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The Inclusive City: On Language and Culture

Last week, I wrote about the importance of urban design in promoting inclusiveness, and helping people change their circumstances for the better. This concept can be expanded to other characteristics as well, in terms of putting forward a message of cultural – and linguistic inclusion.

On one of my first visits to Portland, I was struck by the fact that MAX Rail announcements are made in both English and Spanish. Don’t believe me? You can hear an example here (at Pioneer Square, a flagship stop and destination downtown)

Portland, unlike cities in the southwest, isn’t known for a large hispanic community, and sure enough, the census data confirms that, with 9.4% of residents of Hispanic or Latino origin. MAX Rail is regional, so if any suburbs contain significantly higher numbers, that may boost the regional share to the state level of 11.4%, but it’s unlikely. Nonetheless, the metro average does appear to be significantly lower than the national share of 16.7%.

The point, however, is not about at what share of the population does a linguistic group command service in its native language. I’m on the accommodation side (yes, I do support official bilingualism in Canada), and see a broader point behind the language issue. It speaks to how welcoming and open to diversity a city (or, at least, its decision makers) is.

Contrast this to the proposed approach of Quebec’s government in waiting. In a province where only one major city – Montreal – is really multingual, nevermind bilingual, it proposes to further restrict the use of English and other languages. Some stats on Montreal – 66% of Montrealais identify their mother tongue as French, 13% as English. Any arguments that other languages need restriction for French to thrive ought to be debunked as mere rhetoric. I covered the long-term threat this approach poses to Quebec’s cities in last week’s post.

Now, to end on a positive note. Edmonton has the fastest growing urban Aboriginal population in Canada, and may soon have the highest in total numbers (though not proportion). Zoe Todd has previously written about the Aboriginal marks on Edmonton’s urban landscape, how other cities like Winnipeg do, and how much more can be done to honour the area’s history.

I thought about this with the unveiling of Aboriginal art panels that will line the city’s South LRT line. It’s a small gesture, perhaps, but one that takes the city another step towards putting forward a more inclusive message. In today’s world, I think that matters a lot.


A photo of the panels, via Don Iveson on Twitter.

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