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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

OP-ED: Rethinking the role of Toronto’s Chief Planner

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When Toronto last searched for a new Chief Planner, in 2017, we encouraged the City to look at planning, and planners, through the lens of human rights. We argued that taking a human rights-based approach to planning could positively impact people’s daily lives, build a better city, and help Canada meet its international obligations.

Gregg Lintern, who took on the position then and is now retiring, understood and embraced the importance of human rights, and leaves behind a platform to build on.

Still, Toronto faces many serious social issues, some of which were exacerbated by the pandemic and years of municipal taxes that didn’t keep pace with the rising costs of running the city. The affordable housing and homelessness crisis has accelerated; the public transit system has been starved of fares by the changing patterns of workers and students; and institutions such as the Toronto Public Library have had to cope with different and urgent needs.

As we look towards our next Chief Planner, we encourage the City to ask, what is planning for?

Officially, the planning office has a mandate to manage the physical form of the city. In reality, that translates into a lot of time and energy spent on buildings and builders.

But what about people?

Local governments, like other orders of government, have a duty to serve people and to protect their dignity and human rights. So while the Chief Planner must manage the physical form of the city, that form should, first and foremost, serve the people who live here.

How would planning look different if it focused on people and their human rights? For example, planning for housing would focus on what people need in a home rather than what developers need to make a profit. These two need not be mutually exclusive. Building affordable homes that meet people’s needs and make for healthy neighbourhoods can be done while making a profit. Toronto’s St. Lawrence neighbourhood, built in the 1970s in the east downtown, is an internationally admired example of a community intentionally planned to include high quality, mixed-income housing, with all the neighbourhood amenities that make it a good place to live.

To make people-focused neighbourhoods like this happen today, a Chief Planner needs a vision of a city built on dignity and human rights.

The new Chief Planner will inherit a large backlog of applications and appeals that could easily overwhelm the planning office. Business-as-usual won’t clear it. The City should consider a targeted approach to deal with this so that the Chief Planner can focus on moving this vision forward. The City could hire an operational lead to focus on clearing the backlog, for example, or identify and fully fund a two- to three-year project to do so. This would provide the office with intent, clarity, and resources.

Since planning work touches so many aspects of people’s lives, and most other departments at city hall, the Chief Planner should be included in senior level discussions. In addition, they should report directly to the City Manager, rather than through a Deputy as they do currently. These changes would deliberately break down silos in the City’s work, and mandate cross-departmental relationships. They would also acknowledge the overarching role of planning, extend its impact, and heighten its accountability.

Are we asking for a lot? We’re asking for the City to step up to its obligations to advance the human rights of its residents. In recent years, the City has taken important steps in the right direction. The HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan acknowledges the human right to housing. In 2022, it passed a bylaw to regulate multi-tenant houses (commonly called “rooming houses”), which, if implemented well, has the potential to protect the rights of tenants in this type of affordable housing. Last year, the City established a Deputy Ombudsman for Housing; and a Housing Rights Advisory Committee is now getting off the ground. Maytree has been pleased to be a part of the City’s work to institutionalize human rights, and we’re encouraged by the openness and dedication we see from City staff who are working for progress.

Toronto has an opportunity to continue this positive trend. The Chief Planner and their office impact the lives of every person in Toronto. By reconsidering how their role and office are structured, the City of Toronto can be a leader in the vision and implementation of human rights.

Alan Broadbent is Chairman of Maytree and Elizabeth McIsaac is President of Maytree.

This opinion piece is cross-posted from the Maytree foundation website.

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