How is cultural diversity changing cities?

Image by Patrick Nouhailler |

Image by Patrick Nouhailler |

I recently spoke with Julian Agyeman, professor of Urban Planning at Tufts University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Agyeman visited our university a few months ago to present a talk at the Center for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University called “Diaspora, Sustainability, and Development: Meeting at the Nexus”.

Diaspora refers to populations of people migrating around the globe, who share a common origin and still maintain connections with their native land. Over the past two decades, planners and practices of international development have begun to recognize and embrace diaspora communities as key agents of change.

“As more and more people come together in clusters of urban areas, urban planners must expand their urban agendas to plan more inclusive cities,” argues Julian Agyeman.

Imagine the implications for planners in urban centers like Toronto, which is home to residents from every country in the world? (This was actually captured by Colin Boyd Shafer who has set out on a year-long journey to photograph someone born in every single country of the world who now calls Toronto home.)

This led me to wonder, how are cities changing in response to an increase in cultural diversity?

Adding new flavours to local food.

One of Agyeman’s most powerful examples of cultural diversity changing a city, is the changes on local food systems brought on by new influences of immigrants.

“Refugee agriculture”, an entrepreneurial movement of Somalis, Cambodians, Liberians, Congolese, Bhutanese and Burundians, has taken over more than 50 community farms across the US. Rural subsistence farmers from Africa and Asia, have resettled in and around cities from New York, Burlington, Vt., and Lowell, Mass., to Minneapolis, Phoenix, and San Diego. As a result, farmer's markets in and around these cities now have an abundance of produce native to the refugees’ homelands, but grown locally in the US. NPR also covered this trend, with their story “Some U.S. Farms Trade Tobacco For A Taste Of Africa”, which highlighted George Bowling’s 60 acre farm in southern Maryland. The farm has started growing African crops for the region’s 120,000 strong African population.

Creating informal markets and urging local policy change.

Street vendors make up an important part of urban centers like New York City. More than 10,000 food vendors, flower vendors, book vendors, street artists, and others, who are mostly immigrants and people of colour, often use vending as a way to get a foothold in their new country. However, often city bylaws and aggressive crackdowns at the urging of powerful business groups result in closures and high penalty tickets for violations vendors may have never been aware of, like selling too close to a crosswalk, (one vendor from Bangladesh got a $1,000 fine because his jacket was covering his license).

In response, the Street Vendor Project got together with public artist and designer Candy Chang to create the Street Vendor Guide in order to help the thousands of street vendors in New York City decipher the almost illegible regulation handbooks by translating the most commonly violated rules into accessible diagrams and common native languages like English, Bengali, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish.

The guide also features the history of street vending in New York, suggests policy reform options, and shares personal stories.

Reclaiming local narratives.

At a recent presentation I attended called “Making Space for Indigenous Urbanism”, presenters Ryan Walker from the Urban Aboriginal Knowledge Network and Deborah Sparrow from the Musqueam First Nation explained how important it is to recapture the physical presence of Indigenous communities within the urban landscape.

In essence, a full participation and enjoyment of urban life should foster a civic identity beyond settler narratives, and celebrate the cultural diversity of Indigenous people. They provided several examples of organizations that are pushing for this change, including Ka Ni Kanichihk, Inc., a Cree community organization in Winnipeg that has created partnerships with immigrant families to help bridge the transition into Canada and embrace multiculturalism together with Aboriginal groups.

The presence of Indigenous stories can take form in elements of urban design as well. The City of Ottawa Council recently committed to integrate Algonquin history, culture, and arts into its new Lansdowne Park facilities, one of the most visited recreational areas in the city. The Lansdowne Revitalization Project includes specific Algonquin interpretive elements, such as an Ethno-Botanical garden, a Teaching Circle, plantings of Trees of Significance to Algonquin Culture, and Algonquin Art Commissions.

The city has also transformed Aberdeen Square, a large public plaza at the heart of the city’s Farmer’s Market, to include interlocking stone pavers patterned after Algonquin basketry and food vessels. The stone pavers celebrate the care and respect paid to food by Algonquins.

As cities continue to grow and become more diverse, it’s interesting to see how planning evolves as well. Please share if you have come across examples of cultural diversity in your city, whether it’s reflected in local food, urban design, or local events that engage your community.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.