Social and Cultural Geography: ‘Highway to Heaven’: the creation of a multicultural, religious landscape in suburban Richmond, British Columbia (co-authored with Claire Dwyer and David Ley)

I am pleased to announce that a paper from the collaborative project that I conducted with Claire Dwyer (University College London) and David Ley (UBC) on the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, British Columbia has been published by Social and Cultural Geography. It has been quite a journey getting this one published from its earlier incarnation as a conference paper and now into a peer-reviewed journal. I’m glad that it’s out, and I hope to take a crack at another one soon enough.

The abstract is as follows:

We analyse the emergence of the ‘Highway to Heaven’, a distinctive landscape of more than 20 diverse religious buildings, in the suburban municipality of Richmond, outside Vancouver, to explore the intersections of immigration, planning, multiculturalism, religion and suburban space. In the context of wider contested planning disputes for new places of worship for immigrant communities, the creation of a designated ‘Assembly District’ in Richmond emerged as a creative response to multicultural planning. However, it is also a contradictory policy, co-opting religious communities to municipal requirements to safeguard agricultural land and prevent suburban sprawl, but with limited success. The unanticipated outcomes of a designated planning zone for religious buildings include production of an agglomeration of increasingly spectacular religious facilities that exceed municipal planning regulations. Such developments are accommodated through a celebratory narrative of municipal multiculturalism, but one that fails to engage with the communal narratives of the faith communities themselves and may exoticize or commodify religious identity.

Our main intervention is directed toward the celebration of multicultural planning in contemporary cities and suburbs. What we found was that the multiculturalism that is apparent on our celebrated road in Richmond wasn’t planned to be that way at first. It was Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and still is, and whatever multiculturalism one might see there is accidental.

In its early stages, Claire took the lead in writing this paper up for conferences, with me as a second author and David as a third. After presenting it at the American Association of Geographers 2012, Claire again led the effort to transform this paper into the published article that is here. In turn, David added many of the insights concerning Canadian multiculturalism. As always, it has been very educational working alongside Claire in this process – I often joke that what I know of qualitative methodologies was learned from her in the field during this project – and I am very thankful to her for leading on this effort. My plan is to build off this paper to craft some pieces, perhaps, on the materiality of the interfaith landscape and the odd points of spiritual contact among the sites. I’ve especially enjoyed getting to know a place that has long been a ‘wonder’ in the suburb where I lived during my undergraduate and graduate studies, especially now that we’re demystifying it.

We are also thankful for Metropolis Canada for funding this project; our report for them on the Highway to Heaven can be accessed from their website.

Canadian Association of Geographers 2015 | Vancouver, BC

In June 2015, I attended the Canadian Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting in Vancouver, BC, held at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Harbour Centre and the Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

My paper was in a session entitled The Politics of Urban Social Policy 3, organized by Tom Baker (SFU), Cristina Temenos (Northeastern), and Joshua Evans (Athabasca), with Nick Blomley (SFU) as our respondent. The other presenters were Natalie Oswin (McGill) and Eugene McCann (SFU). Here was my abstract:

In this paper, I intervene in conversations about ‘postsecularism,’ the possibility of civic discussions between religious and secular citizens, in global cities, urban financial hubs attracting investment, skilled migration, and tourism that geographers have noted for their economic polarization and social exclusions. I do this through a case study of an interfaith coalition, Faith Communities Called to Solidarity with the Poor (FCCSP), in Vancouver, BC, in the mid-2000s. Ostensibly, FCCSP lobbied for the religious freedom of one evangelical Protestant congregation, Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, to conduct its homeless shelter and meal program without acquiring a social services permit. While the opposition called for secularization, this religious activism needs to be understood as contesting discourses that sought to render invisible the “poor,” the “socially excluded and economically marginalized” in material need of food and shelter (FCCSP 2007). FCCSP countered the aspirations of Tenth’s neighbourhood and Vancouver’s City Hall to become a global city, especially in the municipal policy Project Civil City attempting to produce a marketable urban landscape by reducing the rate of homelessness ahead of the 2010 Olympics. Not only do I demonstrate that these gentrifying processes developed into secularizing geographical visions, but I argue that the presence of the poor in religious communities means that the urban postsecular is not so much situated in dialogues between religious and secular citizens, but in material encounters in religious communities across class divisions exacerbated by global city aspirations. I substantiate this argument with key informant interviews with FCCSP and Vancouver’s City Hall. Combining work on global cities and gentrification with geographical debates about the postsecular, I advance conversations in human geography about religion in urban spaces by exploring the material work of religious actors in demystifying secular capitalist ideologies used to construct social exclusions in global cities.

