Dr Sandeep Agrawal is an authority in urban and regional planning. A professor and the Inaugural Director of the Planning program at the University of Alberta, he serves on City of Edmonton’s Subdivision and Development Appeal Board. 

Prior to this he was a professor and the founding director of the graduate program in Urban Development in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University in Toronto.

His research has focused on ethnic communities and the effects of immigration, religion and cultures on urban structures and public policies. He has appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology to present his views about planning for inclusive cities.

He has been quoted in Doug Saunders’ Maximum Canada and is perfectly positioned to comment on the burgeoning numbers of immigrants and planning cities with their needs in mind.

“I believe Canada is on the right track. Back in the early 2000s we had predicted that Canada would continue to become more and  more multicultural. Look at Brampton, Mississauga or Markham. We call them majority-minority cities where the visible minority is a majority. There are more places for worship, more ethnic groceries... the visible symbols of diversity. Some neighbourhoods have a majority of one ethnic group, others are more mixed, but what we are now witnessing is a mixing of non-white multiple ethnic groups. Earlier it was more British, French, Italian and Portuguese immigrants, now there are more Chinese, South Asians, people from the Caribbean, Africa and the Philippines.

“The dynamics have changed from multicultural to inter-cultural. Immigrants need to recognize that they may be relatively new but they have a responsibility to move the country forward. They have the responsibility to remain inclusive as non-white becomes mainstream.

“But it’s a work in progress. Look at Brampton City Council – it is mainly white and not reflective of the city’s ethnic make-up. But political, economic and social participation can take time.”

He is not a fan of the word ghetto and prefers enclave to describe immigrant-rich areas.

“You may have majority of one ethnic group in one place, but I don’t see the poverty and dilapidation that goes with ghettoisation. There are pockets, but historically, there have always been places where there are more poor and places where there are more wealthy.”

On problems associated with perception of more crime or certain types of crime in ethnic communities, Dr Agrawal says it is the community’s responsibility to counter that perception. “We have to solve that problem within the community. There will always be some push-back against newcomers, against those who are different, but that in itself is not a bad thing. If there is no opposition, we keep going without knowing if we are moving in the right direction. A different point of view makes us pause and reflect, it’s an opportunity to tweak things if need be. Balance is important in whatever we are discussing.””

A recent Cardus study shows more immigrants means more religious diversity. Extrapolate that and we are talking about more places of worship. Is there room for all of us?

There is always room, says Dr Agrawal. “Urban areas are all about accommodation. Look at how things are changing in Toronto. All the new construction are infills or townhomes. Gone are the single-family homes on 70-ft lots. So it is with places of worship, the cost of land being a big deterrent. People pray where they can, starting with what can be described as mom-and-pop spaces – in someone’s basement or small rooms in strip malls in industrial areas. I’ve seen temples next to a car mechanic’s shop. As the congregation grows, as they accumulate money, they buy land and move out. So the large temples are outside the downtown core not because they are not wanted there, but because land is more affordable in the suburbs.”

Dr Agrawal has studied multiculturalism and human rights and says these play out in various ways at the city level and include access to public spaces.

Housing is an example. Everyone has access to public housing or rental property. You have the right to build a church – or a synagogue or mosque  – if the site is zoned for it. Noise and traffic are factors, but any denomination can build a place of worship.

Dr Agrawal recently completed a study on ethnic enclaves in Alberta and says that while Toronto had to adjust on the fly with the influx of immigrants, Calgary and Edmonton had the advantage of looking at how other cities did it.

“Cities are implementing inclusive zoning or housing with the idea that when a new development goes in, they can say to the developer that they want some larger units so families can move in, or units with rents geared to income, allowing them to get a mix of population. They can ensure that transit is more accessible to new developments. In fact, developers have been asked why they need to provide parking spaces, to give everyone a transit pass. In Toronto, where a parking spot can cost you anything between $50,000 to $75,000, that makes absolute sense.

“The argument used to be that in places with low-density, transit is not financially feasible, but even in suburbs with some municipalities allowing secondary suites, people are renting out basements and with more people, transit becomes more of a viable option.”

Asked to comment on the effects of over-building and whether that is at least partially responsible for the flash floods that are seemingly more frequent in Toronto, he says it is a chicken and egg situation.

“With the heavy downpours, the extreme wind warnings, some of it is inevitable. Do you know, in Calgary, it began snowing in September last year? Lightly, but still, snow, in September, when it was 36 degrees in August! Weather patterns are changing, and the concretization doesn’t help. But municipalities are working to fix or change things. Toronto is moving towards driveways with porus materials to reduce run-off. East York and other former suburbs changed the infrastructure to separate sewage and drainage lines and all of these help.”

 Dr Agrawal came to Canada in 1991 as an international student from IIT Roorkee. He chose Canada for the simple reason that his sister was already here. He applied to the University of Manitoba, was accepted and though he came during the worst recession in recent memory, says he had a relatively smooth ride.

“Things were so bad that many of us who had got co-op positions in government departments saw their jobs vanish when departments were slashed with a week’s notice. I was fairly young and it was rough, but as a younger person, you adapt better. This applies to cultural differences, too. I did face a few things – a downturn in the economy brings out the worst in some people, but these were just small blips in all my years in Canada. I feel blessed to be here, I am thankful for all that I have been given.”

He went on to do his PhD at the University of Illinois, working part-time for the city.

“But Canada had been very good to me and when I was offered a faculty position at Ryerson, I moved back. My wife Vandana and I met in Canada, and she, too, came to Canada with a job. She’s an accountant.”

The couple have two children, son Saras, 11, and daughter Jia, 8. For fun, the family watches movies together and have gotten heavily into board games. There’s Jenga, Uno, Quirkle and Trivial Pursuit. “And then there’s one called Exploding Kittens,” he says with a laugh. “I leave it to you to imagine what that entails!”

Jia and Saras are in an academic stream at school which tends to attract more South Asians and Chinese, says Dr Agrawal, but their larger group of friends is fairly mixed.

“This generation is living multiculturalism,” he says. “For them, this is Canada. While the face of Canada will change over time, I hope it remains as inclusive, as inter-cultural.”

Dr Agrawal says he is pleased with the direction we are taking with recognition of foreign credentials, etc.

“Newer immigrants are also more educated, more skilled and settling in faster. But keep in mind that those that came in the 90s came during a recession, so it’s a little more complex than a simple cause-and-effect.”

His tells newcomers to stay positive. “Canada has a lot to offer. But don’t be impatient, it can take time – as it can anywhere else even if you were to move from one part of your country to another.

“No one is out to ‘get you’, don’t get negative. That affects not only you but also your family.

“Find ways to adapt culturally and otherwise. The human tendency is to retreat, get entrenched in one’s lifestyle and culture. But you have taken a huge step in immigrating, be open-minded, embrace the larger community.

“Volunteer, not only at your own temple or mosque, but also beyond that.

“And be out-doorsy. Canada is a vast and beautiful land, explore!”


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