Civil Society: A Challenge to Planners

by Gerda R. Wekerle

Planning is generally identified with the state or private sector. ‘Citizens’ are often relegated to discussions of citizen participation, which is token and marginal to the real action. Or they are described as “special interests,” one of many inputs to the planning process which must be mediated and negotiated. Yet it is citizens who are currently making active use of planning in their resistance to restructuring, downsizing, and a model of urban growth that exploits our environment for short-term profit.

Recent debates about globalization and restructuring and their impacts have argued that planners have abandoned the last vestiges of earlier roles in urban reform movements and, instead, have become firmly and publicly allied with the state and business in pushing economic development for greater global competitiveness. At the same time, planning theorists argue that we are experiencing a revival of civil society. Civil society has been defined variously: as the place for “public spirited action,” and as the space for political mobilization and active resistance. Civil society, according to planning theorist John Friedmann, stands in opposition to the state and to the corporate economy.

The title of this conference includes the term “insurgent planning,” an evocative image of a planning that is rooted in social movements and alternative visions of sustainability and governance. James Holston initially outlined what he calls “the spaces of insurgent citizenship,” created through grassroots mobilizations and everyday practices. Leonie Sandercock’s elaboration of what this means in planning practice, a practice she termed “insurgent planning,” has evoked an image of planning without planners, and of new social movements for whom planning has become a tool in their arsenal of resistance strategies and the generation of alternative ways of living.

The Oak Ridges Moraine: Inciting Civil Society in the Suburbs

This story of civil society engagement in planning takes place at the regional scale and highlights the issue of controlling urban sprawl and saving clean water. In Ontario, planners have all but given up on regional planning; civil society has newly discovered it. This story is about ongoing battles over the Oak Ridges Moraine, which runs east-west for 160 kilometers north of the city of Toronto.

In 1995, the Conservative government in Ontario replaced the province’s first social democratic (NDP) government. In 1999, the Conservative government was re-elected with solid support from the exurbs surrounding Toronto and rural communities closest to the city. As other neo-liberal regimes in the U.S. and U.K. have done, the Ontario government downsized the public sector, targeting especially the Ministry of the Environment. They downloaded costs and responsibilities to the municipalities and devolved planning responsibility from the provincial government and regional conservation authorities to municipalities. The government drastically changed the Planning Act to reduce restrictions on development, especially requirements to address environmental standards. Toronto is growing rapidly and the new growth is expanding northward. It’s heading straight for the Oak Ridges Moraine. This a massive underground reservoir with deep aquifers that provide the municipal drinking water for ten communities and recharge the headwaters of 22 rivers. It is an area of forests, fields, wetlands and lakes.

This spring, five development applications were made to build 12,000 units of housing on 1,600 hectares of the Moraine. The three regions that have jurisdiction over the Moraine say they cannot deal with land use and environmental protection issues that cross political boundaries. And the province has made changes that have limited the powers of municipalities to freeze development. Although there are development applications throughout the Moraine, the city of Richmond Hill has received the most public attention. In January 1999, the Richmond Hill council voted to amend its official plan to allow rezoning for housing on the moraine. Citing the need to “accommodate the march of growth,” politicians argued that they were following the advice of the planners. The Planning Commissioner of Richmond Hill said, at the time, that the town has no choice but to grant approval of rezoning of rural and agricultural land for housing if it is unable to buy the land for preservation. Environmentalists charged that suburban politicians were afraid to stand up to developers and protect the public interest.

The turning point was a tumultuous February 2000 council meeting when 1,000 residents demanded that the council reject an official plan amendment that would have approved the construction of 17,000 new homes on the moraine. After months of intense public pressure and scrutiny, in April, the Richmond Hill Council denied two development applications to construct housing near a lake on the Oak Ridges Moraine. The province released a position paper, mapping out a two-kilometer-wide green corridor that could not be developed. This was a small portion of the total moraine and the restrictions could be overturned by the (provincially appointed) Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) on appeal from developers.

Over the past six months of debate on the moraine, developers have made their arguments based on “science and good planning” grounds. Citizens have marshalled their own hydrogeologists and planners. A mass email by environmentalists garnered the support of 465 scientists for greater protection of the moraine from housing development.

