Planning ahead

Cross-posted from Eye Daily.

This week I wrote about a group called People Planning Toronto (PPT for short), who held a neighbourhood summit May 26 to discuss how to improve the Toronto’s backward planning process and ways to get residents more involved. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the summit, but I spoke to one of the organizers, Sandra Shaul of the Annex Residents Association, who is good at telling stories that illustrate the state of planning in this city.

One of the stories she told me when we spoke last week was about a recent walk she took around her neighbourhood with Councillor Adam Vaughan and a planner for the area.

“So we had the one city planner with us yesterday and we walked for three hours,” says Shaul. “He talked about how 20 years ago, when he started off as a planner with the city, he used to ride his bike to work, and he’d stop from site to site — he had to beg to be given permission to walk with us yesterday.” As I mentioned in my column, the planning department is very understaffed. Simply retaining employees has become a problem as well.

“We walked down Philosopher’s Walk,” Shaul continues. “He had never walked down Philosopher’s Walk in his life and he’s a planner for our area!” Philosopher’s Walk, which meanders through the University of Toronto, starts on the south side of Bloor Street. This particular planner is in charge of an area in the Annex that begins on the north side of the street.

“That’s who’s planning the city,” she argued. “That’s why everything that’s done is spot zoning. He said he learned so much about our neighbourhood that day. I said, don’t you think you should learn that before you call yourself a planner for the area? I said, you come in late notifying the neighbourhood about these development applications, and you set yourself up for a fight because you don’t understand the culture of the area. The only things you understand are the zoning bylaws, or the lack of them, and intensification goals. You don’t look beyond the site. It just hit me between the eyes yesterday. Their priorities are all shot.”

As a member of the Annex Residents Association, Shaul has gained a lot of experience working with city planners and developers as well. Despite her criticism of this particular planner, she understands the challenges he must face; the larger problem lies in the regressive priorities of the planning department, the city and the province.

Why David Miller hasn’t made cleaning up Toronto’s approach to city planning one of his major goals is baffling. The planning process ties together so many other critical issues, such as sustainable development, transit, bike lanes, tree planting, architecture, affordable housing, and the economy. Setting clear, specific plans for each neighbourhood and getting the community on board would, in the long run, allow the city to be built more harmoniously. Different departments would know what to expect and where and how they could work together. As it stands now, planners are assigned to different areas as though the neighbourhood on the north side of a street has nothing to do with the land on the other side of the road to the south.

At the end on the Neighbourhood Summit May 26, those who attended agreed on three overall goals called the People’s Plan for Toronto. According to their press release, the plan:

• urges the timely creation of secondary plans and the creation of “community review boards,” which would review development applications with reference to the secondary plan, recommend that such applications be approved or resubmitted with changes, and recommend changes to the secondary plans as neighbourhoods evolve in character,
• recommends that the OMB’s planning authority over the City of Toronto be abolished in favour of an appointed planning board or boards, community councils and City Council.
• notes that lack of knowledge about planning issues, and lack of accessibility to the planning process are key reasons why people feel marginalized, and advocates both organization and education to share information and empower communities.

Shaul says at least 50 people signed up to work with PPT moving forward. Visit PPT’s website to learn more about the organization and how you can get involved.

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