An Alternative Tale of the City: Toronto and the Alternative Planning Group

by Uzma Shakir

A trip on Toronto Transit (known locally as the T.T.C.) draws a pretty picture of the city of Toronto and the image of diversity we wish to communicate to the world. Hijabclad young women going with their Sikh and Chinese friends to Danforth Station for the Greek food festival and then perhaps catching a performance of Bollywood Dreams at the Hummingbird Center is the reality of living global locally. But appearances can be deceptive! Since 1999, the Alternative Planning Group (APG) has been grappling with the difficult challenges of creating a more equitable and just form of diversity.

A closer look at the communities of the wealthiest city in Canada paints a disturbing picture. Multiple reports show that the middle class is increasingly disappearing and income polarization is growing. A small group of rich people is getting richer while the larger proportion of the population is getting poorer. Even more alarming is that this income disparity is manifested in two critical ways in the city: the spatial and ethnoracial divides. Wealthier white people live in the center of the city surrounded by a sea of poorer ethno-racial communities. Between 1980 and 2000, while the poverty rate for the non-racialized population (i.e., those of white, European or Caucasian heritage) fell by 28 percent, poverty among racialized families rose by 361 percent. This is happening at a time when, on average, immigrant skills and education are higher than the Canadian average.

Indeed, Torontonians today are virtually all bilingual (if not trilingual or “quadlingual,” as my son calls himself), but they don’t always just speak English and/or French. For many Torontonians, the shores of Africa or fields of Asia shape their history and nostalgia and language more than the landscape of Europe. They are highly educated, skilled and mobile, and internationally experienced, just not in Canada. By 2011, according to the 1999 report Immigration, Labor Force & Age Structure of the Population by Human Resources and Social Development Canada, an incredible 100 percent of net labor market growth is expected to be through immigration, yet today, the systemic non-utilization of this immigrant labor costs the Canadian economy approximately CAN$4.97 billion.

What kind of future are we hoping to build, and what is the role of planning in Canada’s global cities in making that future real? Are we trying to build a future that takes the diverse resources of the globe and hammers them into a mythical Canadian bilingual/bicultural shape? This mythical Canada never really existed except as a colonial construct. The fantasy of bilingual, bicultural Canada never acknowledged Aboriginal peoples’ multiple identities as part of the national lore. Or are we trying to build a future that deconstructs and then reconstructs Canada in the interest of equity? Canada is worth investing in, but we must remember that Canada is not a final product but rather an experiment unfolding where we must all have an equal opportunity to write the national story or else we will perpetuate historical absences while creating new voids well into the future.

Organizing Alternative Planning

These questions have never been more pertinent for Toronto than today. They are what a group of executive directors of four ethno-racial councils in Toronto posed as challenges to themselves in 1999, leading to the creation of the APG. The APG is a communitybased initiative that grew out of the experiences of the African Canadian Social Development Council (ACSDC), Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter (CCNCTO), Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) and Hispanic Development Council (HDC).

The starting premise of the APG was to recognize that our collective heritage was not a commonality of history, culture, race or language, but rather our collective experience of marginality and adherence to principles of equity, plurality, difference, justice and solidarity. We vowed to acknowledge our “difference” as the starting point of equitable negotiation for designing a shared “common good” and not as a marker of power and privilege. Since none of us had the power in society to define the “other” as being “different,” our partnership was based on equitable footing. But most importantly, we grew organically. Furthermore, our action was determined by community needs and it defined our theory, not the other way around. Armed with these ideas, we set out to change the rules of the game.

We initiated several new practices which formed the basis of our alternative planning paradigm. First, we began to conduct joint research. We developed common research questions while keeping in mind our differences, including community profiles, characteristics and histories. We hired four researchers who conducted community-specific research and generated individual reports, and then we collectively produced a report to synthesize all four individual ones. We canvassed the settlement needs of our communities, identified broad determinants of health facing community members, produced a collective critique and vision of social inclusion and initiated campaigns—topics of which included income security issues among immigrant senior citizens and civic engagement educational strategies for ethno-racial communities. This inquiry allowed us to develop both communityspecific and inter-community strategies and plans of action. We also used the process to host joint community events where members of all four communities were invited to hold dialogues with each other and create a shared plan of action.

