t the heart of Michelle Murphy’s “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency” (2013: 1) is a question: What is the role of infrastructure in sustaining or debilitating capacities to live intergenerationally; of sustaining or targeting multigenerational life? Murphy’s concept of “distributed reproduction” complicates a common understanding of reproduction as being solely biological, positioning reproduction as “occurring beyond bodies within uneven spatial and temporal infrastructures.” For Murphy (2013: 2), infrastructures are inherently caught up with the “politics of distributed reproduction” because of their ability to promote the formation and persistence of some life in certain places, while averting others. While Murphy (2013: 6) is concerned primarily with the chemical infrastructures that redistribute reproduction, they acknowledge that “there are many pasts at work, not only chemical, with which to reanimate our futures."

In this essay, I explore how Murphy’s concept of distributed reproduction extends to other infrastructures and histories, looking at how housing and park policies intersected during the COVID-19 lockdowns to shape the intergenerational reproduction of low-income residents in Toronto. I analyze what lockdown park restrictions reveal about where life is infrastructurally supported in the city, arguing for the restrictions to be understood not as singularly occurring events unique to the pandemic, but as part of an ongoing infrastructural cycle of displacement and abandonment of the city’s low-income renters. I set out this argument in three parts: 1) an exploration of Toronto’s housing crisis as a crisis of reproduction; 2) an investigation of public parks as a critical infrastructure for low-income tenants; and 3) an analysis of Toronto’s lockdown park restrictions as part of a larger infrastructural cycle of abandonment.   

Toronto’s housing crisis as a crisis in reproduction

For the past two decades, Toronto has been experiencing a rapidly escalating housing affordability crisis (August and Walks, 2018). As of 2020, Toronto ranked as the sixth most expensive city in the world, with more expensive housing than even San Francisco, London, and New York (Klachkin, Stillo and Davenport, 2021). This crisis has impacted renters most severely, with 47% of Toronto renters living in unaffordable housing compared to 27% of owners (City of Toronto, 2021b). Rental housing has been severly impacted because it is not invested in as a secure form of tenure in the Toronto housing system. Here it is useful to ponder Murphy’s (2013: 6) articulation of the concept “latency” as, “to be not yet: a potential not yet manifest, a past not yet felt.” A state of latency is definitional to the rental housing sector. In its treatment as “a stepping stone”, as temporary housing on the path to homeownership, it is cast as the Canadian housing system’s “not yet” (see Figure 1) (Grant and Scott, 2012: 133). It is this condition of latency, the promise of something more to come, that normalizes the wider neglect and deprioritization of the rental sector in all levels of housing policy (Grant and Scott, 2012; Hulchanski, 2007).  

Figure 1: “The conventional “housing continuum” (CMHC, 2018). 

The neglect of the rental sector, in the form of retrenchment and deregulation, has facilitated the loss of affordable rental units with no government intervention (Chisholm and Hulchanki, 2019; Rosen and Walks, 2015). The impacts of these policies can be seen in the conversion of rental housing into condos (Rosen and Walks, 2015); the loss of social housing (August and Walks, 2018); rent control laws that incentivize the eviction of long-term tenants (CTVNews, 2017; Mahoney, 2001) and the increasing concentratation of multi-family housing in the hands of financialized landlords (Walks and August, 2018).  

These are not just abstract housing policies; they disproportionately restrict the housing options available to low-income renters and ultimately determine whose lives are supported in the city. Since their implementation in the 1990s, Toronto has experienced rapid socio-spatial polarization where the concentration of wealth in the city’s core has been accompanied by the increasing displacement of low-income renters into aging post-war high-rise towers in the city’s inner and outer suburbs (August and Walks, 2018: 134; see also Hulchanski, 2010). Since Toronto has the highest rates of racialized income inequalities in Canada, with 1 in 5 racialized families living in poverty, the geography of income polarization between Toronto’s core and suburbs has been mirrored by increasing rates of racial segregation and polarization (United Way Greater Toronto, 2019: 58; see also Canada without Poverty, 2017).  

Given the intricate relationship between tenure, income and race/ethnicity, the housing crisis is ultimately a crisis in reproduction that targets the ability of low-income and racialized residents to live long-term in the city. While the uneven outcomes of this crisis are often biologized as innate to urban life, this obscures the ways that housing policy infrastructures and distributes reproduction. 

