Everyday Law on the Street: City Governance in an Age of Diversity

Everyday Law on the Street: City Governance in an Age of Diversity

by Mariana Valverde

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Toronto prides itself on being “the world’s most diverse city,” and its officials seek to support this diversity through programs and policies designed to promote social inclusion. Yet this progressive vision of law often falls short in practice, limited by problems inherent in the political culture itself. In Everyday Law on the Street,…  See more details below


Toronto prides itself on being “the world’s most diverse city,” and its officials seek to support this diversity through programs and policies designed to promote social inclusion. Yet this progressive vision of law often falls short in practice, limited by problems inherent in the political culture itself. In Everyday Law on the Street, Mariana Valverde brings to light the often unexpected ways that the development and implementation of policies shape everyday urban life.   Drawing on four years spent participating in council hearings and civic association meetings and shadowing housing inspectors and law enforcement officials as they went about their day-to-day work, Valverde reveals a telling transformation between law on the books and law on the streets. She finds, for example, that some of the democratic governing mechanisms generally applauded—public meetings, for instance—actually create disadvantages for marginalized groups, whose members are less likely to attend or articulate their concerns. As a result, both officials and citizens fail to see problems outside the point of view of their own needs and neighborhood.   Taking issue with Jane Jacobs and many others, Valverde ultimately argues that Toronto and other diverse cities must reevaluate their allegiance to strictly local solutions. If urban diversity is to be truly inclusive—of tenants as well as homeowners, and recent immigrants as well as longtime residents—cities must move beyond micro-local planning and embrace a more expansive, citywide approach to planning and regulation.

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Editorial Reviews

Perspectives on Politics

“Valverde grapples with the ways that municipalities regulate space and the related largely unseen and unexamined issues that affect nearly everyone who lives in a city. . . . Distancing herself from Jane Jacobs, [she] compellingly argues that bringing back city planning is the best path to achieving more diverse and inclusive outcomes.”
Kitty Calavita

A beautifully written and ingenious exploration of the day-to-day, on-the-ground enforcement of municipal regulations—and, hence, urban governance—in Toronto. The topics are wide-ranging and include affordable housing and land use issues, the regulation of street-food vendors, and the taxi permit system, among others. It is an excellent empirical study of what law and society scholars call ‘law in action’ and the various and often unpredictable ways such law veers from the ostensible intentions of those who write the law in the books.
Sally Engle Merry

Studies of urban communities rarely recognize the role of law, but here eminent sociolegal theorist Mariana Valverde turns her attention to the way laws from the local to the international shape urban life. This book challenges Jane Jacobs’s idea that cities should be organized as small, self-governing villages, arguing instead that law is critical in dealing with the inequalities and exclusions of highly diverse cities. Ethnographically rich, readable, and engaging, this book is essential for understanding the contemporary city.
Nicholas Blomley

Mariana Valverde has a remarkable gift for revealing the unexpected amidst the taken-for-granted. Here, she takes us deep into the little-understood—yet crucially important—world of Toronto’s everyday urban law, governing taxi licenses, hot dog stands, garden weeds, and rooming houses. In so doing, she reveals the systematic ways in which urban law works against the social and cultural diversity that cities profess to embrace. A wonderfully and clearly written book, with a refreshing humor and wit, Everyday Law on the Street invites us to reimagine the city.
LSE Review of Books

“In an era when cities across the globe are championing diversity, why are we witnessing an increase in inequality and social exclusion? Inspired by this ill-understood paradox, legal sociologist Mariana Valverde sets out to find the roots of this contradiction in her hometown of Toronto—an oft-touted icon of urban multiculturalism. What she finds is a set of structures and practices of municipal governance that, by promoting a culturally specific definition of diversity, is actually perpetuating long-held inequalities. . . . Based on four years of on-the-ground research shadowing local officials and attending civic meetings, Valverde creatively combines anecdotes, case studies, and academic research to expose the ways in which local governance structures sew social exclusion into the fabric of ‘urban experience.’”

“Valverde examines an oft-overlooked area of urban policy: code enforcement, and how it reflects larger political considerations in urban life. She finds that Toronto, which prides itself on being one of the most diverse cities in the world, is a city where the law and its enforcement are often inconsistent. . . . Public hearings actually have a negative impact on the poor and other marginalized groups who fail to participate or do not understand how to effectively participate in the process. Recommended.”
City & Community