Second, we relied on each individual council’s historical experience and expertise to benefit all. For example, CASSA advocated for employment equity and access to professions and trades by internationallytrained professionals; Hispanic Council produced research and data on all four communities; the Chinese Council focused on media advocacy and organizing strategies around various issues; and the African Council developed new strategies of community economic development that could be utilized by all four communities. We also began to integrate our work organizationally. For example, Hispanic Council’s youth program became the basis for the other three councils to develop their own youth programs, but once again with different areas of focus. Accordingly, APG multiplied its capacity, outreach and expertise.

Third, having created a process of equitable collaboration, we initiated an informal merger of our administrative, governance and policy structures. The executive directors began to meet monthly to develop collective workplans and jointly apply for grants as APG. More significantly, we held annual board meetings of all four boards of directors. Though rather large and raucous, these meetings forged closer relations between board members, allowed the four executive directors to present their reports to all members and allowed the four boards to collectively set policy directions for the partnership.

Thus, the APG, which started as a partnership between four ethnoracial councils, began to morph through these new methodologies of organizational change, collaboration, research, advocacy, community engagement and mobilization. One outcome of this process was growing solidarity among the four largest ethnoracial communities in Toronto through a process that was quite unique. APG’s success generated interest among other ethno-racial community groups, academics and community activists, and city staff began to take notice.

Alternative Planning Paradigm

In 2004, the City of Toronto acknowledged that there were multiple bodies doing social planning with very little resources, support and recognition, particularly over the last few decades. It commissioned five reports: one from the APG and its partners; another from the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, a mainstream planning body; a third from the Toronto Neighborhood Centers, a collaboration of citywide neighborhood centers; a fourth from the Aboriginal People’s Council of Toronto; and a fifth from the Toronto Women’s Network, a women’s group seeking to ensure that gender becomes an organizing lens for planning.

The APG’s report, Alternative Social Planning: A Paradigm Shift Developing an Inclusive, Healthy Toronto, produced in partnership with the Portuguese Interagency Network (PIN) and Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), a provincial organization of over 200 agencies that serve immigrants and refugees, documents the enormous gap between the status quo and what an effective planning process should look in a city like Toronto. The report argues that communities must define and plan for themselves and be supported in these activities. It outlines minimum conditions for successful social planning rooted in the meaningful functioning of diversity; equitable sharing of “existing” power and resources amongst partners involved in the planning sector; a vision that governance and community planning is a shared responsibility; and a recognition that planning must try to anticipate and address social issues arising in the future. Most importantly, the report identifies the goals, principles and tools needed to guide alternative social planning.


To build meaningful, inclusive and equitable social relations among diverse communities in order to create a cohesive society. This means building the capacity of vulnerable communities to work individually and collectively by investing in their capacity to conduct planning.

To support social development of communities to negotiate power differentials in societyby redistributing resources (e.g., money, infrastructure, expertise) in order to foster and sustain equity.

To make social development a tool for change, recognizing that in an inequitable society, planning is a political activity that involves a process of engagement and empowerment of those most marginalized to redress inequities.


Communities are self-defined and come together organically on points of commonality so there is no need for benevolent “conveners.” Individuals can be a part of multiple communities, so participation is not limited by race, geography, issue or any other predetermined parameter.

Communities work in partnership with the City of Toronto, with government acting as distributor of resources for the purpose of addressing inequities and thus making the city accountable for diversity.

Resources are distributed to communities that have the greatest and most immediate needs. The city and communities as planning partners identify and prioritize groups, communities and issues that need to be addressed through planning.


Support for organic planning networks.

Community-based knowledge production, disaggregated longitudinal data collection and priority-setting to produce community knowledge but also knowledgeable communities.

Advocacy to mobilize communities and individuals to organize and take action to address social inequities and foster civic engagement.