Initially, it was the environmental groups who argued on planning grounds for the protection of clean drinking water and the last major green space in the GTA. They want the whole Moraine protected in perpetuity with a buffer around the edges. Environmental groups have developed a plan which includes setting boundaries on development, freezing public spending on infrastructure to prevent new development, purchasing land for parks, density transfers to allow developers to build elsewhere. They were supported by Regional Councils that called for the province to create a moraine-wide protection policy that cannot be set aside by the OMB.

These are the same people who voted overwhelmingly Tory in the last two elections. They are suburban, middle class homeowners who are organizing to block suburban residential development on green fields and to contain urban sprawl. These are property owners questioning the rights of private land owners to make profits by rezoning. They are organizing people in the whole watershed, not just local voters and politicians. They are forming coalitions among unlikely allies – homeowner associations and environmental groups. Even Toronto City Council, 25 miles to the south, voted funds to support the campaign.

The terms of the discourse have been set by environmental groups and by developers. Planners have either been complicit, arguing that they had no choice but to rezone rural land for housing development, or they have come in towards the end, at the regional level and from other jurisdictions, such as the city of Toronto, to argue that redevelopment proposals do not meet environmental requirements or the Region’s Official Plan.

Extensive media coverage has increased public awareness and education on the need for integrated planning of the moraine and the significance of environmental concerns. The Oak Ridges Moraine debates have raised the question of how we will maintain our aquifers – the sources of our drinking water and local rivers.

Walkerton: Death and Clean Water

On May 23, in a small town of 5,000 thousand residents northwest of Toronto, 600 people became seriously ill from drinking town well water contaminated with e-coli bacteria. Eighteen people have subsequently died. As the story unfolded, we heard how the province had downloaded responsibility for water testing and safety to the tiny municipality. Since the Conservatives were elected, they had slashed 50 per cent of the staff and 44 per cent of the budget of the Ministry of the Environment. To save money, the Ministry of the Environment had stopped testing for e-coli in its own labs in 1996. Municipalities were required to pay for water quality testing at private labs, labs that reported test results to their clients, and not to the Ministry of the Environment and the local medical officer of health. Precious days and lives were lost when local officials did not inform the public of water contamination when they first knew of its existence. In this case, there were no organized citizens to blow the whistle on the government and private industry.

Walkerton and the Oak Ridges Moraine battles bring into sharp focus the local consequences of neo-liberal policies that promise tax cuts at the expense of public services and support economic development at the expense of environmental preservation. In the battle for the Oak Ridges Moraine we see contemporary examples of the age-old struggle in cities to define land as primarily a vehicle for wealth creation and investment. Municipal governments are committed to attracting growth and investment more than ever in response the competition among cities and regions for footloose capital. In the province of Ontario, the downloading by the province of responsibilities and costs to municipalities has intensified the pressures to court real estate redevelopment to increase the tax base. It puts at risk a moraine extending almost 200 miles that is the source of pure drinking water and green space for a whole region.

Despite these setbacks, civil society initiatives are resilient. New terrains of struggle open up as old ones close down. The Oak Ridges Moraine battle politicizes conservative suburban homeowners to protect their quality of life and to preserve the environment for future generations. The Walkerton water contamination shakes the faith of small town residents in a government that promises more tax cuts and less government.

Planning, because it deals so fundamentally with the material conditions of our daily lives, is at the center of these struggles. Planning is central to the protection of aquifers and rivers; and to the preservation of agricultural lands, forests and urban green space. Social movements, operating in civil society, have recognized the fundamental importance of planning tools and perspectives. But they reject the notion of the planner as expert, the neutral mediator between the state and capital. Instead, groups in civil society insist on the need for detailed knowledge of place and bioregions; they demand a planning that honors local knowledge and cultures and a planning rooted in fundamental value positions.

Today, we need planners more than ever when the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, are all threatened in the greedy quest for profits at all cost. The planners we need, and deserve, will take a stand together with social movements to maintain environmental sustainability and social equity rather than being complicit with developers and corporate interests in exploiting and despoiling the places we live.

Gerda Wekerle is Professor in the Faculty of environmental Studies at York University, Toronto.

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