Park space as critical infrastructure 

The abandonment of renters reflects a long history of homeownership bias in Canadian housing policy (Chisholm and Hulchanski, 2019: 22). The prioritization of homeownership does not present solely in direct housing policy, but in the cultural ethos of planning. Despite official narratives that support urban densification and mixed tenure, planning and development practice “reproduces suburban aspirations for conventional homeownership: the Canadian dream of the detached house” (Grant and Scott, 2012: 133). Deborah Cowen (2005: 351) describes this phenomenon as the “suburbanization of Toronto politics”, in which notions of a nuclear family that, “amuse[s] themselves at home in the large private spaces” has become the default assumptive norm within uban recreation policy. Cowen’s (2005: 351) finding of the “hegemony of the private family in private space” in Toronto recreational policy is in crucial contrast to the ways that public park space has become critical infrastructure for low-income renters. 

Park space is increasingly structurally integrated into the built design of low-income rental housing communities. The shrinking living areas, limited communal spaces and the removal of individalized green spaces from affordable buildings and low-income neighbourhoods, has produced an increased reliance on outdoor public common spaces for residents (August, 2016: 3415; see also Brockbank, 2020; Hassen, 2021). The integrated nature of public parks and high-rise buildings is formally acknowledged in City of Toronto urban design guidelines that describe the park as “an extension of the home” and as “integral to urban living” for high rise buildings because they act as “social and recreation space, offering inclusive places to rest, play and socialize” (City of Toronto, 2020: 14, 18). Considering the increasing concentration of low-income renters into multi-family high-rise buildings, this language implictly recognizes the public park space as essential to the social reproduction and maintenance of the everyday lives of low-income renters (August and Walks, 2018: 134).

Park infrastructure is particularly critical to the overall health of low-income communities. According to the Toronto Public Health (TPH) Green City report (2015: 22), while access to green space improves the physical and mental health of all urban residents, the highest positive association was found for low-income and/or vulnerable populations. The report states that in low-income populations, “all-cause mortality [was] significantly lower among populations residing in the greenest areas” and that access to parks and playgrounds for children is correlated with “healthy weights, improved cognitive function, reduced stress and reduced ADD/ADHD symptoms” (Toronto Public Health, 2015: 17, 22). With this context, parks represent a critical infrastructure that not only fills a gap in an increasingly inhospitable housing environment, but uniquely impacts and shapes the long-term health outcomes of low-income rental populations in Toronto. 

Public parks are thus what Lauren Berlant (2016: 396) refers to as “commons as an idea about infrastructure.” Berlant (2016: 394) positions commons as transitional infrastructures characterized by “collective struggles” for “general social existence.” The use of public parks to enhance and support the maintenance of life by low-income renters acts as a commons infrastructure, a reimagining “troubling” the created divisions between indoor private space and outdoor public space (Berlant, 2016: 395). Cowen (2005: 350) speaks to this troubling of outdoor/indoor divisions, describing the default to single-family housing in Toronto’s suburbanized policy not only as a spatial phenomenon but as a social process by which the realities of low-income and racialized individuals “located outside of these norms’’ are stigmatized and invisibilized by decision makers. This has translated into a legacy of recreation policies skewing to benefit the demands of higher-income residents and “a bare minimum of resources being devoted to lower-income areas” (Cowen, 2005: 346). Don Mitchell (2017: 507) describes this dynamic as the “contrasting ideals of public space”; a division between seeing spaces such as the park as “commons, constructed through practice... a space for living, for forms of life” or as “a gift of the state and developers...a space only to visit, a space in which we are always only guests.”  

Lockdown park restrictions: A moment in a longstanding cycle of abandonment 

In March 2020, the Province of Ontario declared a state of emergency, sparking the first of several “lockdowns” in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. Park by-laws were implemented virtually overnight in Toronto, and in the span of one week the City closed the use of park amenities including playgrounds, sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, off-leash dog parks, picnic areas and outdoor exercise equipment (Ombudsman Toronto, 2021: 19). Solitary active uses, such as walking, cycling and running were represented as the only appropriate uses of park space (Ombudsman Toronto, 2021: 24). Stationary uses, such as sitting at picnic and park benches, despite not being listed as a prohibited use on the city website, were the sites where the majority of the tickets in the city were issued (Ombudsman Toronto, 2021: 10). 

The closure of park amenities, the inconsistent allowance and enforcement of some uses and the targeting of park goers using the park in a stationary manner, promoted an environment in which “people were afraid to use our public parks at all” (Ombudsman Toronto, 2021: 10). Here again we see a pattern in which the realities of low-income residents – who are nearly 50% less likely to have a lawn compared to those earning over $150,000 a year –  are invisibilized and stigmitized by decision makers (Dewis, 2020). In this treatment of parks as non-essential, we see the continued default to an assumption of private access to green space, enforcing Murphy’s (2013: 6) warning of a politics of distributed reproduction that works only to maintain and enforce a heteronormative standard. It is thus not suprising, that at the time when parkspace was the most restricted, Toronto saw a surge in demand for single family housing, the housing type with the most private access to green space (Davis, 2021; Kalinowski, 2021). The shaping of lockdown park restrictions around the norm of single-family housing and its connotation of the nuclear family worked to more deeply entrench its valuation, while actively excluding and targeting the commons infrastructure that assists individuals in non-normative housing and family arrangements.  

