Activist Planning and the Neoliberal City: The Case of Planning Action

By Deborah Cowen

A lot has been written about urban neoliberalism but much less about activist responses to it. Planning Action is a group of activists that has been organizing to combat neoliberal policies in Toronto. By sharing our tactics, failures, challenges and even our moments (or months) of confused disillusionment, we hope to advance the broader struggle against neoliberal planning.

For the past few decades, neoliberalism has meant the dismantling of the Keynesian welfare state, the rise of workfare, the privatization of public assets and services and the shift away from rights-based entitlements towards user-fees and other individualizing and “active” forms of citizenship, “flexible” work practices and a faith in the power of private enterprise to cure all that ails us.

In the realm of urban planning, neoliberalism has meant a growing reliance on private consultants and appointed boards to identify and define problems and prescribe solutions. Corporate interests and private professionals are replacing citizen consultations and public planners in laying out the future for cities and citizens. These changes are all taking place as cities themselves are becoming more and more important in global politics and economics. In a “glocalizing” world of increasing competition among cities—across and within national boundaries—we are told that attracting cultural and economic capital and the people who hold it must become priority number one. Urban planning is thus assigned the role of enabling the physical transformation of the city in order to accommodate this social and economic transformation. Neoliberal discourse often uses the language of participatory and democratic planning practice, but many social justice activists see these as instrumental moves towards token consultations, which have the effect of draining the capacities of already hard-pressed communities.

The Restructuring of Toronto Politics

We can trace some practices that are consistent with neoliberal assumptions and interests as far back as the immediate post-World War II years. But it was with the more recent municipal amalgamation that a whole host of new policies and practices were put into effect that expedited the process of neoliberalizing Toronto.

In January 1998, the conservative provincial government implemented a contested amalgamation of the municipalities of Metropolitan Toronto. The amalgamation collapsed a two-tier system of local government into one “megacity” and involved a series of massive policy restructurings. The new government instituted workfare, privatized public assets and services and downsized the civil service. Amalgamations were supposed to provide cost savings through the elimination of duplication, but more importantly provided an occasion for the Province to reorganize both provincial and municipal responsibilities. In fact, the amalgamation of Toronto created a fiscal crisis for the city, which then became a rationale for the privatization and marketization of city services. Since the amalgamation, the Province phased out capital subsidies to public transit and downloaded the operating costs of social assistance and housing, leaving the city with added net costs of around $300 million a year.

For citizens and residents of the city this meant the elimination of a whole tier of local government and of one-half of the local elected officials, making access to an already unresponsive and bureaucratic system even more difficult. There has been a huge decline in the number of community planning meetings and public consultations, an enormous jump in the number of consultants working on contract and a rise in the number and influence of lobbyists at City Hall.

The city has also institutionalized the policy of competitive cities with economic development plans and reports, such as Toronto Competes: An Assessment of Toronto’s Global Competitiveness, a report released in 2000. Individual private citizens who are generally white, male and well-connected define visions for large chunks of the city, based on their own inspiration, innovation, “creativity” and style.

While the neoliberalization of planning in Toronto is producing a range of significant shifts in both processes and effects, overall the most resounding change has been the dismantling of opportunities for participation in decision-making, what a number of us call the “de-democratization” of planning.

Planning Actions

Planning Action is an activist organization formed in Toronto in the summer of 2001 in response to these neoliberal trends. Some of the organizers met while planning the 2000 Planners Network conference in Toronto. We formed Planning Action with the intention of being a more explicitly activist organization engaged with local issues. We were also influenced by the past work of groups like the feminist planners of Women Plan Toronto and the labor and community coalition Metro Network for Social Justice.

It was increasingly clear to us that planning was becoming a professional and corporate exercise, precisely at a time when the growing polarization, racialization and feminization of poverty and space was coming to define the social landscape of Toronto. First and foremost, there was a sense among organizers that planning was catering to an increasingly selective group of people, and that this was quickly unraveling the work of a number of activist communities whose struggles for social justice had been an important influence on city politics prior to amalgamation. We wanted Planning Action to provide a voice for radically democratic planning practice, to challenge the professions who were complicit with the neoliberalization of urban planning and to re-politicize what was becoming a highly professionalized and inaccessible discourse.

During the group’s early formation, we held public meetings at community centers for several months in order to involve a broad range of people and ideas. Numbers and interest levels fluctuated from loud and lively meetings of fifty people to quiet meetings of eight or ten. This series of gatherings lasted for a few months and led to a facilitated workshop to outline priorities for the group and develop a mission statement:

We are a group of urban planners, architects and activists who work with diverse communities of Toronto struggling against economic, cultural and ecological injustice to open spaces for people to imagine, transform and enjoy the city.

The mission statement and the action priorities have been important for Planning Action as we grow and membership changes. They help maintain our critical political vision, inform the radically democratic way we operate and guide the coalitions we join and projects we take on. Since 2001, the group has been involved in a range of activities, primarily critical planning projects like our critiques of the Official Plan and Waterfront Revitalization Plan, as well as a range of popular education projects such as public forums and workshops, and articles written for the alternative media.

Recent Actions by Planning ActionTestimony on the draft Official Plan of Toronto: Given to the Planning and Transportation Committee in September 2002. Planning Action argued that the Plan views the city from the narrow perspective of property owners, developers and multinational corporations.

Testimony on Making Waves: Principles for Building Toronto’s Waterfront: Given to the Planning and Transportation Committee in December 2002. The testimony focused on the lack of affordable housing in the city’s waterfront plan.