“Valverde draws attention to a crucial but often overlooked foundation of cities: the administrative legal structures that make them run. In her focus on the everyday law of the city, she joins powerful intellectuals across many disciplines, including law professors Gerald Frug and David Barron; sociologists John Logan, Harvey Molotch, and Mitch Duneier; geographer Nick Blomley; historian Hendrik Hartog; and anthropologist Sally Engle Merry. Until Valverde, however, none had crafted such a comprehensive picture. . . . Every reader will find something to identify with. Because of the ease and expertise with which it introduces readers to an understudied and valuable meeting of law and the city, Everyday Law on the Street would be a terrific book to assign in undergraduate and graduate classes.”
Journal of Legal Education

“For readers interested in examinations of how law operates in the midst of social anxiety about demographic diversity, . . .Valverde deliver[s] in-depth analyses rich with ethnographic and historical detail. . . . In Valverde’s contemporary urban context, diverse cities are urged to implement large scale city-wide planning that directly engages concerns with diversity in a race conscious fashion. [Everyday Law on the Streets] provides the sort of nuanced and substantive discussions of diversity that are sorely needed in public discourse today.”
Contemporary Sociology

“[Everyday Law on the Streets] is best understood as the foundation for a new path at the intersection of urban and political sociology. . . . Scholars and students alike will find much to learn in this book , as it is the first (and hopefully not the last) to shine a light on the layered sociolegal infrastructure of urban America—which plays a significant and too often invisible role in frustrating and facilitating urban living and change. . . . While ‘seeing like a state’ has proven a useful window into the entanglement of citizenship, power, and space, Valverde develops and provides a provocative and innovative sociological and legal framework to view this nexus by ‘seeing like a city.’”
Canadian Geographer

“[Valverde] uses numerous colourful anecdotes and case studies to illustrate how local laws actually work. . . . The book is an important contribution to the field of urban studies and law; the unique approach used reveals much that is dysfunctional with modern municipal law and planning.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Everyday Law on the Street

City Governance in an Age of Diversity

By Mariana Valverde

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92191-4



Why is the word "urban" so often followed by the word "problems"? The countryside, after all, is hardly a haven of stability: the swallowing up of family farms by corporations and the prospect of catastrophic climate change are only some of the tremendous challenges faced by rural populations around the world. But people of all classes tend to think of the country and the small town as "good" places to live. By contrast, ever since the discovery of new forms of misery in the industrializing cities of mid-nineteenth-century Europe, the urban has been regarded as a symbolic space as well as a physical place that is by nature full of all manner of dangers and risks.

An important reason for the traditional association of "urban" with "problems" is that cities have always contained more social diversity than the surrounding countryside. Cities in the Roman empire welcomed merchants and settlers from diverse ethnic, language, and religious groups: today, cities remain the primary magnet for permanent migrants as well as short-term travelers. That "the cities of the 21st century will increasingly be characterized by the challenges of multiculturalism," as one British scholar puts it, is now an almost trite remark. But multiculturalism and diversity have acquired different meanings. While in the 1950s and 1960s, cultural and racial diversity were regarded as inherently problematic, there has been a shift in numerous city regions around the world toward regarding diversity as a good thing, even as a resource.

Whether accompanied by fears or by hopes, however, diversity does pose new challenges for governance, since the existing governance structures were developed during far less diverse times. To compound cities' difficulties, these challenges are taking place in a global context in which central governments have downloaded many responsibilities to local governments and local community agencies, without a concomitant increase in fiscal capacity and politico-legal resources. From the extreme pressures faced by American municipalities in states that are nearly bankrupt, to the sudden loss of central government funding experienced by British local communities in the postfinancial crash period, to the complete abdication by the Canadian federal government of such issues as housing and public transportation, city officials, politicians, and civic leaders have been abandoned by senior levels of government just when greater resources are needed. And these resources are not only monetary. Cities are also in great need of what in industry would be called "R & D"—that is, the people and the mechanisms needed to learn from collective experience, creatively devise innovative solutions, and ensure that legal powers are flexible enough to allow cities to tackle new problems. If this book helps both citizens and leaders to think creatively about the governance challenges of today, it will have served its purpose.

While this study began as an open-ended look at the mundane details of how cities regulate space, settle disputes, and interpret ordinances and regulations, without any single theme being chosen beforehand, it became clear that the issue of diversity, while rarely explicitly addressed, was always hovering in the background. People rarely stopped to think about just what "diversity" means, however. Nearly everyone whose work was studied expressed a sincere commitment to the idea of diversity if the topic came up (though neither my research assistants nor I asked, since the focus of the study was how things are done, not what people say about what they're doing). "Diversity is our strength" is Toronto's motto; and unlike in many parts of Europe, in Toronto one is hard- pressed to find anybody who explicitly opposes diversity as such. But in practice, certain dimensions of diversity were more valued than others, in different ways depending on the context. This is hardly surprising, since activists as well as scholars have long noted that there's a tendency for institutions and individuals to imagine they're promoting equality or diversity in general when in fact they're only addressing a single factor (gender, say, or race). It was thus not unexpected to find that certain vectors of diversity—socioeconomic status, most glaringly, but also housing tenure—were often trampled in the collective rush to express pride in Toronto's cultural/racial diversity.

