Publications, opinions, and speeches


Toronto’s next Chief Planner could be the first rights-based city planner

Published on 29/11/2017

With the departure of Jennifer Keesmaat from Toronto’s Chief Planner chair, Toronto is looking for her successor and is no doubt considering what attributes it wants the new Chief Planner to have. Our suggestion is to choose someone who sees city planning through the lens of human rights.

The City’s description of the role of city planning is generic. It could apply to any city: manage the growth and physical form of the city; work with stakeholders and the city divisions to set goals and policies for the kind of communities and neighbourhoods the residents want; review development applications from a community planning and urban design perspective; protect and enhance our urban environment.

In reality an enormous amount of the planning division’s time is taken up with processing development applications and resolving conflicts between developers and communities. The amount of time and resources left over for visionary and creative city-building is constrained and has to be marshalled carefully. To consider going beyond even conventional notions of vision and creativity, so far as to embrace a human rights approach, is asking a lot. But it would return a lot.

As Toronto continues to grow at a rapid pace, and as Sidewalk is proposing to undertake a massive “smart city” development of a key part of downtown, it will be vital to have an effective analytical framework to guide and discipline growth, and to distribute its benefits equitably. Human rights can be that framework.

What would it mean to embrace a human rights approach? What human rights lend themselves to being positively supported by city planning?

Through Canada’s commitment to international covenants on human rights, we have agreed that governments at all levels will support these rights (among others):

  • Safe, secure and affordable housing in neighbourhoods of their choosing. Toronto council has already passed in 2009 a Toronto Housing Charter (PDF), which states that “All residents have the right to equal treatment in housing without discrimination as provided by the Ontario Human Rights Code”;
  • A safe and healthy workplace, with ongoing improvement in the environmental and industrial hygiene in the area;
  • Education in safe and well-built facilities across all parts of the community;
  • Support of healthy neighbourhoods including freedom from pollution, safe streets with controlled traffic and good provision for pedestrians of all ages and cyclists; and
  • Access to healthy food and the absence of so-called “food deserts,” areas where there are too few or inadequate food stores.

Not only have we committed ourselves to the provision and support of these rights, but to a continuous improvement. Where we are under-performing, we need to have plans in place to fully support the realization of those rights over a reasonable period of time, what is termed “progressive realization.”

City planning can play a crucial role in the support of these rights. It can put in place planning protocols to support the provision of safe, secure, and affordable housing, and make sure zoning bylaws address the problem of food deserts. These might include inclusionary zoning which would have developers include a percentage of affordable units in new developments. Or it might follow through on the recommendations of the Tower Renewal project. One recommendation, which has now been implemented, encourages rezoning to permit retail uses at the ground level of the large multistory high-rise developments which currently only permit residential use. Another looks at the idea of mixed use within the towers, so people who run small businesses like hair salons or tax advisory services can do so legitimately. This enables them to advertise their services or borrow for their business development, leading to better jobs for themselves and others as their business grows.

Planners can be instrumental in creating safe neighbourhoods through regulation of road widths, street corner design, and sidewalk widths, which create safe conditions for pedestrians, something particularly important in areas where a lot of seniors live. And, of course, planners should consider the ideas of Jane Jacobs, which call for mixed use in city development, resulting in many “eyes on the street” at all times of day and night, and make sure that people don’t get trapped in hidden or vacant areas where they might be vulnerable. This can include the design of schools and schoolyards as safe community spaces integrated into the fabric of neighbourhoods.

Beyond the planning of places, a rights-based approach can also look at planning processes. A fundamental right is to have access to decision making that affects one’s life. Planning from a rights perspective ensures that residents are engaged and included in decision making, not just through a “public consultation,” which is usually about advising a community on decisions that have already been made, but through problem definition and solution design.

What separates a rights-based approach from planning as usual? It is the imperative that a commitment to rights implies. Rather than governments having a choice about whether they support a right or not, their choice is about how they are going to support it. Rather than decide whether they will provide enough housing units to people in need, they must decide how they are going to do it. Is it through building new housing, providing incentives for the commercial market to build more units, or creating a portable housing benefit for individuals to exercise? Will it be funded through raising taxes or another revenue source, through a partnership with another level of government, or through a development protocol like inclusionary zoning?

Refusing to act is not a choice under a rights-based approach.

It would be a bold step for Toronto, or any other city, to appoint a Chief Planner who will apply a rights-based approach to planning. It would be a brave commitment to our national obligation to promote and support human rights. More importantly, it could make an enormous contribution to making sure people living in Canada can do so with dignity.


Cities and communities, Human rights


With the departure of Jennifer Keesmaat from Toronto’s Chief Planner chair, Toronto is looking for her successor. Alan Broadbent suggests choosing someone who sees city planning through the lens of human rights.