Women Plan Toronto Incorporating Gender Issues in Urban Planning

by Barbara Loevinger Rahder

Grassroots women can organize to change the way cities are planned and developed. Women Plan Toronto (WPT) is an example of how they can do it. WPT is a grassroots women’s organization that uses participatory methods to involve diverse women in changing urban planning processes and outcomes in Toronto. Its purpose is to raise awareness and advocate practical alternatives for addressing women’s planning concerns.

WPT is needed because of the critical urban problems faced by women. In the following, I will give a brief background on the status of women in Canada. I then outline a few of the projects WPT has organized to include women’s concerns in the planning process. I will conclude with a brief analysis of the organization’s main strengths and weaknesses. Status of Women in Canada

Canadian women tend to live longer, earn less, do more unpaid housework and child care, have more difficulty finding affordable housing, and experience more violence than Canadian men.

• In most age groups, women and men are found in equal numbers, but over the age of 65, 62 percent are women, and this proportion increases with increasing age.

• There is a significant wage gap between men and women. In 1993, a woman working full time in Canada earned an average of 72 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The gap is smaller among professionals, but still wide.

• According to a survey for the Canadian Institute of Planners, women planners earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by a male planner. * Much of women’s work is unpaid. In 1992, Canadian women spent an average of 1,482 hours on unpaid housework, including child care, compared to 831 hours for men.

• Women have more difficulty finding affordable housing. According to the Canadian government, affordable housing is defined as housing costing less than thirty percent of total household income. Among homeowners, affordability is a problem for twenty percent of women, compared with twelve percent of men. It is significantly worse for renters, where 46 percent of women, compared with 27 percent of men, have problems affording shelter.

• Women experience more violence, particularly in the home. One in four women in Canada have been abused or assaulted at some time in their lives, many as children, and one in eight have been abused by a male partner or spouse. An estimated thirty to forty women are murdered by their male partners each year in Ontario, accounting for seventy percent of the women murdered in the province. This rate is similar for Canada as a whole, but more than double the rate in Switzerland or Great Britain.

• Anishnaabe (aboriginal) women, immigrant and racial minority women, and women with a disability face more barriers to needed services than white women in Canada.

Women Plan Toronto

What do these facts have to do with urban planning?

Women Plan Toronto began to explore the implications of women’s needs and experiences in relation to urban planning in 1985. WPT began by holding a series of informal discussions with women to find out about their experiences and ideas relating to Toronto’s urban environment. These groups included employed women, full-time homemakers, homeless women, immigrant women, Anishnaabe women, high school and university students, elderly women, women with disabilities, and single mothers. Most groups identified problems related to child care, public transit, and personal safety. All of the groups explored ideas about what the city might be like if it were more woman friendly. Suggestions ranged from calls for “equal pay for work of equal value” to a wish for more public washrooms for women.

Over the past thirteen years, WPT took up various issues and started various projects. Some of the most notable projects are:

Safety Issues The WISE report — “Women in Safe Environments” — was a ground-breaking 1989 project that documented women’s concerns about safety in relation to urban planning and design practices in Toronto. Done in cooperation with the Metro Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC), the WISE report spawned safety audits of the public transit system, public parks, and underground parking garages. By 1990, the City of Toronto had established a Safe City Committee under the auspices of the Department of Planning and Development, and has subsequently developed stringent regulations for the design and lighting of public spaces.

Municipal Elections In 1991 and in 1994, WPT conducted workshops with women’s groups and produced a booklet on women’s election issues. The booklet included a report card ranking the record of various candidates on women’s issues, and provided examples of questions women might want to ask candidates at public meetings. This was a tremendously successful campaign. The women’s report card was reprinted in Canada’s largest daily newspaper, the Toronto Star.

Housing WPT been an active advocate for social housing and housing densification, but it has also been involved in creating housing for women. The group worked with Sistering, a women’s drop-in center, and with the Older Women’s Network, a senior’s advocacy group, to build social housing for older low-income women.

Resisting Mega-Projects When Toronto was competing to host the 1996 Olympic Games, WPT produced an intervenor report entitled “How Women Lose at the Games.” The report is currently being re-circulated as Toronto is bidding again for the Games in 2008. The report documents the social and economic costs and risks to local women, as well as the lack of benefits for them, associated with hosting the Olympic Games. Another group, Bread Not Circuses, spearheads the opposition to the Games in Toronto, and produced a similar intervenor report documenting the social and economic costs for poor people in general. The International Olympic Committee decided to hold the Games in Atlanta in 1996, but we don’t yet know about the Games for 2008.

Resisting the Megacity Another recent project focused on the municipal elections for the new megacity of Toronto, which is an amalgamation of the six former cities of Toronto, York, East York, North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke. WPT worked with other groups, first to resist amalgamation, and then to develop a pamphlet highlighting gender- related issues such as why women must vote and how to ask questions about issues that affect you. The pamphlet highlights proposed changes in areas such as income support, social and community services, housing, safety, transportation, health, education, and human rights. It provides basic information about the implications of amalgamation under each category, and then lists practical questions women can ask their local candidates, such as what will you do to protect vulnerable people, particularly women, children and persons with disabilities?

The WPT Organization

A gendered perspective on urban issues is central to the group’s work, and a key characteristic of WPT’s organizational structure, which is composed of voluntary committees called “circles.” The term circle suggests that there is no hierarchy among participants — everyone who attends a meeting is allowed to participate in decisionmaking — though the more one participates, the more comfortable, knowledgeable, and potentially influential she might be in the group.

The structure of the organization, then, fluctuates with its membership, depending on who is involved, what their interests are, and what issues are on the public agenda (or put on the public agenda by WPT). There is one part-time staff member, and a core of about seven or eight volunteers who are usually very active in the circles and on various projects. Another fifty women or so are less active members, and up to another 300 individuals and organizations are part of a broader network which is kept informed, and sometimes mobilized, around important issues and events.

The main strengths of WPT are also its main weaknesses. The informality and lack of hierarchy gives volunteers a great deal of freedom to work on the issues that are of most concern to them, but can also be confusing to new members who don’t necessarily know where or how to fit in. Similarly, the small core of active volunteers who do the bulk of the work provides continuity and an organizational memory, but without turnover in the core, this group can burn out. WPT appears to shrink and expand, then, according to the energies of those in the core. Some members of WPT also worry that they have become so successful as the voice of women that they are now the token women’s group that gets consulted by planners who are more interested in appearing to be politically correct, than in actually addressing women’s concerns.

Women Plan Toronto has had a palpable impact on urban planning in Toronto. For more than a decade the organization has worked hard to focus attention on women’s needs in the city, to critique the inequities of mainstream planning, and to develop alternative visions of what planning and urban life might be like if our diverse needs were taken into account. The women whose efforts sustain the organization pay a price for their involvement. Their work is unpaid and its value often unrecognized. But their hard work has begun to change the way planners and decision makers address issues critical to women.

Barbara Loevinger Rahder is a member of the Planners Network Steering Committee, teaches in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University (Toronto), and has been a member of WPT since 1986.

This is a revised version of an earlier paper, “Women Plan Toronto: Grassroots Participation in Re-Shaping the City,” presented and published as part of the International Network for Urban Research and Action (INURA) conference, Possible Urban Worlds, in Zurich, Switzerland, June 1997.

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