Claim the City: Planning, Politics, and Participatory Democracy:A public forum in January 2003 that discussed participatory planning and democracy in Toronto.

Public Services for Sale?: A public forum in March 2003 organized by Planning Action and the Toronto Chapter of Council of Canadians that addressed the implications of the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) for public services in Toronto.

Everyday Issues and Participatory Planning: A workshop at the Toronto Social Forum in March 2003 that engaged participants around sharing knowledge about urban politics and life in Toronto.

Toronto Planning [Dis]Orientation: An interactive introduction to progressive urban planning, hosted by Planning Action and Planners Network in September 2003.

Out of Space?: A forum/cabaret on spatial justice, organized in November 2003.

Social Justice and Car-free Neighborhoods: A forum in April 2004 on the social justice implications of the potential pedestrianization of Kensington Market and other neighborhoods.

Our critique of the city’s new Official Plan in the fall of 2002 made connections between the neoliberal transformation of Toronto and the de-democratization of urban planning. It is also a good example of the kind of response Planning Action has mounted to the shifts described above. As our first collective project, it played an important role in defining the politics of the group.

The New Official Plan

After a lengthy process of collective reading and intense debate of the Plan, a working group formed to do more of the same. Instead of focusing on detailed policies in the Plan, our critique emphasized what we thought was the more fundamental problem of the perspectives it operationalized, and the process behind its construction. While we did comment on problems with definitions of housing affordability and other specific proposals, our overwhelming emphasis was on the structure of the Plan. The Plan was of a radically new kind—a slim document with lots of pictures of city spaces, and with no sign of the cumbersome old zoning and density regulations of yesteryear. Planning would be sleeker, simpler and sexier, anchored not so much in uses but in forms. While no doubt the old systems were heavily bureaucratic, paternalistic and in need of change, we argued that the kind of changes that were proposed in the Plan would undermine the power of citizens to challenge development and developers. What sort of planning argument, for example, can be made by citizens against the vague measure of aesthetics that cannot be toppled by the aesthetic analysis of an internationally-known architect? Or what leverage does “good form” provide for citizens in place of the old system of density bonuses, through which concessions were won for daycare spaces, parks and other essential public goods?

The Plan was built around three “lenses.” It quickly became clear to us that the lenses identified different kinds of development that would serve the interests of three different groups. The first lens would designate areas for intensive regeneration. With little concern for existing uses and users, it would create open zones for large-scale redevelopment, called “employment zones.” The second lens was geared towards the intensification of larger roadways and designated areas for gentrification. Without investment in public housing, the intensification of the avenues would displace existing businesses and apartments. In the third lens, the neighborhoods, change would be prevented, catering to the NIMBYism of homeowners.

The plan was crafted by and for people who own land and people who develop land in the city. The deregulation of uses in employment areas would cater to players in the global economy, creating flexible-enterprise zones and publicly subsidizing the improvement of streets and public spaces within them.

We argued that at best the Plan overlooked the needs of marginalized groups, and at worst would displace them from their homes and neighborhoods. In fact, the day we testified at City Hall a makeshift village of homeless people that had emerged from the old industrial lands of Toronto’s waterfront was forcefully evicted by a band of private security guards under supervision of police. Aggressively pushed off the land by its owner (Home Depot), residents and activists of the tent city streamed into the Official Plan hearing at City Hall. While the events were clearly related in terms of the politics of whose lives made a difference to the city as reflected in the Plan, the politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats sat stunned by the intrusion.

Many progressive planners supported the pretty language of the new planning regime, such that the connections between the rights of homeless people to the city and city planning process could not even be made. Planning Action testified following a glowing presentation by none other than Jane Jacobs herself. In our view, when homeless activists stormed into City Council chambers, it was perhaps the only moment where any kind of democratic or participatory process was evident in the entire Official Plan process. City Hall offered a measly low of six public consultation “open houses,” or one for every 500,000 residents, while hand-picked experts had been brought in to the process early on in working groups, focus groups and visioning sessions. We insisted that a plan for the city must be articulated by the diverse communities of Toronto who are already struggling against economic, cultural and ecological injustice.

In addition to our testimony, we also prepared articles for alternative anti-poverty newspapers and professional journals. For popular education purposes, a short film about the Official Plan documenting how few people were involved in or even aware of the whole process has been planned but not completed. Our response to the Official Plan had some impact in the media and with a few city councilors, but it is impossible to measure these kinds of effects.

We are actively engaged in building a community and a counter-public. Planning Action has brought people together to fight, laugh and learn about problems and possibilities. We are helping create places for people to debate hot-button issues in a less intimidating environment than the city council chambers, and for planning students to learn beyond the walls of their planning schools. Planning Action is also building coalitions with other activist groups and is becoming a watchdog of sorts. We have ambitions to become a resource for social justice groups and marginalized communities who need planning help in Toronto. And while the achievements of transforming a document or overturning a decision may be short-term ones, they nonetheless all contribute towards the longer-term goal of laying the foundation of an alternate, post-neoliberal future.

Deborah Cowan is a member of Planning Action and can be reached atdeb(dot)cowen(at)utoronto(dot)ca. She thanks Sue Bunce, Matt Cowley, Mike Ma, Heather McLean and Karen Sun for their contributions to the recent PN Conference session “Activist Planning in the Neoliberal City: Planning Action in Canada” from which some themes of this article are drawn. Please see for more information.

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