It is important to acknowledge that COVID-19 has and continues to be “disproportionately concentrated” in low-income areas in Toronto, due in part to “explosive transmission” at workplaces and precarious housing conditions (Pelley, 2022: np). Yet, any acknowledgment of the contexts that made it impossible or unsafe to stay home were strikingly absent from official messaging using displays of public park use to stress the importance of  “just staying home” (Alberga, 2021: np). Instead park use was portrayed as illegal (even when it was permitted) and a source of major outbreak risk, despite outdoor transmission accounting for zero recorded cases in Toronto (Ombudsman Toronto, 2021; Public Health Ontario, 2021). Park goers were condemned for their “selfish and dangerous behavior” by the city’s chief medical officer of health (Canadian Press, 2020: np), painted as individuals who “don’t want to listen or who don’t care” by Mayor Tory (Draaisma, 2021: np) and labeled as criminals by Premier Ford when he said “they have enough police officers to chase people [park users] down” (DeClerq, 2021: np). Unsurprisingly, given this stigmatizing rhetoric and the invisibilization of the park as critical infrastructure, the impact of the arbitrary enforcement of park restrictions was found to be “felt disproportionately by poor, marginalized, and unhoused people'' (Ombudsman Toronto, 2021: 12; see also City of Toronto, 2021a; Wilson, 2020). In this way lockdown park restrictions act as a double-edged sword. They target and criminalize the use of critical park infrastructures and through this criminalization, those who structually rely on the park – low-income renters who are also structurally most vulnerable to infection – are held responsible for their own exposure. 

While it may be tempting to dismiss the rhetoric surrounding lockdown park restrictions as a panicked narrative unique to a global crisis, the construction of the delinquent use of public space by low-income individuals has been employed in a nefarious pattern during other crisis points to justify the removal of rental housing. This pattern is particularly clear when focused on one geographic region once referred to as Cabbage Town (that now encapsulates St. James Town, Regent Park and borders Don Mount Court). Perceptions of illegal and criminal use of public space and “failures'' of connectivity of housing to the street have been cited to justify: the razing of the old “Cabbagetown slums” in the depression era 1930s (George, 2011: 117); the “revitalization” and concurrent displacement of tenants of Regent Park during the “great recession” in the mid 2000s (TCH, 2018: 14); the ongoing eviction of low-income tenants in Don Mount Court (August, 2014b: 1173); and, as if on cue, plans to “revitalize” St. James Town that were submitted during the first wave of the pandemic (Mitanis, 2020). Each of these cases exemplifies a cycle in which uses of public space by tenants judged to be non-normative are pointed to as proof of a neighbourhood’s infrastructural failure. The image of infrastructural failure is used to justify the next wave of “revitalized” displacement that, in all cases, takes aim at the commons infrastructure of tenants while reducing the amount and availability of rental housing for generations to come (August, 2014a; 2014b). Lockdown park restrictions thus need to be understood as part of a wider systemic invisibilization of poor and racialized individuals in the city, where simply their visibility and existence in urban space is seen as illegitimate and is used to justify their removal. 


I have argued that the abandonment of poor and racialized renters in all levels of housing policy acts as a reproductive decision that denies the opportunity of poor people to live long-term in the city. This essay documents a housing system that in its inhospitality to low-income renters is forcing new ways of conceptualizing and relying on the park that trouble planning norms and distinctions between indoor and outdoor space. Public park and outdoor green space are increasingly important to ensuring the long-term health and sustenance of low-income rental communities. In this context, lockdown park restrictions that target critical park infrastructures reinforce a cycle of infrastructural displacement and abandonment of low-income renters in Toronto. The divestment, abandonment and displacement of low-income renters is not accidental, but represents a reproductive policy decision shaping who can live and maintain life in the city.  Ultimately, the distributed reproduction of low-income residents infrastructures not only the present but the possible futures that can take shape in Toronto. 



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Skye Roshan Collishaw is a MA Geography student at the University of Toronto, with a professional background in provincial land-use planning and policy. Her research interests include financialization of housing and socio-spatial polarization in Canadian cities. Her most recent work investigates the connection between park use and housing conditions for renters in Toronto's St. James Town neighbourhood during the COVID-19 pandemic.