Ethnic retailing and the role of municipal planning: four case studies in the Greater Toronto Area
Zhuang, Zhixi Cecilia
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The recent waves of immigration have dramatically changed the urban landscape of Canada’s metropolitan regions. One of the significant markers of this change are ethnic retail activities that manifest in ethnic shopping strips and centres. The dynamics of ethnic retailing pose various challenges for municipalities; yet, our knowledge of its complexities is limited, especially in terms of its relationship with and implications for city planning. Current literature on multicultural planning advocates for cultural sensitivity in planning practice based on a limited number of empirical studies. It generally overlooks planners’ professional mandate and the constraints inherent in the planning system that hinder planners’ capacity to be proactive, and is regularly disregarded in practice. This research focuses on the phenomenon of ethnic retailing and provides empirical data to bridge the research gaps. Several research objectives were pursued in this thesis, including: the exploration of ethnic retail activities among different ethnic groups in different commercial settings, the examination of the ethnic retail development process and key players in the production of ethnic retail spaces, and the identification of the role of municipal planning in ethnic retailing. The study targets the Chinese, South Asian, and Italian business communities; four case studies were conducted, including three retail strips in the inner city of Toronto, namely East Chinatown, the Gerrard India Bazaar, and Corso Italia, and one suburban Asian theme mall, the Pacific Mall in the Town of Markham. The four case studies demonstrate that planners play an inactive or a reactive role in the context of ethnic retail area development. The major reason for their limited role is that planners must abide by the legislative structure and the procedures of the planning system. They must, by the nature of their profession, focus on city-wide issues. The planning profession’s mandate confines planners’ capacity and flexibility in dealing with the multicultural challenges presented by local ethnic communities. Another major area this research explores is the nature of ethnic retailing. There are important inter-group and intra-group differences among the case studies. There are also significant differences between the inner-city retail strips and the suburban shopping mall. The relationship of the dynamics of ethnic retailing and urban planning is explored, with particular focus on community building, the relationship between the City vision and local diversity, and ethnic expression. These findings demonstrate the dynamic, fluid, and complex nature of ethnic retailing that constantly changes and evolves. Considering these dynamics, the findings indicate that there can be no templates in planning approaches to ethnic retailing. Planners must respect the local diversity and reject universal treatments of ethnic retail areas. Planners do not have authority to initiate ethnic retailing, nor is it possible for them to create a universal template to regulate the development of ethnic retail areas. Yet, there are other innovative ways for planners to balance city-wide and local interests, helping to recreate community focal points and serve the ultimate goal of “planning for all”. This study provides several recommendations for municipal planning: First, planners must reinvent themselves by adopting a proactive and holistic planning approach. Planners must think beyond the technical dimensions of urban development and consider the social and cultural aspects, especially the ethno-cultural elements, of the community, and incorporate them in the planning process. Several conventional planning tools, including ethno-racial and business data collection at the neighbourhood level, Secondary Plans that recreate community focal points, and (multicultural) public participation can be effectively applied to ethnic retail development. Another important step is to establish a Multicultural Planning Office to deal with ethnic-oriented development projects and the consequent multicultural challenges. Second, the study suggests developing strong and explicit policy statements in support of ethno-cultural diversity. Securing political backing from City councillors is as important in providing planners with the authority they need to contribute to ethnic retail development. Third, municipal planning requires interdepartmental collaboration. The two core municipal functions, the Planning Department and the Economic Development Office should set up a joint task force to work together in dealing with ethnic retail challenges. Finally, building community-based partnerships is an effective and efficient means to involve all stakeholders boarding the process. This includes outreach to the ethnic communities and alliance with community agencies.