REGULA MODLICH: TORONTO'S RADICAL FEMINIST PLANNER (1939-2018)
What are you two healthy young women doing with crayons here? You can earn so much more money in one of the rooms I can offer you.
- a local pimp in Toronto’s Kensington Market, 1967
Regula Modlich, Reggie to her friends, was standing on the sidewalk, hand-colouring a land-use map of the Kensington Neighbourhood when the pimp mentioned above offered her and another female planner jobs in his establishment. This would be just one in a long line of incidents pushing Reggie to begin thinking about women’s experiences of the city, as distinct from men’s experiences.
At nineteen, Reggie immigrated to Canada from Switzerland via Germany with her parents and younger brother. Within five years, she had earned a BA in Sociology and Economics from the University of Toronto (1962) and set off for India with the Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO). She spent over a year working with women in a remote Indian village before returning to Toronto determined to become better equipped to intervene in physical planning and design issues. A year later, Reggie received a Diploma in Town and Regional Planning from the University of Toronto (1964) and began working as a planner first in the private sector and then for the City of Toronto (1966-1972).
Urban renewal was in full swing and Reggie’s first assignment for the City of Toronto was to draft an urban renewal strategy for Kensington Market. Her draft report (1967) advocated policy innovations that had never been used before in Toronto: 1) a holding by-law to prevent redevelopment until the local community could decide on its priorities; 2) development controls to minimize demolition and preserve the neighbourhood’s character; and 3) a community-based alternative school that would use Kensington Market as a source of experiential education. She also recommended more open space, more public housing and community services, more parking, and minimal demolition, removing only nuisances and obnoxious uses (including brothels?).
Reggie’s recommendations were too radical for the City at that time—a theme that ran through much of her working life. The final report on the “Kensington Urban Renewal Strategy” as approved by City Council included none of the innovations that would have given the local community a voice in its own future. As a result, the Kensington community organized in opposition to the City’s version of the plan, and it was shelved. It would be another ten years before the City of Toronto published a Neighbourhood Improvement Plan for Kensington (1977) that recognized the need for more green space, more affordable housing, and preservation of the neighbourhood’s Market character.
It was also in the 1960s that Reggie joined a socialist group and became outspoken about local and international politics. She was leafleting on the street when she met Nikos Evdemon, her husband to be, who had arrived from Greece via Germany only days before. They both spoke German, as well as English, and struck up a conversation, discovering their common immigrant path to Canada via Germany and their shared passion for social justice. Reggie also spoke French, Spanish, Hindi, Russian and before long, Greek. Within a few years, she and Nikos were raising two boys and juggling careers. Reggie often said that she wasn’t really radical until she became a mother and faced a host of new barriers in her life, such as finding affordable child care and accessible transit. Over time, Nikos became an award-winning cinematographer and Reggie became a radical feminist urban planner dedicated to community organizing and activism.
In 1972, Reggie became a Senior Planner for the City of Oshawa, a place known for its strong labour unions. That same year she helped organize an informal group called Women In/And Planning that drew women planning professionals, academics, and students from across the greater Toronto area. For years Reggie attempted to bring ideas from that group into her practice in Oshawa. While her colleagues were often supportive, many of her ideas were still too radical to survive the political process. Reggie nonetheless learned a lot from this experience and presented a paper at the first Canadian feminist planning conference in 1975 on women and housing design. Then she went back to school.
Reggie graduated with a master’s in environmental studies from York University (1980) and was immediately welcomed onto the Editorial Board of Women & Environments International (WEI) Magazine, serving as the magazine’s Managing Editor from 1999 to 2006. For more than 26 years, Reggie shared her ideas, her connections, and her generous spirit with the array of women who came and went on the Board, as volunteers, and as contributors. She authored several articles and edited many more, covering topics from women’s safety to accessible housing design.
Throughout the 1980s, Reggie actively pushed planners across Canada to think about the form of cities from the perspective of women and children. A paper that she presented on "Women's Needs in Urban Form and Function" at the National Conference of the Canadian Institute of Planners (1982) was so popular it was reprinted in a few different publications. That same year, the Metro Toronto Taskforce on Public Violence against Women and Children sought her out and hired her to produce the children's component of its urban design report. Another first.
At a workshop on “Women’s Work and Transportation Patterns,” organized by Gerda Wekerle at York University in 1985, Reggie noted the relationships between transportation, women’s work outside the home, and other aspects of women’s everyday lives. Women’s changing work roles were not relieving them of domestic responsibilities. As such, women’s roles and needs in the urban environment were growing more complex. Affordable housing, accessible design (re. strollers, wheelchairs), caregiving of children and elders (re. public washrooms, multi-destination trips), safety, and public transit, were all women’s issues that were not being recognized or addressed in planning.
Later that year, Reggie founded Women Plan Toronto (WPT), inspired by and named after Women Plan London in the U.K. but different in several important respects. While the London organization worked under the auspices of the Greater London Council, the Toronto organization was independent of the government. Reggie developed a participatory research project and obtained funding to conduct focus groups with more than 25 different types of women ranging from homeless, low-income, and immigrant women to academic and professional women. She published the results, Women Plan Toronto: Shared Experiences and Dreams (1986), and then organized a conference to discuss the findings with the women who had participated in the research. The participants overwhelmingly wanted to continue meeting to discuss women’s issues and to strategize actions to address them. Reggie coordinated WPT staff and volunteers for five years, before passing the torch. Among WPT’s most successful projects during this time was their Municipal Report Card ranking candidates on a range of women’s issues. The results were published in The Toronto Star daily newspaper, became a topic on radio call-in shows, and played a role in the election of progressive candidates to Toronto City Council.
