Cities Are A Constant Negotiation Of Distance And Difference

Jay Pitter, MES leads inclusive city-building processes that address growing divides in urban centres. She is an author, placemaker, and public engagement professional who has, throughout her career, spearheaded noteworthy projects with organizations such as: the Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Community Housing, The Health and Safety Task Force, the City of Toronto, the Toronto District School Board and DIALOG, a national architecture firm.

Her work has consistently resulted in co-creating more inclusive, safe, and vibrant cities.

Jay has lectured within post-secondary institutions and has also co-led several participatory research processes. Most recently, she collaborated with Westbank to increase community engagement in the Honest Ed’s redevelopment process, consulted on Edmonton’s new heritage plan, co-edited Subdivided, a Coach House anthology exploring inclusive city-building. Jay was one of two authors selected to be interviewed by Premier Kathleen Wynne at the Word on the Street Festival and the anthology has been shortlisted for the esteemed Speaker’s Book award. Jay regularly sparks important city-building conversations across media platforms such as: The Globe and Mail, CBC Radio, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, and Canadian Architect. She currently teaches an urban planning course at Ryerson University and is working on her second book Where We Live, which will be published by McClelland & Stewart at Penguin Random House Canada.


Subdivided: City-building In An Age Of Hyper-diversity

How do we build cities where we aren’t just living within the same urban space, but living together? Subdivided aims to provoke the tough but pressing conversations required to build a truly connected city and is sparking important city-building conversations.

Read an excerpt of Subdivided here.

Purchase your copy at Coach House Books, Indigo and the Spacing Store.


About This Episode

Housing prices in Toronto have continued to skyrocket, with the average the price jumping to nearly $678,00 in August. The Agenda examines the high-price of housing and asks: has living in a big city become a luxury?

Length: 32:23      Air Date: Sep 26,2016

Watch the full episode here.

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  • Ryerson University | Instructor, School of Urban & Regional Planning (2017)
  • Walrus Talks | Saskatoon (March 2017)
  • University of Toronto and Neighbourhood Change | Hyper-Diversity: Opportunity or Challenge (May 2016)
  • Word on The Street Festival | Interview with Premier Kathleen Wynne (September 2016)
  • Wordfest, Uncivil Politics: I’m Right and You’re an Idiot | Panelist (October 2016)
  • YouthRex Research and Evaluation Exchange: The Politics of Space | Session Facilitator (October 2016)
  • Ontario Professional Planners Institute: What Would Jane Jacobs Say? The Absence of Equity Considerations in Contemporary Planning Policies | Panelist (October 2016)
  • York University Urban and Regional Environments | Guest Lecturer (November 2016)
  • University of TorontoThe Rotman School of Management: Prosperity and Competitiveness | Guest Lecturer (November 2016)
  • University of AlbertaCity-Region Studies Centre (CRSC) | Guest Lecturer (November 2016)
  • NXT City Symposium 2016 | Speaker (November 2016)
  • University of Guelph | Part-time Professor (2015)
  • University of TorontoOISE | Lecturer and Instructor (2006 + 2013)
  • York University | Research Co-lead – The Alternative Campus Tour (2010 – 2013)
  • Seneca College – Green Citizen Conference | Guest Lecturer (2013)
  • Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative | Guest Lecturer and Participatory Research Lead (October 2010)
  • Ontario Arts Council in partnership with York University | Guest Lecturer and Program Design (2003 – 2006)

Jay’s Inclusive City-Building Principles

When collaborating with municipalities, design firms, developers, and others, Jay employs a series of principles with accompanying checklist questions for ensuring greater inclusion, creativity, and impact. This approach is informed by her placemaking practice, research focused on spatial design and social justice, and most importantly, on-going conversations with everyday folks invested in making cities great. Here’s a snapshot of Jay’s values and process:

Who’s Not Here?

A key question to ask on the front end of every city-building, urban development, and public engagement process is: Who’s Not Here? Despite good intentions, numerous groups are excluded from these processes due to numerous social and systemic factors including: a lack of trust and/or creativity inherent in traditional engagement models, inaccessible or overly formal convening spaces, language barriers, short engagement timelines, and lack of funding for meaningful engagement.