I enjoyed the robust conversation that we had about urban social policy, and I especially enjoyed Blomley’s comments on my paper and the relationship between Project Civil City and religion. These comments are very helpful as I am taking this paper back to the drawing board and revising it for publication, from which I hope to generate more dialogue.

Religion and Society: a policy symposium on immigration, multiculturalism, and social change in Canada (Metropolis BC and Embrace BC)

On Wednesday, 2 February 2011, I had the pleasure of being the lead presenter on work done in collaboration among Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), Dr. David Ley (UBC Geography), and myself on Richmond’s No. 5 Road, otherwise known as the “Highway to Heaven” for its over-20 religious institutions on three big blocks of converted Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

The talk we chose to give was entitled: Talking infrastructure: another topic for interfaith dialogue on Richmond’s “Highway to Heaven.” I was the lead presenter.

Our main point was that because the “Highway to Heaven” lay on mostly newly-converted ALR, its lack of infrastructure often forced religious institutions to cooperate to get things built, often only as one-off projects.  We discussed three key issues.  The first was that while No. 5 Road has been portrayed as a miracle of interfaith cooperation (mostly in the sharing of parking lots), our research shows that there have been potentials for conflict, particularly within ethnic groups, although these clashes have also tended to be minor.  The second was a demonstration through the case of sewage lines that interfaith collaboration were often one-off projects and that failures and successes were usually not the product of theological or cosmological conflicts.  The third was that policy from the City of Richmond often had the unintended side effects of frustrating some religious practices, such as in the proposed Blundell Interchange onto Highway 99 or the requirement to farm the back third of the lots for tax exemption.

We got great feedback on this project.  People from the City of Richmond who were present were very receptive to our comments and are beginning to discuss with us more possibilities for collaboration to minimize those unintended policy side effects.  We have also begun to learn much more about the ALR as a result and are finding that rural and urban spaces really do matter for geographies of religion.  We also met many members of the Richmond community, including representatives from two interfaith organizations (one English-speaking, another Chinese), who encouraged us to do more thinking along the lines of theological reflection and interaction with the City as good neighbours.  We were very pleased with the turnout for the event and grateful for all the suggestions for our project, which is still a work in progress.

The PowerPoint should be available from Metropolis BC at some point, and I will keep you posted on when.

Other interesting talks of the day included talks by the co-organizers of the symposium, Paul Bramadat (University of Victoria, Centre for Studies in Religion and Society) and Meharoona Ghani (Embrace BC) on the necessity of a policy discussion of religion in a world where faith and politics are increasingly important, especially in British Columbia.  In our panel on Space, Place and the Sacred: Managing Religious Diversity in a Multicultural Society (chaired by Paul Bramadat), there were two colleagues whose work focused on the Greater Toronto Area as comparative sites for British Columbia: Heidi Hoernig (McGill University, Office of Research Services) and Sandeep Agrawal (Ryerson University, School of Urban and Regional Planning).  Another panel on projects from Embrace BC’s Interfaith Bridging Projects featured talks from Clare Whelan-Sadike (Embrace BC), Tahzeem Kassam (DIVERSECity, Surrey), Bruce Curtis (Community Justice Centre, Comox Valley), and Julie Papaioannou (CIC BC/Yukon).  The day was capped by an open discussion on post-secularism led by Paul Bramadat and Julie Drolet (Thompson Rivers University, Social Work), where much of the discussion focused on the need for education for religious literacy at all levels of schooling to address a multicultural, multi-religious society that is increasingly not following the patterns of secularization once prescribed for it in the 1960s and 1970s.

We are looking forward to a larger conversation that will happen at the Metropolis Canada conference to be held in March 2011.  Claire Dwyer and I are co-organizing a session on religion and migration, and our panel will include people from Embrace BC, the City of Richmond, and Richmond’s Interfaith Advisory Committee.

Comprehensive Exams, 17-21 January 2011

Since 20 October 2010, I have been reading for comprehensive exams.

The PhD in Human Geography at the University of British Columbia requires three exams to be written in the second year of the PhD.  These three exams address three broad fields that will be addressed in the dissertation and that can serve as broad teaching areas for a future career in academia.

My exams are set for 17-21 January 2011.  I sit one exam for each of 17, 19, and 21 January.  These are written, take-home exams where I have to answer two questions about a broad field in human geography; the normal length of each answer is a 7-10 page literature review.  On the following week, I also sit a three-hour oral exam with my doctoral comprehensive exam committee.  Currently, my doctoral committee consists of: David Ley (UBC Geography), David Edgington (UBC Geography), Henry Yu (UBC History), and Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography).

The rumour has gone around UBC that the Geography exams are among the most difficult in the Faculty of Graduate Studies.  I cannot confirm the truth of this rumour, but what I can say is that it is simultaneously difficult and rewarding.  The aim of these exams is to give a broad understanding of the field and to invite interdisciplinary approaches to the subject matter (which only goes to show how interdisciplinary Geography is as a discipline!).