Such strategies can produce both short- and long-term outcomes, outcomes that emerge from the creation of effective partnerships, reliable critical forecasting, new epistemologies, meaningful policy interventions and active citizenship.

Engaging the City: An Exercise in Futility

The City of Toronto’s review led to the establishment of the Toronto Social Development Network (TSDN) in the summer of 2005, made up of the players from the review process. We delivered a set of recommendations to the council for a city plan to fund and conduct social planning. This report, however, failed to deliver results. In fact, the very premises of alternative planning (to shift the paradigm) were undermined in the creation of TSDN. It was a top-down structure, forcing players who had inherent inequality of resources and power and divergent political agendas and understandings of planning to sit at a table designed by the funder (in this case the city). The Aboriginal People’s Council of Toronto, for instance, withdrew from the process, citing lack of capacity to sit at the table. In hindsight, it appeared to be the wisest decision.

APG and its partners could ill afford to divert their limited resources to such an inherently inequitable and flawed process. Nevertheless—seduced by the possibility of change—we sat around the table trying to square a circle. APG, which had actually dared to imagine a planning landscape that could begin to address issues of plurality, difference, power differential, anti-racism, equity and democratic participation as inherent to both process and outcome, lost precious ground and energy while legitimizing the paternalistic TSDN process.

Today APG is rebuilding its partnership and refocusing its activities according to its own principles of alternative planning within its own communities. The city has since abandoned any façade of reviewing its planning or decision-making process as to who gets funding and for what purpose. Some minor changes have been made by cherry-picking recommendations from TSDN, but the possibility of a structural policy shift has been lost.

Implications for Alternative Planning

Can we, as planners, continue to do business as usual when the world around us has changed so dramatically? We must re-imagine ourselves in the context of both the city and the planning profession by addressing the existing racial/cultural/ linguistic/ethnic/religious diversity of the population and the production of racialized inequities. We must remember that business as usual only perpetuates the reality described above.

The racialization of poverty and its spatial containment have a long history in Canada as reflected in the experiences of Aboriginal peoples and those of indigenous black populations and early ethnoracial immigrants. Furthermore, since 1980 there has been a shift in immigration patterns as people on the move now come from “non-traditional” countries—a euphemism for race—which means that the race and space reality of Canada has now acquired a more concentrated dimension.

Diversity is no longer a comfortable term to throw around when talking about restaurants and festivals and costumes, but rather a challenge (not a threat!) to the very notion of Canadian-ness. Planning can no longer be apolitical, accommodating “competing and diverse” needs, aspirations and preferences. As my friend Duberlis Ramos, executive director of the Hispanic Development Council, often says: “If you build democracy, they will come!” Planning today is essentially about building the future of democracy!

Planners cannot be isolated from communities and communities cannot be isolated from their environment—assuming that planners plan and communities benefit, thus avoiding the uncomfortable possibility that planners and planning are part of the problem. In a racially, culturally and linguistically diverse city, specialized planning knowledge should by definition be diverse (in terms of number of players, type of players, nature of planning agendas, types of planning designs).

If “planning” is essentially the development of land, resources, facilities and services consistent with existing and projected needs of the community or city, then planning is critical if we are to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. But we must acknowledge that “space,” both in terms of how it is organized and how it is used, cannot hide behind a façade of neutrality. Canadian history and identity are defined by a mythology of space—from the founding myth of terra nullius wiping Aboriginal peoples’ claims and existence from the land, to the present day defense of the “true North strong and free…” from the teeming immigrants and refugees deemed not to share those values. (Today it is Muslims, yesterday it was Japanese, who will it be tomorrow?!) I guess we never dreamt that so many racialized people would show up on our doorstep to service the nation but never leave!

A “new” city requires new ideas, and innovators such as the APG articulate new ideas and help make the City of Toronto an incubator of change and a potential leader in social innovation. The question is, Does anybody care?

Uzma Shakir is a community-based researcher, advocate and activist. She is the past executive director of Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) and the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO). She has worked as a teacher, journalist and researcher. She is presently an Atkinson Economic Justice Fellow, and a past recipient of the Jane Jacobs Award (2003).

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