The shortcomings of what one could call "diversity in practice," diversity on the ground, could be studied by the use of aggregate data, as has been done in important reports replete with discouraging graphs showing that like many other "global" cities, Toronto is becoming more unequal and poverty is increasingly racialized. These studies have certainly informed my analysis, since to correctly interpret microlevel interactions, it is important to have a good grasp of the underlying structural trends. However, this book is concerned mainly with processes that are not visible to those who work with aggregate data—the everyday interactions that make up the ever-shifting dynamics of urban governance on the ground.

Detailed studies of the dynamics of local governance are extremely scarce; but there are some precedents. Notably, many years ago Michael Lipsky carried out a study entitled Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. Like the present book, Lipsky's influential study focused on the microdetails of the governance process, rather than on the big-picture outcomes. However, his study included officials from a variety of levels of government, and so he was unable to shed light on the specificity of governance at the local level. In addition, it was limited to bureaucrat-client interactions, whereas I include civil-society groups, city councillors, planners, and a variety of other actors in my purview. Thus, my study paints a broader picture than Lipsky's; but more important, it shows that city governance, urban governance, has its own dynamics. Cities are not simply smaller versions of states: there is such a thing as "seeing like a city," as distinct from "seeing like a state," as this book demonstrates.

If multiculturalism and diversity are the key governance challenges for today's cities, Toronto is an appropriate site for the empirical study of street-level urban governance, since it has distinguished itself for warmly embracing the idea (and to some extent the practice) of diversity. It is significant that in the late 1990s, many people came to believe that UNESCO had officially declared that Toronto was "the world's most diverse city." This claim proved to be an urban legend, not surprisingly given that there are many different measures of diversity, and no consensus about which variables are most important. The "most diverse" claim was thus eventually revised: the "Equity, Diversity and Human Rights" web page within the city of Toronto's website stated (in 2010) that it's "one of the most diverse" cities. The Tourism Toronto website, however, still claims Toronto as "the world's most ethnically diverse city." And in the course of my research I encountered many savvy civic actors who believed that some UN agency had in fact given Toronto the "most diverse" award. Clearly, Torontonians passionately want to believe that they/we live in "the most diverse city in the world," and a nerdy social scientist pointing out that there is no agreed-upon measure of diversity in general cannot dent that pride.

In the United States there are cities that pride themselves on diversity as well, but, with the partial exception of multicultural New York City (which is significantly whiter than Toronto), American cities of diversity are Hispanic cities. Miami is 65 percent Latino, while in Los Angeles, the Hispanic/Latino population is now 48 percent of the LA total, and it's projected to soon rise to 60 percent. In Toronto, the 2006 census showed that the city, once almost completely white, is now almost majority nonwhite: 47 percent of Torontonians said they were "visible minorities," in the city, while 42 percent of the larger census metropolitan area fell in that category. But there is no equivalent to Miami's or LA's Latino blocs. South Asians make up 12 percent of the Toronto total, closely followed by people of Chinese descent (11.4 percent), blacks (8.4 percent), and Filipinos (4.1 percent). In addition, there are dozens of ethnic and language groups with significant representation—for instance, Somalis, whose Toronto community is the largest in the world outside of Somalia. These demographic facts make Toronto a wonderful urban studies laboratory.

A factor that makes this study particularly relevant elsewhere is that it does not focus on the official bureaus specifically devoted to promoting diversity. Instead, it studies a wide array of low-level governance processes and analyzes them in an open-ended manner. Studying how the local ethic of diversity works in everyday governance processes that do not come with "diversity" labels already attached gives us great insight into basic questions of urban governance.

So what exactly was studied for this book? Clearly, no one person could study the whole field of urban governance, even in one city; such an enterprise would require a team of experts. I was limited both by the time and the research funding available and by my own background. Other scholars have worked with large data sets to shed light on a variety of crucial policy issues. But while reading such studies has been crucial in sketching for me the social and economic context, and thus indirectly shaping this book, I decided to draw on my sociolegal studies background and contribute to urban studies through a detailed qualitative study of "everyday law" in the law-and-society tradition.

This multiyear project had several parts. First I worked with a legally trained colleague, Ron Levi, to study the formal law, including the mind-numbing details of the 2003 Ontario Municipal Act and the 2006 City of Toronto Act. As we shall see throughout the book, even after the supposed empowering of Canadian cities in recent legislation and court decisions, cities have very limited powers to shape their own destiny. But while cities in the United States generally have more legal autonomy than cities in Canada, the basic legal architecture is the same across North America. Just as important, municipal inspectors go about their work in a similar manner, as far as one can judge from the scarce empirical studies available. Therefore, despite the differences in formal law across borders, the dynamics of urban governance documented here are by no means limited to either Toronto or Canada.

