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Toponymic assemblages, resistance, and the politics of planning in Vancouver, Canada

Wideman, Trevor J.; Masuda, Jeffrey R


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The marginalized and impoverished Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood of Vancouver, Canada has long been subjected to planning programs that have aimed to solve area problems through strategic government intervention. The 2011-2014 Local Area Planning Process (LAPP), led by the City of Vancouver in consultation with local actors, represents the most recent of such programs. Despite the LAPP’s stated goal of inclusive participation, the resultant DTES plan transformed the political landscape of the neighbourhood and met with derision from stakeholders for its potential to generate dramatic capital-led transformations. In this paper, we critique participatory planning through a case study of the LAPP. We utilize a lens of critical toponymy (the investigation of the historical and political implications of place naming) as a methodological tool to examine planning technologies of power and their mobilization through governmental processes. We deploy a novel approach to toponymy, drawing on assemblage theory, that presents toponymy as a radically open and dynamic process mobilized relationally through a multiplicity of discourses and materialities. Our case study demonstrates that processes of toponymic assemblage within the DTES LAPP worked to 1) generate new territorial conflicts, 2) depoliticize community activism, and 3) co-opt racialized and class-based histories of displacement and dispossession to stimulate “revitalization” (“Japantown”). On the other hand, we found that in unanticipated ways, these processes worked to stimulate anti-gentrification activism, alliances, and resistance. Our analysis of planning highlights how toponymic agency can service oppressive and marginalizing place-framings, but it can also have liberating effects – by inspiring unlikely alliances and counter-framings.