City for all

Contested narratives of participatory reforms, placemaking practices, and ‘good’ city-building

Abstract: This dissertation examines the progressive visions, participatory priorities, and cultural strategies enacted by citizen-engaged planning in Ottawa, Ontario. With more inclusive participation and more diverse representation, formal urban planning processes set up by the City of Ottawa establish participatory placemaking as a principle of ‘good’ city-building and as a route towards social and spatial justice. In the context of persistent urban inequities and renewed urban social movements, this research builds on the work of many scholars and community activists who raise concerns about the ongoing social, spatial, and economic marginalization of difference through progressive reforms. It examines the alignment between the claims and substance of participatory placemaking, with specific attention to performance, performativity, and counternarratives. Three inter-related questions structure the investigation: 1) How do the actors perform participatory placemaking through grand narratives of ‘good’ city-building? 2) How do performances of progressive narratives, group identities, and normative values reproduce oppressive systems and logics? 3) What strategies, critical performances, and refusals do marginalized and/or alternative groups exercise in their struggle for space in the city?

A site study of planning in Ottawa and three case studies shed light on the development and evolution of participatory placemaking in Ottawa between 2006 and 2018. The three cases are: the development of the Ottawa Music Strategy and safe space policies as part of the cultural revitalization of the arts and entertainment district; the construction of the Charlie Bowins Skatepark as part of the rehabilitation of McNabb Park; and the official designation of Le/The Village during the rehabilitation of the Bank Street mainstreet. Additional stories of people and place, planning policy, and site-based public and subcultural histories thicken the narratives of each case. Performative narrative analysis identifies and assesses alignments between each of the cases with common urban narratives, normative values and visions of the ‘good’ city, and enacted group identities. This research then engages with theories of social reproduction, systems of oppression, performativity, and non-reformist reforms to develop critical narrative-based frameworks for spatial justice analyses across the different groups and stories. Critical autoethnography positions punk subculture and scenes in tension with prevailing planning, placemaking, community, and social justice narratives. First-person storytelling, song writing, and zine making based on the author’s participation in the Ottawa punk scene are included as critical re-readings and radical counter-narratives.

As this research shows, participatory placemaking can be read as having made space for some previously excluded groups in formal city planning; contributing to greater representations of diversity in public places; and acting as a catalyst for cultural and economic revitalization. Yet, the production of some good for some groups is not a sufficient base to conclude that participatory placemaking is transforming our cities into inclusive, equitable, and prosperous places for all. The contested evaluations and critical re-readings in this dissertation point to performative narratives of progressive values as also working to obscure structural inequities, reproduce harm, and efface places of difference while maintaining the social order and hierarchies of privileged interests and oppressive systems. The research also shows that when burdened by normative structures, restrictive processes, and oppressive systems, marginalized and/or alternative groups demonstrate an aptitude for spatial, cultural, and political interventions. Strategic, critical, and radical acts of survival, resistance, and refusal reveal the limitations of official city plans and processes, respond to group needs and aspirations, and enact their claim the right to the city.


Key fields of research: participatory urbanism, right to the city, spatial justice, community planning, feminist and queer studies, subculture, counterculture, tactical urbanism, power, punk, 2SLGBTQ, skateboarding, critical autoethnography

This research is conducted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Ad. Hoc. Ph.D. in Planning, Policy, and Design at McGill University School of Urban Planning and is supported through the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.


The REB-I reviewed and approved this project by delegated review in accordance with the requirements of the McGill University Policy on the Ethical Conduct of Research Involving Human Participants and the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct For Research Involving Humans.

Questions or concerns about this research may be directed to myself (Sarah Gelbard | or to my faculty supervisors or the McGill research ethics administrator (contact details below).

REB File # 295-1217

Supervisor: Raphaël Fischler (
Co-supervisor: Lisa Bornstein (

Deanna Collin
Research Ethics Administrator  / Administratrice en éthique de recherche  |514-398-6193