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Off the board: Gentrification, urban-ecoism, and cultural perspectives

a/Off the Board/Opinion by

The houses in Kathmandu, Nepal, where my grandparents live are very tall and narrow—there’s not a lot of buildable space in the actual city. My grandparents’ house doesn’t have central heating. It’s wired up to the electrical grid, but the electricity isn’t always there. For several hours a day, electricity is cut-off to certain neighbourhoods on a rotating basis around the city. This is known as load-shedding, and it’s done because there is simply not enough electricity produced to power all the homes all the time.

The details of how my grandparents live have often surprised people when I tell them. People often comment, saying that life must be very hard in Nepal, or that my grandparents are very strong to be able to live the way they do. When hearing this, I always feel defensive. My grandparents don’t need sympathy, and their life isn’t hard. It’s just how things are done in Nepal. I know that living with six people in a six-room house would be considered crowded in Canada, and most families who do live like that here are often lower-income; but in Nepal, it’s the norm. Most middle-class and even upper-middle class families live this way.

It’s also funny for me to think that the way my grandparents live is very eco-friendly. They don’t own any cars, or a fridge. They buy their food fresh daily at a local market. They don’t use a lot of electricity, and they don’t even heat their homes (and it can get pretty cold in Kathmandu—the highs in January are a balmy seven degrees Celsius).

The way my grandparents live actually reminds me of the growing urban-ecoism movement here in Canada. People buy local and organic, take public transportation, and try to grow produce in shared urban gardens, or in window-sill boxes.

My grandparents’ lifestyle is often received with pity, when urban dwellers who aim to do the same in Canada are lauded.

My grandparents’ lifestyle is often received with pity, when urban dwellers who aim to do the same in Canada are lauded. Perhaps it’s because my grandparents have no choice—they’re just living the way that most middle-class people in Nepal do. In Canada, however, choosing to take a bus instead of driving is making a conscious choice to save the environment.

In fact, the efforts of the urban-eco movement have caused a lot of problems for other people living in cities in Canada and the United States. I’m talking about gentrification, and although gentrification is caused by a variety of things—not just urban-ecoism—many of hallmarks of gentrification go hand in hand with eco-friendly living. More organic food stores, more local businesses and less global retail-chains, more people riding bikes everywhere often lead to increased costs of living. Food becomes more expensive, and the poorer families—who are typically people of colour—get priced out of their historic neighbourhoods as rent prices increase as the area becomes more trendy.

I’m not absolving myself from all this. I’m a student in Montreal—I like the artistic, creative culture here, I like shopping at smaller, local boutiques, and I try to buy organic when I can. Still, it’s interesting the way certain lifestyles are framed, depending on what part of the world is living that way. My grandparents in Nepal are very eco-friendly, and I don’t think the way they live contributes to gentrification. Yet when other people hear how they live, I’m often met with veiled pity. Being eco-friendly in Canada, on the other hand, is celebrated, despite perhaps the ways in which it can contribute to gentrification, which does have a tangible negative effect on the other, poor, often people of colour, living in the same cities.

  • OHawk

    I hope your grandparents are safe. Its a tough time during exams, but I want you to know the McGill community is with you.

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