Toronto placemaker on why heritage preservation can’t stop housing

Jay Pitter, principal placemaker of Jay Pitter Placemaking, discusses the Science Centre deal and the broader battle between cultural preservation and the need for housing.

Should the Science Centre be moved for the purpose of building housing?

The individuals in the community where the Science Centre is located, just like everyone else in this city, deserve to have great housing and great amenities and great public transportation access. The suggestion that this particular community, which is diverse in terms of race and class, should be presented with this egregious either-or proposal is the very definition of spatialized discrimination and broader structural inequalities.

We’ve seen cultural heritage used as a reason to block housing in the city. How does that apply here?

We deeply misunderstand cultural heritage in the city. The Science Centre was designed by Raymond Moriyama over a half century ago when there was almost zero representation of racialized practitioners across design sectors. His approach created the foundation for a living cultural heritage, which now includes the intangible cultural heritage — meaning the daily community practices, stories, celebrations — of an extraordinarily diverse range of community members. History, sustainability, urban equity, place-based storytelling and evolving cultural practices are all important aspects of cultural heritage.

Now, those legitimate indicators of cultural heritage are not to be mistaken with NIMBY [not in my backyard] arguments pertaining to having shade cast over private backyards or stoking class discrimination around people like renters. Challenging housing development by centring cultural heritage and character language in an argument is either willfully weaponizing or misunderstanding the concept. The city could do a much better job of defining what cultural character means.

What’s a better way for the city to approach these conversations?

Municipalities must have the courage to stop framing conversations around whether or not intensification and density should happen. It’s how it should happen. The “how” questions include, “How do we accommodate new residents?” “How do we embrace new neighbours from diverse class and race backgrounds?” “How do we accommodate everyone in terms of having the appropriate amenities so that we’re all comfortable?” This is how it should be framed.

When might there be resistance to density?

There is a lot of grey area between spewing discriminatory arguments resisting residential density and feeling concerned or uncertain about change. Community members should be able to voice concerns pertaining diminishing property values, public safety or losing neighbour-to-neighbour connections. Municipalities should resist judging the person or the concern; they should provide evidence-based information to address these concerns, many of which are unfounded and based in bias. In addition to funding and policy change, guiding more informed and courageous conversations about residential density and cultural heritage is the way forward.

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