfunded public housing developments.

And, like the failed urban renewal policy of the 1940s-1960s, 
redevelopment plans effectively blame public housing tenants for their 
own misery and deflect attention away from the cruel lack of government 
funding of low-income housing.

Physical form and design does influence human life and behaviour. But it 
cannot be treated as an independent factor in social life.

Take the familiar arguments on the unsuitability of high-rise apartment 
buildings for children in public housing.

Few of these critics acknowledge that "apartment living" is a cultural 
preference shaped by urban historical traditions. It is not 
intrinsically "good" or "bad." New York City's public housing, for 
example, is rarely criticized for its extensive reliance on high-rises 
since apartment living is common among all classes in the city. Swanky 
condominiums for rich families are also never discussed in the same 
terms as the high-rises in Regent Park.

Residents in the former buildings have few worries about jobs, declining 
social services and non-existent childcare facilities.

It also stretches belief to argue that social problems such as crime and 
drugs can be solved by mere changes to the buildings and layout.

Design changes making it less easy to hide or escape from the police or 
integrate living with public spaces may enhance some tenants' sense of 
well- being. But it does nothing to deal with the root problems of 
economic despair, which fuel the drug trade and other security concerns.

In reality, the Regent Park redevelopment plans revolve around reforming 
the so-called underclass through building "proper communities."

Physical redesign and the social "mixing" of poor project dwellers and 
middle-class homeowners who want to live in the city centre are intended 
to reform the "deviant" cultures of the poor, supposedly generating new 
and positive attitudes toward work and crime  and drug-free neighbourhoods.

The real emphasis here is on changing tenants, themselves, and not the 
failure of government social and economic policies that have caused 
problems in the first place.

The evidence of improvement from such redevelopment experiments in the 
United States is decidedly mixed.

They may improve the "look" of the area, but will an architectural 
facelift and the professional neighbours next door really make a 
difference in poor people's lives? A whole host of critics have 
convincingly argued that redevelopment has sidestepped the root problems 
of socio-economic deprivation and lack of sufficient funding for 
affordable housing.

As Chicago public housing analyst Janet Smith says, such schemes have 
simply "cleaned up public housing by sweeping out the poor."

The redevelopment proposal is not a solution to the severe problem of 
housing affordability in Toronto. It significantly lowers the number of 
public housing units in Regent Park and fails to address the long 
waiting lists for housing assistance. It ignores the state-sponsored 
deterioration of living standards that has damned both Regent residents 
and the poor in general.

It does nothing to improve the crumbling educational, employment and 
social service infrastructure in the area.

Redevelopment proponents wilfully ignore how declining funds for 
education and social assistance, lack of child care, a precarious job 
market, racism and social stigmatization restrict the life chances of 
public housing residents.

Design driven arguments for redevelopment seek superficial shortcuts to 
deeper structural and governmental inadequacies.

Toronto needs more high-quality, well-built public housing to deal with 
the huge numbers who lack a decent affordable place to live, not the 
false promises of state officials unwilling to adequately invest in 
combating poverty.

Sean Purdy is a Canadian urban political economist and social historian 
who teaches at Temple University, Philadelphia. He received his masters 
in history with a dissertation on the social and economic history of 
Regent Park.

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