April 27, 2015

Participatory Planning Moves from Shut-Downs to Start-Ups

Natural entrepreneurs can be found in informal and marginalized communities. Recognizing and working with them, instead of penalizing them for entrepreneurial activities can revitalize a community.

Participatory planning leads to market success and integrated neighbourhoods. In the search for successful settlement, many newcomers turn to enterprise, just to make ends meet. In some cases, zoning, bylaws or other barriers exist that can impede their innovation. In many cases, these barriers exist for good reason, such as health and safety.

However, in many cases, the activity simply continues unmonitored or goes underground. Which means the barriers that existed for good reason simply lead to the outcomes policy makers may have been seeking to avoid. Community and partners and city government actors that take the time to work with immigrant communities where this activity is happening can find a middle ground, that can pay even greater dividends for all involved.

The case studies below show what can happen to a community when the effort is made to include – not shut down. Community revitalization, increased employment, overall positive impacts on a neighbourhood or city’s economic development, and a greater sense of welcoming and integrating for newcomers.

The following good ideas in immigrant entrepreneur integration and support come from our sister site, Cities of Migration.

Porta Palazzo and the Balon Flea Market

With over one thousand merchants and 700 street vendors, Porta Palazzo is a commercial hub whose opportunities have always attracted newcomers to the city. This regular influx of new cultural communities also makes the market an urban lab for cultural integration. In 2000 nearly 20 per cent of those living and working in the market were foreign born, compared to the city average of 4 per cent. Today, over 45 nationalities live in this densely populated inner-city neighborhood.

Unique to Porta Palazzo is the Balon flea market and its mix of registered, formal and informal vendors. Since 1935, irregular migrants have had the right to ‘exchange’ goods on the market by a special city statute. However, in 2001, that right was temporarily withdrawn, and the relative stability and security of the area rapidly declined and threatened the commercial vitality of the market and the whole neighbourhood.

The Porta Palazzo project identified the quality of urban space as an incentive to economic development, as well as the means to resolve high levels of local unemployment and crime. Unemployment in the neighborhood stood at 12.8 per cent, compared to about 6 per cent in the city as a whole, and barriers to formal entry into the labor force pushed many immigrants into illegal or informal work, often in the neighborhood’s daily market. In 2002, the project evolved into a Local Development Agency project and involved both public institutions and private partners, and broad community representation. Using a participatory community model, the project included the participation and empowerment of the irregular or unlicensed merchants. This decision was the result of an assessment which showed that while tensions between the licensed and unlicensed vendors were at the root of many of the other social, security and space issues, this group of 300 vendors was a vital part of the local economy.

Through a deliberate process and the engagement of informal and formal leaders (including the Deputy Mayor on Economic Development and the Municipal Police), the Porta Palazzo, Living Not Leaving project succeeded in having irregular vendors recognised in the new legal category of “non professionals.” The vendors were given a dedicated space in the market. Read more.

Naan in the Park: Re-imagining Public Space

A local women’s group re-imagines their neighbourhood. From reclaiming public space for community participation to exploring new economic opportunities, the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee (TPWC) in Toronto has facilitated an active role for women and local residents in community life in every sense of the word. Early on, the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office (TNO), a community-based non-profit agency, was quick to notice the initiative and enthusiasm of the women’s group and helped TPWC with an initial grant of $1,000. Jehad Aliweiwi, the former TNO executive director, sees these women as social entrepreneurs and their projects as good models for micro-economic development.

The TPWC is credited with opening North America’s first tandoor oven in a park. “The idea came when we were discussing types of cooking fires within the community members from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. The most common thing was the tandoor. As other parks have pizza ovens, we thought being a predominantly South Asian community, it would be good to have a tandoor that others in the city could learn about,” says Sabina Ali, a founder of the TPWC.

But it has not always been easy for this pioneering group of women. The weekly summer bazaar, for example, has presented repeated challenges. “Every season I have to convince the City that these are not businesses. We have to tell them that we are building communities and supporting local enterprise.  If we don’t give them opportunities, how will these newcomers feel confident and integrate?” says Ali. The market provides a platform for women to participate in public life.

“At the next level I take them to other markets in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] so they can gain exposure to the broader community. It’s a different experience for them. It’s one step at a time to self-employment and being part of the local business community,” says Ali. The TPWC also runs a catering group made of local women that has gained business through the different connections and partners it has made in the city. Read more.

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