Who builds whose city

Centred and decentring narratives in progressive democratic participatory placemaking

(submitted for review August 2021, defense forthcoming)

Abstract: This dissertation examines contemporary planning practices of progressive democratic participatory placemaking and the narratives that reinforce public process, identity, and goals as an emergent trend in good city-building. Through the integration of placemaking practices with public decision-making, cities aim to empower direct community action to mobilize additional public resources and public support to maximize the beneficial outcomes for broad public good. Yet, the production of some good for some previously excluded people in the city is shown to contribute to gentrification and displacement, the implementation of further restrictions and policing, and further marginalization of non-conforming groups. Conditions for inclusion, control of process, and direction of outcomes continue to centre mainstream public interests and reproduce systemic forms of oppression to manage the threat of difference through assimilation, appropriation, responsibilization, and destabilization of marginalized alternative urban groups. This dissertation includes a comprehensive literature review to elaborate on the history and theory of the city-building project; the political constitution of the planning profession and progressive reforms; urban social movements and community-based placemaking; gendered analysis of the city and feminist critiques of planning; and contemporary anti-oppression movements. Informed by feminist practice and theory, place-based storytelling is centred in the methodological, ethical, analytical, and critical approaches of this dissertation. Following the literature review and methodologies sections, three case stories reconstruct multi-perspectival narratives of contemporary community-led placemaking initiatives in Ottawa, Ontario by local marginalized alternative urban groups. The three cases are: The official designation of Le/The Village along the Bank Street mainstreet led by members of the LGBT community (2006-2011); the construction of the Charlie Bowins Skateboard Park in the McNabb Park rehabilitation led by the skateboarding community (2012-2015); and the development of the Ottawa Music Strategy and safe space policies for music venues and festivals led by members of the alternative music scene (2015-2019). These three cases offer contested claims to three different urban land-uses: i.e. mainstreets, parks, and cultural districts. The cases also represent a variety of symbolic, spatial-material, and functional claims to space: i.e. formal designation, provision of public facilities, and policy development. The timeframe of the three placemaking projects correspond with contemporary narratives of urban social justice movements, and all three cases correspond to the purview and vision of the Ottawa 2020 Growth Management Strategy and Plans. Comparative narrative and performative analyses identify common thematic place-based plots, foundational identity-based stories, and normative tales of good city-building that are reproduced across the three cases. The theoretical question of “who builds whose city?” informs the development of theoretic frameworks for interrogating agency, relationality, performance, and authority within these reproduced common narratives of good city-building. These structural, critical, and radical discussions of progressive democratic participatory placemaking provide insights into the role and authority of planning and the public; the influence of dominant socio-cultural and socio-political systems and structures; and the agency, capacity, struggles, and tactics of marginalized alternative urban groups to claim space in the city. First-person storytelling, song writing, and zine making are included as critical autoethnographic productions and reflections based on the author’s participation and experiences in the Ottawa punk scene.

Key fields of research: Jewish thought, feminist and queer studies, subculture, counterculture, tactical urbanism, participatory urbanism, right to the city, social justice, power, postmodernism, punk, LGBTQ, sk8

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 | sarah.gelbard@mail.mcgill.ca) or to my faculty supervisors or the McGill research ethics administrator (contact details below).

REB File # 295-1217

Supervisor: Raphael Fischler (raphael.fischler@umontreal.ca)
Co-supervisor: Lisa Bornstein (lisa.bornstein@mcgill.ca)

Deanna Collin
Research Ethics Administrator  / Administratrice en éthique de recherche
deanna.collin@mcgill.ca  |514-398-6193