Poverty of Planning: Tent City, City Hall and Toronto’s New Official Plan

By Adrian Blackwell and Kanishka Goonewardena, for Planning Action

On September 24, 2002 the Toronto media reported two events under two separate headlines. The smaller headline was about the unveiling of the new official plan of the city of Toronto. This began with news of presentations by Mayor Lastman and the director of the Planning Department as to how they were going to make Toronto the greatest and most beautiful city. It was followed by public testimony, almost all from well-groomed supporters of the plan, including the usual suspects like developers and taxpayers, as well as world famous experts like Jane Jacobs.

While that show was dragging on in City Hall, security guards hired by Home Depot, under the “supervision” of the police, were on a rampage–kicking people out of Tent City, the post-industrial no-man’s-land on Toronto’s waterfront that has been home for a few years to a very large concentration of homeless people. The site was legally taken over by Home Depot, who then confiscated the improvised homes and modest possessions of the homeless people. That sorry spectacle made the bigger headline, under which appeared even more infuriating stories that blamed the victims.

City Hall and Tent City

But why two headlines when both news items were really part of the same story? No one in the mainstream media bothered to note how the people evicted from Tent City stormed into City Hall that afternoon. They were looking for the real perpetrators of their evictionthose politicians and planners who were shameless in their enthusiasm for a plan catering so earnestly to the interests of developers, taxpayers and multinational corporations, at the expense of those who don’t own and can’t afford properties in the city. Most Torontonians did not need to be rocket scientists to see the link between what happened in City Hall and in Tent City on that day.

The very logic of urban development endorsed by the plan–the kind of city planning that is just a code name for the selling of the city to the highest bidder–created Tent City in the first place. It also forced its (former) residents into a bizarre confrontation with ecstatic fans of the plan inside City Hall. According to one eyewitness, “All of a sudden a bunch of people who looked like they weren’t supposed to be there seemed to take over the Council Chambers.” These were not the folks you often see rubbing shoulders with the power brokers of City Hall. Rather, they were the representatives of a large population that just didn’t appear anywhere in the hyperbolic “vision” of the plan.

City planning and urban design, which are meant to create spaces for a better life for everyone, have been hijacked from the start by the powers that be. Over 100 years ago, Friedrich Engels quite correctly called planning in capitalist cities “hypocritical,” explaining in his famous study of Manchester how “town planning” was really about “hiding from the eyes of wealthy ladies and gentlemen with strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and squalor which are part and parcel of their own riches and luxury.”

Not much has changed since Engels’ time. The former Tent City and its vast, underutilized surroundings are imagined today by developers and planners alike not as the ideal location for social housing and other public amenities, but as a gigantic bourgeois playground and high-tech entertainment complex generously sprinkled with high-end condos–a bright, guilty place where dot.coms and related yuppies of all countries can unite!

Who Is this Plan Talking to?

What does the plan say? Whose Toronto are we talking about?

The plan takes up the task of guiding the development of Toronto over the next thirty years with a great vision for the city–one that claims to improve transit, create a more compact urban form, encourage economic growth and beautify the city. The language and the pictures of the plan are most seductive and make you want to believe. But when you look through the glossy pictures and read between the lines, you begin to see what’s really going on.

The plan rests on a number of cozy assumptions. It assumes that planners will be reasonable, developers will be benevolent, architects will be brilliant and citizens will be quiet. City planning is presented as a conflict-free process in which everyone, by the grace of the “free market,” is a winner.

But as Tent City folks and many others who rarely make news will tell you, planning is no win-win game. In the social struggles over space in the city, there are, sure enough, losers. They are the people altogether missing from the plan. That’s why their abrupt appearance in City Hall on September 24 was both odd and apt. To deflect attention away from what the plan can’t see (or, rather, what it does not want you to see), it speaks in animated tones about what it chooses to see and how it sees. It urges everyone else to see the city the same way. So it looks down upon the city through what it calls the three lenses.

The Vision of the Three Lenses

If we adopt the visionary language of the plan for a moment, what do we see through its first lens? We see downtown spaces and former industrial areas–large areas cleared for intensive development by the removal of existing planning controls (such as zoning). There is hardly a thought given to existing uses or users; in other words, it will be open season for developers to move in, build and make the best bang for their buck.

The second lens zooms in on the “Avenues.” Large suburban east-west roads like Eglington, Lawrence and Finch are strategically primed for gentrification, but without offending “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) taxpayers. With no investment in social housing (about which the plan is mute), the intensification of development on these avenues can only displace existing businesses and residents. Businesspeople who operate small-scale or start-up companies and renters unable to afford the new luxuries promised in these hot spots will have to pack up and leave.

In the third lens we see what the plan quaintly calls “Neighborhoods,” which account for 75 percent of the land area of the city. Here change is forbidden. This obviously caters to NIMBYism, which official planners hold in the same high regard with which they consider the economic wisdom of laissez-faire development. In the context of a city otherwise ruled by developers, this “neighborhood” designation (distinct from the already dense “apartment neighborhoods” where further densification is encouraged!) promises to send property values skywards.