The three fields I will sit are as follows:

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #1:
GEOGRAPHIES OF RELIGION, SECULARISM AND SOCIAL THEORY

  • “Old” and “New” Cultural Geographies of Religion (the “old” refers to the Berkeley school of cultural geography led by Carl Sauer, the “new” to Jim Duncan’s turn toward process in the politics of placemaking)
  • Theories of religion
  • Anthropological and sociological approaches to religion
  • Political constructions of secularity
  • Islam and the West: liberal, feminist, and ethnographic approaches
  • Religion and transnational migration
  • Congregational studies (i.e. R. Stephen Warner’s “new paradigm”)

Major thinkers I address in this list include a diverse range: Wilbur Zelinsky, David E. Sopher, Lily Kong, Reinhard Henkel, Peter E. Hopkins, David Ley, Claire Dwyer, Kevin Dunn, Banu Gokariksel, Philip Kelly, Paul Bramadat, R. Stephen Warner, Helen Rose Ebaugh, Janet Chafetz, Peggy Levitt, Steven Vertovec, Peter Berger, Harvey Cox, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Clifford Geertz, William James, Rudolf Otto, Karl Marx, Rodney Stark, Max Weber, Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Charles Taylor.

While religion is the major focus of the list, such a diversity of sources also enables a broader address of the following in future research and teaching:

  • social and cultural geography
  • intellectual histories of the social sciences
  • multiculturalism and migration studies

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #2:
PACIFIC WORLDS IN MOTION: ASIAN MIGRATIONS AND GEOGRAPHIES OF MIGRATION AND ETHNICITY

  • Theories of international migration
  • The “mobilities” paradigm (John Urry)
  • Multicultural theory and policy
  • Labour migrations
  • Transnational migration studies
  • Second-generation issues
  • Asian American studies
  • Race theory and race studies
  • Asian Canadian studies
  • Pacific Rim studies

Major thinkers I address include: Stephen Castles, Mark J. Miller, Catherine Bretell, James Frank Hollifield, Nancy Foner, John Urry, Ghassan Hage, Robert Putnam, Brenda Yeoh, Katie Willis, Christian Joppke, David Ley, Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, Christina Szanton Blanc, Elaine Ho, Peggy Levitt, Mary C. Waters, Aihwa Ong, Ien Ang, Laurence Ma, Carolyn Cartier, Ronald Takaki, Glenn Omatsu, Sucheng Chan, Lisa Lowe, Jack Tchen, Robert G. Lee, Henry Yu, Helen Zia, Kay Anderson, Dorothy Fujita-Rony, Madeline Hsu, Alexander Saxton, Judy Yung, Peter Ward, Patricia Roy, Charles A. Price, Eiichiro Azuma, Carlos Bulosan, Yen Le Espiritu, Vijay Prashad, Chris Lee, and Peter Li.

While Pacific migrations and ethnicities are the major foci of the list, this list also enables me to address the following in future research and teaching:

  • Globalization theory
  • Citizenship in theory and practice
  • Global economics and geopolitics
  • Theories of social and cultural capital
  • Race and ethnic politics

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #3
CITIES IN THE ASIA-PACIFIC: HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES

  • Asian cities in global and regional contexts
  • Colonial and post-colonial cities
  • Global cities/world cities
  • Pacific Rim studies
  • Cities and the welfare state in post-colonial Asia
  • Cities and the neoliberal state in post-colonial Asia
  • Convergence/divergence theory (e.g. Terry McGee’s desakota model)
  • Garden cities and urban utopias
  • Sustainable cities
  • Rural-urban relations and migrations
  • Labour in Asian cities
  • Urban development in Asia

Major thinkers I address are: Terry McGee, David Edgington, W.B. Kim, Anthony King, Fucheng Lo, Peter Marcotullio, Karen Y.P. Lai, Saskia Sassen, Brenda Yeoh, Fulong Wu, S.O. Park, Ryan Bishop, Abidin Kusno, Laurence Ma, Kris Olds, Manuel Castells, H.W. Dick, P.J. Rimmer, Michael Douglass, G.L. Ooi, John Gugler, Jonathan Rigg, Andrew Sorenson, and Dean Forbes.

Though the list focuses on Asian cities in particular, broader areas for future writing and teaching include:

  • Comparative Asian, North American, and European cities
  • Migrant labour
  • Pacific and Pacific Rim studies
  • Urban sustainability
  • Theories of “orientalism”
  • Colonial and post-colonial studies
  • State politics: welfare and neoliberal models

So now…it’s back to reading!  The labour is rewarding, the knowledge both intellectually stimulating and relevant to the contemporary situation.