Blog Post: Gentrification & Supplemental Income

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a workshop held by The Urban Ethnography Lab - a partnership between The University of Toronto's Department of Anthropology and the Georg-Simmel Center for Metropolitan Studies at Humboldt-University of Berlin. 

The workshop covered a number of contemporary perspectives in urban ethnography, geography, and anthropology, including critical approaches to ethnography and the politics of design, cognitive mapping and spatializing ethnographic research, as well as the future of ethnographic research in other disciplines. You can view the two-day program here.

Encouraged to take a thematic approach to our fieldwork, I sought to examine the effects of gentrification on health. 

Noticeable were the mostly older locals selling various items on small cloths or tables by the curbside. While 'sidewalk sellers' are common across most of the world, in Toronto, it is a fairly uncommon sight. Which led me to ask: Which urban design factors affect individuals' ability to generate supplemental income through those means?

A few seemed to be at play:

Sidewalk Width

Toronto's sidewalks are notoriously narrow in the old part of the downtown core, with a few notable exceptions. Spadina is one of the wider thoroughfares, and one of the few boulevards in the city. If sellers do not have the space and buyers do not have the ability to stop, no transaction can occur.

Cultural Draw

University Ave. shares many of Spadina's characteristics. It is a wide boulevard with a terminating view at College, and with ample sidewalks space. University Ave., however, is a commercial district limited mostly to hospitals, corporations, and government. By contrast, Spadina offers greater opportunity for leisurely walking, shopping, and eating beyond chains serving a lunchtime crowd. 

Business Types

Furthermore, the businesses on University Ave. cater to the people who work there - service professionals. The shops of Chinatown, however, mostly target the urban immigrant population who lives nearby - though this is changing.

With this information in-hand, I sought to map both sidewalk sellers and new businesses or chains not directly catering to the local demographic. Sidewalk sellers were largely concentrated in 1-2 areas - around Spadina and Dundas - one of the less gentrified portions of Chinatown with high pedestrian traffic into and out of Kensington Market, Village by the Grange, Queen West, and the University of Toronto - all cultural destinations with high numbers of leisurely walkers, and diverse independent storefronts.

A visualization of new businesses (black triangles), big new businesses (black triangle circled) and sidewalk sellers (red circles). Sidewalk sellers are largely concentrated around Spadina Ave. and Dundas St. West - portions of Chinatown that have largely evaded gentrification.

A visualization of new businesses (black triangles), big new businesses (black triangle circled) and sidewalk sellers (red circles). Sidewalk sellers are largely concentrated around Spadina Ave. and Dundas St. West - portions of Chinatown that have largely evaded gentrification.


Street sellers and can collectors around Chinatown are mostly older adults in their 60s, 70s and 80s. As recently reported in the news the main motivation for most of these individuals is not poverty or absolute need per se, but to generate supplemental income in support of their independence. 

Income is a major predictor of well being and health outcomes. With this in mind, we should be asking: what are potential effects of urban renewal and gentrification on surrounding urban populations? What are the effects of gentrification on mental health, social connection, and well being? How does loss of discretionary income affect independent living? Who will bear the costs of these changes?