Sharing stories to make neighbourhood life more inclusive

But in this era of high mobility and fragmentation of living spaces, how can we promote social cohesion and a sense of belonging in neighbourhoods? With “Vie de quartier,” a winning project of the 2022 Cohort of the Civic Incubator, Béatrice Daudelin uses history to build bridges between individuals and the culturally diverse communities that make up Montréal.

The neighbourhood: a shared space worth preserving

Unconstrained by zoning, a neighbourhood’s boundaries can be blurred—a city block, a cluster of streets. The identity of a neighbourhood is composed by the layers of different communities that successively settle there over time. Its constantly evolving history is enriched by the paths of its communities—their residential trajectories, and their social engagement in this space.

Photo : Unsplash

Certain phenomena have recently disrupted this natural dynamic, however. Gentrification—the result of increased mobility—is stirring up tensions between newer, more affluent residents of the neighbourhood and those who have lived there for a long time and who sustain its local history and culture. This process is weakening neighbourhoods’ social coherence. Faced with a changing local environment that is often organized around shops and living spaces conceived to meet the needs of the newest arrivals, local residents may feel dispossessed of their narratives, or even invisible.

But it’s precisely a neighbourhood’s cultural heritage—its histories, its diversity, its dynamism, its eccentricities—that creates value and encourages people to settle there. These elements reinforce a sense of continuity with the past and contribute to the coherence of the community, which is essential to a strong social fabric. So how do we protect neighbourhoods against community divisions?

History at the service of social cohesion

If we tend, as a certain explorer once said, to “protect what we love,” a strong attachment to one’s neighbourhood is no guarantee that one shares common interests or an inclusive vision with one’s neighbours. For Béatrice Daudelin, this dynamic is consistent with the fundamental inequity at the heart of the narrative of urban history, especially Montréal’s. Sensitized to Eurocentric discourse during her university studies, she questions the role of normative narratives in the development of neighbourhoods:

Incubateur civique : Partager son histoire pour rendre la « Vie de quartier » plus inclusive

Béatrice Daudelin dans les bureaux de la Maison de l’innovation sociale (MIS)

“The people whose narratives are excluded from the established discourse are also those who suffer discrimination. I realized that continuing to promulgate a truncated history of the lived experience of various Montréal communities reinforces their marginalization and thus hinders social cohesion.” — Béatrice

Using history as a vehicle, Béatrice has sought to promote the discovery of the city’s multiple identities by raising awareness of neighbourhood life—making it known to the city’s various communities—all while seeking out to those who are strangers to social diversity. To begin, she envisioned the “Vie de quartier” project as an installation of interactive billboards, intended to capture the attention of local residents, situated in the public spaces of different Montréal neighbourhoods. Each billboard would feature a blank timeline and a notice beside it reading, “Write down an event that you think deserves to be known, and add it to the timeline.”

Placed at intersections on busy streets, the billboards would encourage the local populace to reflect; they would naturally become part of the rhythm of people’s daily walks. The billboards would provide an opportunity to raise awareness about local cultural diversity. Béatrice explains:

“It’s important to place the panels outdoors and not in a closed space, in order to reach out to the population. This is a completely different process than learning about existing local organizations and their programming, then pushing open the door of a community or cultural center. A billboard on our daily route attracts attention and can provoke spontaneous interaction.” — Béatrice

By bringing playful elements of history into the public sphere, “Vie de Quartier” helps to build a first bridge between communities and to reduce the distance between different groups. Thanks to these asynchronous meeting spaces, individuals have the opportunity to learn more about others without necessarily crossing paths. Any reservations they may have about the diverse realities around them are mitigated by this movement toward action—which itself can inspire them to go even further in their encounters with people of different backgrounds.

Photo : Unsplash

Taking ownership of the project

In the initial version of the project, Béatrice imagined the billboards forming a kind of path of transfer from one neighbourhood to another—a more inclusive narrative at the scale of the city itself. But in trying to address such a complex problem on such a grand scale, Béatrice found that her impostor syndrome was triggered:

“I doubted my legitimacy in carrying out such a huge project, in the fact of my own intervention when other organizations already existed, and in the fact that my own biases could potentially hinder its development.” — Béatrice

The support of the Civic Incubator’s coaches was decisive in addressing Béatrice’s questions, helping her gain confidence, and transforming her attitude as the leader of the project. Different exercises helped her put “Vie de Quartier” into perspective on a more manageable scale. As she reworked her project, she imagined the smallest viable version of her project that would at the same time satisfy its targeted impacts as well as her own strengths and desires.

The pilot version of the program will be focused over the next several months in the Mile-End, a neighbourhood that Béatrice, having grown up there, knows very well—a neighbourhood that has a rich history around by the meeting of a succession of cultures, and one that is suffering the full force of the effects of gentrification. For this reason, Béatrice prefers to carry out her experiments in this single neighbourhood, rather than multiplying the number of billboards right away and expanding her project to other neighbourhoods. The more detailed billboards she is installing will seek to collect data on the neighbourhood’s sense of community, map its boundaries, and test its capacity to generate the participation of, and accurately profile, local residents. This data will be used to choose a physical meeting place for citizens and to develop activities to foster exchanges and mobilize people in the neighbourhood.

“I liked the initial idea of an ephemeral installation and billboards with a simple timeline, moving in public space. But in hindsight, the experience was not complete. A ‘Vie de quartier’ site should also encourage contacts and exchanges. Because without dialogue, how can we open up our imaginations?” — Béatrice

Incubateur civique : Partager son histoire pour rendre la « Vie de quartier » plus inclusive

Sketch of the project “Vie de quartier”

Through this project, Béatrice aims to make communities progressively more autonomous—able to take the initiative of organizing these meetings themselves, with the support of the local community and cultural organizations in the heart of Mile-End. Does this project appeal to you? “Vie de quartier” is looking for sites that are ready to host a billboard and is open to suggestions about sharing stories and creating a physical space for the community. Contact Béatrice!

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