What is a Cultural District? What is a Heritage District?

Much of the conversation around creating protections on culturally significant neighbourhoods has revolved around heritage vs. cultural districts. But what are cultural and heritage districts anyways?

The City has limited means to designate protections on culturally significant neighbourhoods. Currently, only designating something a “heritage conservation district” comes with actual protections- but a heritage designation doesn’t solve all of our concerns about preserving and protecting important cultural spaces. Listen here as Michael McClelland, a panelist from our It Takes a Village panel, explains why Heritage Conservation Districts don’t protect everything we want them to:

If heritage districts come with restrictions, then what can designating a “cultural district” do to protect a neighbourhood? As per the Toronto Star: “There is no concrete definition of what a cultural district is, and there are no existing examples in Toronto. As of 2021, the city planning department is looking to imitate processes and tools from designated cultural districts that exist in U.S. cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis.”

In 2021, Little Jamaica began a process of trying to protect and preserve its neighbourhood by exploring what a cultural or heritage designation would mean for the neighbourhood. In April 2021, Toronto city council voted unanimously in favour for the neighbourhood to become a heritage conservation district understudy. Here’s Michael McClelland explaining why pursuing a Heritage Conservation District to protect cultural spaces is misunderstood:

Given these limitations for a Heritage Conservation District, the city’s planning department is intent on exploring how to make Little Jamaica Toronto’s first ‘cultural district’, which means defining what a cultural district means in the context of Toronto. As outlined in the Toronto Star, the objectives with Little Jamaica becoming a cultural district are to

“create visibility in the public realm by working around historical narratives, advocate for policies that address systemic oppression and collaborate with the community to protect the cultural identity and ways of life meaningful to the neighbourhood.”
~ Cheryl Blackman, interim general manager economic development and culture, and Gregg Lintern, chief planner and executive director

Learn more about Little Jamaica’s journey and the City's fight to define its first cultural district:

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