In 1988, the City of Toronto republished Reggie’s edited and updated Women Plan Toronto with illustrations by Birgit Sterner. City Council adopted The Safe City: Municipal Strategies for Preventing Violence Against Women that Reggie had helped write. Her article, "Planning Implications of Women Plan Toronto," appeared in Plan Canada, the journal of the Canadian Institute of Planners. And WPT met with Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) authorities to discuss short- and long-term solutions to accessibility problems faced by women with strollers, shopping buggies, and wheelchairs. Thirty years later, the TTC is still working to implement all of the design recommendations for transit vehicles, stations, stops and surrounding areas recommended by WPT.
Through WPT, Reggie helped guide women’s input into projects such as: Cityplan ’91; the "WISE" (Women in Safe Environments) project; the Metro Toronto Official Plan; and the Commission on Planning and Development Reform in Ontario. Her hard work and leadership were recognized by her nomination for a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award in 1988. And her analysis of the gender implications for planning made her an important guest speaker in the planning and geography programs at York, the University of Toronto, Ryerson, and McMaster.
Never content to develop feminist ideas without putting them into action, Reggie created the Women's Community Planning Manual in 1990. Her women’s planning toolkit was published and distributed by WPT and later refined and republished as "A Toolkit for Gender Equality in Planning" in the Ontario Planning Journal (2003). Reggie used what she’d learned in her research with WPT to prepare submissions to: The Ontario Planning Act Review (Sewell Report); the Town of Aurora Official Plan Review; and the York Region Healthy Communities Review. In time, she was able to introduce an innovative housing intensification strategy that legalized accessory apartments and anchored these policies in an Official Plan Amendment for the Town of Aurora, where she worked as a Senior Planner for a few years.
Reggie was awarded the City of Toronto’s Constance E. Hamilton Award in 1995 for “working to secure equitable treatment for Toronto women.” The award presentation described Reggie Modlich as a great “organizer for feminist and inclusive cities.” That same year, Reggie took over as Managing Editor of Women & Environments International (WEI) Magazine, initiating, coordinating, and editing issues on a broad range of topics from women’s urban housing, transportation and safety to mining, conservation, and sustainable development in rural communities. In 2007, she passed the management role on to a collective of younger women but continued to write and submit articles to the magazine.
Always eager to support and encourage other women, Reggie was happy to pass on her leadership roles to younger members of the group, whether of WEI or WPT. She mentored and encouraged many women, young and old, to speak out in public for the first time, and to write and publish for the first time. WPT lasted another ten years after Reggie stepped down and then, around 2000, faded away. Despite her disappointment, Reggie was not one to sit on her laurels and was soon imagining a new group to take up the cause of women in the city.
Together with Prabha Khosla and Sonja Greckol, Reggie conceived and organized the Toronto Women’s City Alliance (TWCA) in 2004. The group aims to achieve gender equity at City Hall through systemic strategies such as gender mainstreaming. Reggie’s role in the group was to write and lobby for the creation of safer cities, affordable housing, gender-sensitive urban policy, and changes to regulations, by-laws, city services and plans to support women's care work inside and outside the home. In 2012, the TWCA attempted to persuade the City of Toronto Official Plan Review to address a wide range of women’s issues. Reggie noted that most of their recommendations were not well received, but at least some of the group’s concerns about women’s safety, urban design, and transportation were included in the Plan.
As a long-time member of Planners Network (PN), Reggie was also an active contributor to PN’s Progressive Planning magazine (now Progressive City: Radical Alternatives). She continued to submit articles to WEI and PN, to write letters to the editor of planning journals and local papers, and to apply for grants to continue her participatory research with women. In 2013, for example, she wrote to the editor of the Toronto Star about the lack of women on Toronto City Council Executive. She was concerned about the implications for all women in the city, and the need to represent and include women at all levels. By 2016, Reggie had acquired an intersectional gender lens on urban development and actively sought to explore the implications for the development approvals process, for the design of structures and spaces, and for their implications and consequences for diverse groups. Frustrated by planners’ lack of understanding of compounded/intersectional gender issues, she hoped to develop a new handbook to help organize and involve more women.
In her final months of life, Reggie wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers to ensure that gender issues were not forgotten in the run-up to the City of Toronto elections of October 2018. Reggie died of pancreatic cancer in September 2018.
Reggie Modlich was fearless when speaking truth to power. She would rise to her feet, line up for the microphone, dash off a letter, speak to the press, or whatever else was necessary to draw attention to the inequities and injustices concretized through city planning processes. She was adamant that women's voices not only be heard but that changes happen in response. Reggie has helped inspire a new generation of young women to keep fighting for social justice in the city. Barbara Rahder is Professor & Dean Emerita, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto. She was a friend of Reggie’s for more than thirty years, as well as a feminist colleague in Planners Network, Women In/And Planning, Women and Environments, and Women Plan Toronto. Barbara would like to thank Reggie’s husband, Nikos Evdemon, for the gift of Reggie’s papers (1967 to 2018) on which this brief article is based.