I admit it: I get a little thrill when seeing something I wrote being referenced elsewhere – even when the writer disagrees. At least it means they read it!
But there’s no thrill in seeing those references evoked to mean the opposite of what I explicitly intended. That’s not a misinterpretation; that’s a deliberate misreading.
Yes, I’m looking at you, Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria.
In the first of a three-part series on middle-missing housing, Helps references me in her blog when discussing the origins of single-family zoning:
The racist and exclusionary housing of single family zoning has been well documented, yet that history doesn’t seem to be well known in Victoria, and it’s not yet part of the conversation we’re having about Missing Middle Housing and the elimination of single family zoning that the City is proposing. It’s important to understand that the current zoning of land in Victoria – and cities across North America – has racist, exclusionary roots. Dismantling single family zoning is yet another way we can address systemic racism.
In 1916, the City of Berkeley, California implemented North America’s first single family zoning in the Elmwood neighbourhood. Although the language of the zoning itself was written without reference to race, the explicit purpose of the bylaw was to keep the neighbourhood white and to exclude Blacks and Asians . As urban planner Gordon Price writes, “Its intentions were nakedly segregationist. The idea was conceived largely as a tool for white homeowners to eject Asian laundries from an otherwise segregated neighborhood, and to stop a ‘negro dance hall’ from setting up shop on ‘a prominent corner’.”
First point, I’m not professionally an urban planner (but thanks for the compliment.) Second, that’s not me being quoted in her blog but Matthew Fleischer, The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor, who blames racist planners in Berkeley for the origins of s-f zoning. Thirdly, it’s a conclusion I rejected:
… the narrative is misleading – not because, as Brent Toderian notes in the editorial, that racial segregation wasn’t a factor, but because it wasn’t the dominant or necessary one. For a community like Berkeley in the 1920s (or Vancouver in the time of Bartholomew), race was not a threat to the overwhelming white majority (in Canada, 96 percent of the population).
Note that my post was not a denial of racism. In the 1920s, it existed in Berkeley, in Vancouver, in some degree pretty much everywhere. Nor is it a denial that land and racism went hand-in-hand: Chinatown is evidence of that. But over time, racial covenants or any explicit form of segregation were struck down legally, or were socially rejected and condemned – or became irrelevant as immigrants of colour who initially clustered on arrival then moved into neighbourhoods across the city and newer suburbs in the region. Zoning nonetheless continued everywhere and still remains the primary tool of land designation. But it’s not because of residual racism, systemic or otherwise – with one very large and egregious exception: indigenous peoples.
Let me quote myself to explain why single-family housing emerged in the first place, especially in the 1920s in cities like Victoria and Vancouver, as the dominant form of housing by far.
… I think the primary reason … was an economic reality: land was cheap and newly accessible. Before the electric streetcar (and then the automobile), cities were dense and mixed by land use and social status because they had to be. … That all changed once ‘suburbs’ became possible, starting in the mid-19th century with the advent of rail.
Land prices dropped to the point where even working-class people could afford enough property to imitate the rich and build their own homes, separate from every other, and have the luxury of a front yard and the necessity of a rear garden. …
People, no matter their class or race, like that stuff. They love the garden city it makes possible, Of course class matters; that’s a human consideration in every culture, and when it is synonymous with race it can be toxic. But it doesn’t go away with a change of colour on the zoning map.
Zoning became the device to provide certainty to those who had achieved not just the much-desired dream of the single-family or single home (even if more than the immediate family occupied it) but the status and economic value that went with it. Those who made the major investment of their lives would be assured that there would be no arbitrary change in their neighbourhood without a legal process, no sudden change of scale next to them, no new disruptive use down the street, ideally nothing that would surprise them – or the banks from which they borrowed, or their insurer. Zoning, in short, was a guarantee of continuity as well as what determined the use of their property and their neighbours.
One of the lesser concerns at that time was whether someone of a different race would move next door, regardless of the degree to which they were racist. In the 1920s, one could assume that by the standards of today, everyone was racist – something that would change dramatically in Canada as the country as a whole went from being 96 percent ethnically white as late as 1971 to cities like Vancouver that became minority white by about 2010. Canadians nonetheless had a lot of other ways to divide themselves. Language of course, religion maybe, social class certainly, and property value especially, only the latter of which could be affected directly by zoning.
But many progressive advocates, Mayor Helps included, seem to have a stake in the racism narrative, and, influenced by American events, wish to rewrite our history for that purpose. They’re not going to give it up for the sake of nuance, especially when they can use it to justify an action – “dismantling single family zoning” – which would otherwise be too politically dangerous.
If systemic racism is to be the filter through which city planning and zoning is now to be strained, then a warning. We can see already (and certainly in America) how toxic that debate can become, how alienating and divisive. When those who speak in favour of maintaining what they value – literally their home sweet home and the community of which it is a part – and are then accused of being racists by default if they defend the zoning that provides them continuity, it is one of the most damaging charges that can be wielded. If they are humiliated into silence, resentment will build and extreme voices will rise to fill the void. When the charge is implicitly used only against whites, it becomes the racism it claims to reject. Every part of the civic discourse then starts to become infected, not for purposes of truth but for revenge.
Before we get there though, there’s a more pragmatic reason to not pursue overt elimination of all single-family zoning. It’s just not necessary. Economic self-interest will do a pretty good job, which, if combined with change that is ‘invisible, hidden and gentle’ (like secondary suites, duplexes, and small apartments that look rather like large houses), neighbourhoods can change incrementally and happily, even as they change demographically. If zoning were essentially an instrument of white supremacy, it has done a lousy job. And that’s because in our cities, it wasn’t.
There’s more in my piece that Mayor Helps referred to and this one on the Grand Bargain which explains why it’s not just homeowners who defend the zoning status quo. And go ahead, quote away; give me little thrills. But please do so correctly, even if you disagree.