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Toronto’s tent encampments: Excavating northwestern informalities and state ambiguities

Toronto’s tent encampments: Excavating northwestern informalities and state ambiguities

Allison Evans

Allison Evans is a new EUC graduate and in observation of the recent World Town Planning/ Urbanism Day on November 8, we spotlight her research that has used a global southeast framework to conceptualize tent encampments in Toronto as a mode of urban informality. From this perspective, Evans examines the local state's role in informalizing encampments (typically through regulation) and its responses to encampment formation (typically toleration, formalization, or clearance) alongside myriad state-civil society relations influencing the state's encampment response. 

Evans's research primarily focused on the rapid proliferation of tent encampments in downtown Toronto parks during the global COVID-19 pandemic and how the pandemic—exacerbated by the ongoing affordable housing crisis—brought urban informality and inequality to the surface. For unhoused people experiencing homelessness, sheltering at ‘home’ often meant choosing between congregate-style emergency shelters - and the risk of contracting COVID-19 - or living illegally (and informally) in downtown parks.

Evans’s methods included an ethnography of the local state and the ‘ruling relations’ between several actors: the bureaucratic, political, and various civil society actors. Her research revealed nuanced local state responses to encampments throughout the pandemic, oscillating between ambiguity, negotiation, and toleration. Ultimately, the state’s response to encampments resulted in clearance and demolition, often provoked by nuisance complaints by nearby residents.

The research also interrogated the ambiguous application of state regulations on similar ‘pandemic structures’ emerging through the fall and winter of 2021. The small structures (all under 108 square feet) are not considered buildings per the building code, thus circumventing the permitting process and occupying a regulatory grey area. Her research focused on two structures: Toronto Tiny Shelters appeared in parks across the city, donated to help the unhoused survive Toronto's frigid winter. Backyard Pods later emerged for purchase by homeowners, purposefully designed to avoid the hassle and cost of the permitting process and intended to help families 'survive' being at home and under one roof.

Results of the study suggest the city's ongoing opposition to the Tiny Shelters, rooted in the building and fire codes, contradicted their indifference to Backyard Pods of roughly the same size and construction. The choice to use the regulatory grey area against one structure while ignoring the other reveals the state's ambiguity in producing urban informality, allowing small structures in the backyards of the propertied, meanwhile, disavowing and removing similar small structures of the unhoused from public spaces. Complicating the city's position: tiny shelters in nearby municipalities such as Kitchener—often organized into villages on private and public land—were designed to remain outside the formal building process without facing opposition from the local state.

Evans hopes to add to the nuanced account of urban informality in Toronto with comparative studies of other North American cities. She intends to excavate the state's role in mediating and illegalizing the dwelling practices of the urban poor and intervene by proposing planning and policies rooted in radical care and empathy.