In fact, the plan’s language of lenses is deeply misleading. The lenses do not represent different ways of seeing, or distinct perspectives. They simply refer to three levels (densities) of development–high, medium and negligible. These designations serve the interests of people who own property and people who develop land. The deregulation of land use in former industrial zones, now called “employment areas,” caters to powerful players in the global economy, creating “flexible enterprise zones” with publicly subsidized streets, services and spaces.

When you really look at it, then, the function of the three lenses becomes obvious–to partition the city into three distinct zones, one for each of the three dominant interest groups served by the plan: developers, taxpayers and global capitalists. It has nothing to say to anyone else. What the language of lenses obscures is therefore clear: the questionable reasons and mechanisms for favoring the interests of these powerful groups.

What Will Be the Effects of the Plan?

While the plan represents a victory for the ruling classes of Toronto and the world, some of the background documents prepared for the plan reveal traces of a struggle, even within City Hall. Toronto at the Crossroads, for example, includes a crystal clear map of the concentrations of “socially vulnerable areas” in the city. It illustrates the growing economic polarization and pockets of poverty that form a ring running through the outer suburbs and around the inner city. Any reasonable official plan aiming to build a sustainable and equitable urban life would have started with these realities–the majority of existing people in the city–rather than banking on an exodus of dot.com millionaires and other pipe dreams of the “knowledge economy.”

The urgent question is this: What will happen to the various socially vulnerable groups in the city whose neighborhoods are either ignored in this plan or earmarked for gentrification?

The plan actually paves the way to remove people from strategic downtown neighborhoods, concentrating poverty in high-density suburban spaces whose reality is deliberately hidden in its three-lens vision. Complementing this violence of eviction is the alienating physical and symbolic violence constantly inflicted on individuals forced to live in these suburban spaces. These have a number of real effects.


? The physical distance between social classes protects affluent people from the violent power and frustration that economic exploitation creates.

? The physical separation prevents middle- and upper-class Torontonians from experiencing poverty firsthand, allowing them to indulge a fantasy of equality, while breeding stereotypes about people they don’t have to interact with everyday.

? Separation organizes the city so that affluent people have much better access to not only luxury goods, but also to essential services like healthy food, a clean environment, healthcare, public transportation, parks, public spaces and jobs.

? Isolation atomizes the very communities that could otherwise create unified resistance to this alienating condition. One of the lasting legacies of Toronto’s high-density modernist housing is that people are both concentrated and isolated from one another at the same time.

Real separation and isolation are symbolically overcome in the image of the beautiful city. The objective of urban design here is to mask beneath the spectacle of dazzling urban space the potentially explosive realities of the new amalgamated city of developers, taxpayers and global capital.

The relegation of poor populations to badly maintained suburban spaces and the constant move towards the gentrification of downtown neighborhoods is just the current manifestation of a long legacy of “progressive planning” in Toronto that was born in the early 1970s with the movement to stop the Spadina Expressway and save historic downtown neighborhoods. In the early days, lip service was paid to the construction of affordable housing, the protection of downtown industries and the maintenance of diverse populations, but by the early 1980s these explicit goals had all but disappeared. What has remained a constant since 1970 is the project of recuperating Toronto’s “livable downtown” for the middle and affluent classes. The result of this planning legacy–which the new official plan continues–has been the increasing concentration of poverty in dense suburban neighborhoods.

Communities of Resistance

The new official plan packs a lot of power: the financial power of business elites, the ideological power of mainstream planning intellectuals and professionals, the coercive power of the police. But the political-economic-bureaucratic logic of the plan also has its Achilles heel–the people it dispossesses.

What Toronto really has going for it is neither the “free market” nor its global city status, but its diverse community of committed people who are unwilling to put up with theviolence of city planning–no matter how rational it seems to the “common sense” of corporate greed, professional planners and academic consultants. It has not gone unnoticed to these activists how the removal and dilution of various planning controls in the new plan (lax zoning, streamlined approval processes, restricted public consultation, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, etc.) amounts to an erosion of democracy in the planning process and a submission of urban life to the merciless logic of the “free market.”

In recent years direct actions led by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and others have applied pressure on downtown neighborhoods, rudely waking up Toronto’s elite from their gentrified dreams. Required as a complement to the fight against gentrification, however, are effective strategies and tactics of resistance emanating from Toronto’s suburban spaces that are designed to overcome the very real isolation found in the peripheral areas of the city. A model for this kind of strategy is the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, which was founded by dispersed riders spread throughout the Los Angeles area.

Toronto doesn’t need a plan driven by corporate interests, developers and taxpayers. It does need a set of planning strategies produced by diverse communities already struggling against economic, cultural and ecological injustice that will open up spaces for people to imagine, transform and enjoy their city. This struggle for justice in the city is also one to reclaim the promise of planning for the very people whose fundamentalright to the city is violated in the new official plan.

Adrian Blackwell and Kanishka Goonewardena teach architecture, urban design and planning at the University of Toronto and are members of Planning Action (), a group of architects, planners and activists in Toronto.

You May Also Like