After concluding the formal law research, I devised a four-part empirical study. Planning decisions at the lowest level were studied by a systematic observation of Toronto's four "Committees of Adjustment" (the local equivalent of boards of zoning appeals). Simultaneously, I and another research assistant studied the work of the licensing tribunal, which handles disputes between the city and licensed businesses. Thirdly, with the generous support of two senior city officials (who unfortunately cannot be thanked by name due to research ethics rules), I was able to place two doctoral students in "ride-alongs" with the so-called generalist officers from Municipal Licensing and Standards who respond to citizen complaints about such matters as unsightly yards and noise. Finally, I participated in planning consultations going on in the city and in my own neighborhood, focusing not only on citizen-city interactions but also on the division of labor between politicians and bureaucrats, which turned out to be different than what textbooks suggest. The study began in mid-2003. Most of the research, and all of the research-assistant work, was concluded by 2007, but I continued to attend meetings and to follow various issues. The book is thus reasonably up-to-date through October 2010, when sending the first draft to the publisher coincided with a municipal election that unexpectedly brought to power a mayor and a council majority with Tea Party tendencies. Given that my research found that politics in the big P sense plays a relatively small role in the legal and enforcement matters I studied, however, the research presented here should remain timely for a while, just as it should prove relevant to cities with different political alignments.

Having explained the scope of the project, I will proceed in the rest of the introduction as follows. First I will delve a little more into the question of law's role in urban governance, in a section that takes the life and work of Toronto- based urban guru Jane Jacobs as an occasion to reflect on the distorted view of law that characterizes urban studies today. Next comes a section focusing on governance more than law. Here I show that the Jacobs ideal of a city of villages, which sounded so good when first put forward, in the sixties, has turned out to have serious defects when used as a model to govern large and very heterogeneous cities. Developing the city-village theme, this section will introduce the idea of "scales of governance" and will reflect on how the study's own chosen scale, which is somewhat ant-like, limits what I have been able to discover.

The final section of this introductory chapter will ask some probing questions about the various meanings of the ubiquitous term "diversity." In keeping with findings of research elsewhere, such as John and Jean Comaroff's Ethnicity, Inc., I find that the capitalist quest for global competitiveness has been able to absorb and use a notion that had been originally democratic and antiestablishment; but I also document the persistence of the older, more inclusive and democratic meaning of "diversity," which in the city of Toronto, and I expect elsewhere as well, has not disappeared. This is followed by an overview of the chapters that follow.

Law versus the Street? The Legacy of Jane Jacobs

It would be silly to claim that legal mechanisms are the golden key to understanding how urban life is organized. The politicking that goes on in city councils; the machinations of real estate moguls; the engineering expertise that channels people and vehicles like so many ants along streets and highways; the cultural preferences that draw people with money to certain spots and away from others; the aesthetic ideas of architects and planners; the electronic transfers that keep global capital going—all of these processes shape urban life. Law is only one of the many dimensions of the fabric of our cities.

But without exaggerating law's importance, the everyday experience of living in cities, whether in the global South or in the global North, suggests that law does matter. Of course, many laws are not enforced, or are enforced very unevenly. And local law is often powerless to prevent environmental calamities or to control such things as capital flows. But anyone who is familiar with the host of everyday interactions that involve urban law—from the rigors of parking fines to the red tape needed to open a small business—will agree that the little-understood agglomerations of laws, ordinances, bylaws, rules, policies, inspection practices, and regulatory fines that cities have, and which do not seem to be known, in their totality, by anyone, do in fact shape the experience of urban life to a great extent. The most striking feature of law at the local level is its heterogeneity and lack of clear organizing rationales.

In addition, local law is different from most other spheres or scales of law in that in many cases we have to ask for permission to do all manner of mainly private things—renovating one's own house, for instance, or letting one's own front yard revert to nature. Studying urban law, one cannot but be struck by the fact that the lofty constitutional principles of individual freedom that guide national-scale law have very little bite at the local level. Cities will tell us we can't sleep in parks even though that's a breach of individual rights. And it's not just homeless citizens who experience "the city" as a kind of feudal lord: just try arguing your way out of a parking ticket by claiming that citizens have already paid for the streets and so the streets belong to them.


Excerpted from Everyday Law on the Street by Mariana Valverde. Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Mariana Valverde is professor in and director of the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto. She is the author of several books, including Law’s Dream of a Common Knowledge.

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