  • How can we ensure that a wide range of perspectives is shaping the process, not simply participating in it?
  • Have we considered strategies beyond dotmocracy and large display boards to curate stories and community feedback?
  • Have we offered child and elder care, tokens, and food to enable participation from vulnerable groups?

Stop “Empowering” People

Oftentimes, urban designers and other city-building professionals, reference empowering people through design or public engagement processes. Although well-intended, the notion of empowering communities is deeply problematic. Even the most marginalized individual possesses a degree of power —many people struggling in the margins are resilient, creative, and intelligent. As such we should focus on creating space, uncovering assets, exchanging knowledge, and building pathways to possibility.

  • Are we viewing the community through an asset base lens, which recognizes challenges while also considering strengths, and aspirations?
  • Have we spent enough time listening and mapping informal local networks?
  • Has the community been provided with the information required to meaningfully exercise their “power” in the process?

Embrace Uncomfortable Conversations

Working from a more inclusive city-building framework is both difficult and vulnerable work. You’re bound to find yourself in uncomfortable situations and conversations. However, it’s important to remember that discomfort is not necessarily the precursor to conflict. Uncomfortable conversations facilitate key city-building and urban development growth, connectivity, and resilience.

  • Have we considered the ways identity, spatial entitlement, and privilege can shape the ways individuals participate in city-building processes?
  • Do we have a strategy in place for managing rather than avoiding conflicting viewpoints and/or priorities?
  • Have you clearly identified the scope of stakeholder influence in order to manage expectations and build trust?


  • While in Edmonton, Jay worked with staff from the City of Edmonton, City Region Studies Centre (University of Alberta), and the Edmonton Heritage Council. I cannot emphasize enough how valuable our consultation was with her. Jay shared many insightful placemaking principles and practices from her own work that have and will continue to improve engagement processes here. For example, she addressed: how to engage with hard-to-reach stakeholder groups, how to create space for uncomfortable or painful experiences without creating divisions between stakeholder groups, and how to demonstrate accountability to stakeholder groups. In addition to sharing insights, Jay is an active listener and is respectful of multiple perspectives. Her ability to identify urban issues while providing strategies and instilling hope in everyone is admirable.

    Marco MelfiPlanner, CITYlab
  • I assigned Jay Pitter’s brilliant book Subdivided to my second year class of urban and environmental studies students at York. Jay generously agreed to come and speak to the class of one hundred last fall. She lit up the room with her presentation and inspired the students with her engaging and challenging conversation on city building in an age of hyper-diversity. A real treat! I hope she will come to my class again!<

    Roger KeilYork Research Chair in Global Sub/Urban Studies
  • Jay’s authentic approach to leadership and inclusive city-building has inspired many people to find their voice, and plug their unique perspectives into conversations that need them. She is a brilliant public engagement professional, a dynamic speaker, and has deep knowledge of urban issues on many levels, including that of lived experience.  Jay leads an annual session with our CivicAction DiverseCity Fellows around personal leadership context and identity. It is routinely considered one of the most transformative experiences participants receive over their year with us. She’s a huge asset to this city – a lot of fun, and one of the frontier leaders rounding out the edges of what’s traditionally been considered “city-building.

    Sevaun PalvetzianCEO, CivicAction
  • How can cities realize their ambitions for inclusiveness and social justice? What are the difficult conversations we need to have and the hurdles we have to overcome to get there? Through an energetic presentation combining expertise in urban planning, design and engagement with personal reflection and experience, Jay inspired an audience of urban professionals to be bold and optimistic in their ability co-create cities for everyone. We learned a lot.

    Dr. Kevin E. JonesCity-Region Studies Centre, University of Alberta
  • Jay Pitter has developed a unique approach to engaging communities, often using streets themselves as the locus of the conversation, and incorporating new media and digital storytelling. In this way, she has been able to build thoughtful dialogues with groups often overlooked or excluded from traditional stakeholder engagement, weaving together a range of stories and analyses to build new ideas around familiar places.

    Michael McClellandERA Architects



Invite Jay to give a Subdivided reading.


Book Jay for a post-secondary or community talk.


Contract Jay to lead a public walk or dynamic community engagement process.

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