With the departure of Jennifer Keesmaat from Toronto's Chief Planner chair, Toronto is looking for her successor. We should choose someone who sees city planning through the lens of human rights.
As Toronto continues to grow at a rapid pace, and Sidewalk Labs readies to undertake a massive "smart city" development of a key part of downtown, it is vital to have an effective analytical framework to guide and discipline growth, and to distribute its benefits equitably. Human rights can be that framework.
Through Canada's commitment to international treaties on human rights, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, we have agreed that governments at all levels will support the rights of all residents. These rights include, but are not limited to:
- Safe, secure and affordable housing for people in neighbourhoods of their choosing
- Safe and healthy workplaces, with ongoing improvement in the environmental and industrial hygiene in the area
- Education in safe and well-built facilities across all parts of the community
- Support of healthy neighbourhoods including freedom from pollution, safe streets with controlled traffic and good provisions for cyclists and pedestrians of all ages
- Access to healthy food and the absence of so-called "food deserts," areas where there are too few or inadequate food stores
City planning can play a crucial role in the support of these rights. It can put in place planning protocols to support the provision of safe, secure and affordable housing, and make sure zoning bylaws address the problem of food deserts. It might follow through on the recommendations of the Tower Renewal project, such as the idea of mixed use within the towers, so people who run small businesses like hair salons or tax advisory services can do so legitimately.
Planners can be instrumental in creating safe neighbourhoods through regulation of road widths, street corner design and sidewalk widths. In line with author and urban activist Jane Jacobs' ideas of mixed use in city development, planners can design schools and schoolyards as safe community spaces integrated into the fabric of neighbourhoods.
Beyond its role in designing spaces, city planning can ensure that human rights are respected in planning processes. Planning from a rights perspective would ensure that residents are engaged and included in decision making, not just through a "public consultation," which is usually about advising a community on decisions that have already been made, but through problem definition and solution design.
A rights-based approach would ensure that vulnerable and marginalized residents who are often left out of community-based decision-making — those experiencing poverty and homelessness, or those who are new to Canada — have a voice in the process. It would actively seek their input, and stand on the principle that the rights of no one group take precedence over the rights of another.
What separates a rights-based approach from planning as usual? A rights-based approach holds that planning not only can but should play a crucial role in the support of human rights. It is an imperative. Rather than governments having a choice about whether they support a right or not, their choice is about how they are going to support it. Rather than decide whether they will provide enough housing units to people in need, they must decide how they are going to do it.
Refusing to act is not a choice under a rights-based approach.
This doesn't mean every person in need gets a house overnight. But it means we commit to a continuous improvement in the provision of fundamental rights. It means we commit to a progressive realization of these rights over a reasonable period of time, with plans in place to achieve smaller goals and targets along the way.
It would be a bold step for Toronto to appoint a chief planner who will apply a rights-based approach to planning. An enormous amount of the planning division's time is taken up with processing development applications and resolving conflicts between developers and communities. The time and resources left for visionary and creative city-building have to be marshalled carefully. To consider going beyond even conventional notions of vision and creativity to embrace a human rights approach is certainly asking a lot.
But it would return a lot. It would be a considerable commitment to our national obligation to promote and support human rights. More importantly, it would be an enormous contribution to making sure people living in Canada can do so with dignity.
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