News & Press: ACSP Annual Conference News

A Closer Look with Award Winner Mercedes Sharpe-Zayas

Monday, February 13, 2017  
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FWIG/ACSP Marsha Ritzdorf Award for the Best Student Work on Diversity, Social Justice and the Role of Women in Planning

Equity in the Time of Precarity: Inclusive Local Economy Projects in Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas
Mercedes Sharpe Zayas, University of Toronto

A committee of five faculty members from the Faculty Women’s Interest Group (FWIG) selected Mercedes Sharpe-Zayas from a competitive field of candidates, in recognition of the critical questions, thoughtful analysis, and compelling presentation of arguments and suggestions that she made in her thesis, titled "Equity in the Time of Precarity: Inclusive Local Economy Projects in Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas."

ACSP recently connected with Mercedes to find out more about this accomplishment.

How did you feel when you won the award?
I was overcome by a mixture of excitement and disbelief when I first found out about the award, but it was not until I began to learn more about the legacy of Marsha Ritzdorf and her contributions to the analysis of gender, race, and feminism in planning that I felt incredibly humbled and honoured to be awarded in her memory.

Who do you want to thank, if any?
My research would not have been possible without the collaboration and support of Katharine Rankin and Kuni Kamizaki. Alan Walks and Adriana Beemans were also thought-provoking mentors and supervisors, and I will forever be grateful for their endless encouragement. I would also like to thank Lindsay Stephens and Virginia Maclaren for recommending my paper based on its contributions to the role of social justice in the vocation of planning. Finally, I would like to thank the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning and the Faculty Women’s Interest Group for the award and the opportunity to present my research.

What inspired you about this project?
I was inspired by the rise of grassroots organizing against the exclusionary economic practices that contribute to the racialization, feminization, and geographic concentration of poverty in Toronto’s urban peripheries. The dislocation between policy and action led me to question the role that ‘equity’ plays at the intersection of territorial stigmatization and gentrification, and the extent to which the lived experiences of low income individuals and communities are considered in City legislation. The project taught me that urban planners need to incorporate an economic justice lens to ensure that planning is conducted in an equitable, accessible and inclusive manner.

What’s next?
I was hesitant to branch out of academia, but so far I’ve been able to take part in some really amazing work opportunities. One project that I’m particularly excited about is supporting the development of an Affordable Housing Strategy for marginalized women in the City of Toronto. Hopefully there will be more projects like this to come!

Mercedes' Bio
Mercedes Sharpe Zayas is a recent graduate from the Master of Science in Urban Planning at the University of Toronto, and holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts with First Distinction in Anthropology from McGill University. Her commitment to anti-oppressive planning and policy processes has driven her to act as the VP External and Equity for the Graduate Geography and Planning Student Society, intern as a policy researcher for the City of Toronto, and support the Inclusive Local Economies Program at the Metcalf Foundation. In addition to the 2016 Marsha Ritzdorf Award for the Best Student Work on Diversity, Social Justice, and the Role of Women in Planning, Mercedes has been awarded a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship and the Peter R. Walker Master of Science in Planning Fellowship for her master's research on precarity in the urban form. Prior to this, she received the Richard F. Salisbury Prize for the best undergraduate honours thesis in Anthropology at McGill University.

About ACSP Awards
Each year ACSP is proud to honor faculty and students who have distinguished themselves or made major contributions to the academy or to the profession via outreach efforts, public service or for service to ACSP, the Academy, or the profession. A complete listing and history for all awards can be found at

This award is named after Marsha Ritzdorf, who was a stalwart champion of social justice and did path-breaking research on the relationship between zoning regulation and the suppression of women and non-traditional families. This award recognizes superior scholarship reflecting concern with making communities better for women, people of color and/or the disadvantaged. Submissions may be based on student work submitted in the pursuit of any urban/city/community/town/regional planning degree, undergraduate or graduate, at an ACSP-member school.

The 2016 Marsha Ritzdorf Award Committee includes: Committee Chair Kathryn Quick, University of Minnesota; Kristen Crossney, West Chester University; Orly Linovski, University of Manitoba; Lynn McCormick, Hunter College; Rosie Tighe, Cleveland State University; Yiping Fang, Portland State University.


The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning promotes education, research, service and outreach in the United States and throughout the world by seeking to:

  • recognize diverse needs and interests in planning;
  • improve and enhance the accreditation process, and;
  • strengthen the role of planning education in colleges and universities through publications, conferences, and community engagement;
  • extend planning beyond the classroom into the world of practice.