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This panel discussion was held in Toronto on November 29, 2019 to launch the new Planner’s Network book Transformative Planning: Radical Alternatives to Neoliberal Urbanism, edited by Tom Angotti and published by Black Rose Books, with distribution by the University of Chicago Press. Below are the texts for the talks by the four panelists, who were responding to the questions from Kuni Kamizaki (Ph.D. student, Department of Geography & Planning, University of Toronto), the moderator of the panel. Planners Network and Progressive City: Radical Alternatives online magazine would like to extend their gratitude to Kuni for his work in organizing the panel and for asking such provocative questions.

Also, special thanks to Darian Razdar, who provided introductory remarks, designed the poster and helped with the logistics for the Intersections seminar series, and to Elsie Lewison and Progressive City editorial board member Jake Ryan, who helped on the evening of the event. The panel was sponsored by Intersections, the seminar series for the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto and by the Critical Planning Research Cluster at the University of Toronto.

What is transformative planning? Can you describe it in relation to the history of Planners Network?

Barbara Rahder, Professor Emerita, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University:

A generic definition of transformative planning might be:

Radically changing planning processes in order to substantively change the material and social distribution of planning outcomes.

Reality isn’t generic, however. We typically use terms like ‘social change’ and ‘transformative planning’ to indicate progressive, left-wing or redistributive politics. It could just as well be used to indicate the opposite. Social change could lead, for example, to The Handmaid’s Tale. But for today, we will use these generic terms as typically understood to mean progressive planning.

Planners Network (PN) has always been interested in transformative planning. Over the years, we have talked about it, studied it and written about it, but often using other names such as: community development; advocacy planning; participatory planning; or empowerment planning. We keep developing new techniques for involving local communities in planning processes and keep advocating for change, but without radically altering planning outcomes, at least on the scale that we might like.

How did PN attempt to mobilize transformative planning?

PN has always stressed its identity as a network of academics, professionals, and community activists. The network’s primary purpose has always been to connect progressive planners and communities—locally and around the world—so that we can share our observations and experiences with planning in the public, private and non-profit sectors. In the process, we learn from one another, we support and encourage one another (especially important if politically isolated) and we spin off alliances, projects, and sometimes new, more action-oriented organizations.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, PN’s emphasis was almost exclusively on urban poverty and US race relations, characterized as Black and White. In the 1990s, PN membership grew significantly in Canada, and since the turn of the century, has grown to include PN chapters in Mexico, Brazil, and the UK. Now, the focus is on both local and global planning issues from climate change and new alliances with environmental justice groups, to multi-cultural and intersectional identities and new coalitions with a broader array of progressive organizations, indigenous groups, women’s groups, prison reform groups, and so forth.

PN Conferences are one of the highlights of the organization. After attending the first PN Conference at Cornell in 1978 with a group of other graduate students from the University of Toronto, we were inspired to organize a similar conference for Canadians in 1980. We established our own Planners Network Canada that lasted for 3 years before we simply folded ourselves into the American, and soon to be international, PN. We also organized an international PN conference in Toronto in 2000. [1980, 2000, 2020! It must be time.]

Among the more action-oriented groups that PN-Toronto members started are Women Plan Toronto (WPT) and Planning Action, though both are now defunct. Both of these groups grew, at least in part, because of the leadership and participation of PN members.

How did Women Plan Toronto attempt to do transformative planning?

Women Plan Toronto was founded by Reggie Modlich, a long-time PN member, in 1985. It began as a participatory research project involving more than 25 different groups of women: homeless women, immigrant women, academic women, professional women, young mothers, etc. Reggie wrote up the results of the group discussions and organized a conference to talk about the finding with the women who had participated in the research. Those participants overwhelmingly wanted to continue meeting to discuss women’s issues and to strategize actions to address them and, thus, WPT was born.

Among WPT’s most successful projects 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.

WPT lasted over 15 years before quietly fading away. Reggie said that she felt they had become the token women’s group included in every consultation so that the City could say they’d done it without seriously considering more than a handful of their proposals—usually just those regarding women’s safety.

Was this transformative planning?

Certainly, for many of the women participants, it was. They learned to speak for themselves, gaining skills and knowledge about city planning and politics that transformed their outlook, if not their circumstances. Some community involvement processes changed, and a few policies changed, too. These are not insignificant, but neither are they the substantive, redistributive outcomes that we need in order to address the scale of problems we now face.

Why is it now important to release this book? To put it differently, what makes transformative planning timely and important at this present moment?

Norma Rantisi, Professor, Department of Geography & Planning, Concordia University & Progressive City managing editor.

This contemporary neoliberal moment is one of a strong articulation of the dominance of ‘free market’ orthodoxy with ongoing colonial violence (here and abroad), fascist populism, environmental catastrophe and heightened militarization within and across borders – all of which operate to cordon, dispossess and displace low-income racialized populations, and produce or reinforce everyday geographies of toxic, under-serviced and highly surveilled spaces of the city. The practice of enabling social control for private accumulation is a sordid part of planning’s history (think urban renewal in the 1960s) and continues to be part of its sordid present, with Sidewalk Labs in Toronto as just the latest manifestation. The city that is made efficient and ordered serves a basis for smooth financial transactions and resource extraction. And today, the growth of the prison-industrial, migration-detention and border-control complexes, among some of the fastest growing, profit-making sectors, are central to this ‘ordering’ process – complexes that draw on local and transnational resources and expertise, making the ‘ordering’ process a simultaneous global and local affair.

Moreover, it is not only the case that we confront this incredibly daunting social, political and economic conjuncture, but the place of ‘the planner’ within this moment is also throw into question, particularly as the dominance of free market orthodoxy is giving private sector actors more say in setting the rules of development. To loosely quote Angotti in the introduction of the Transformative Planning book, for much of the 20th century, “planning ignored gaping inequalities of race, class, and gender while promoting (wittingly or now) unbridled growth and environmental injustices”. Radical planning of the 1960s made some significant gains, particularly in relation to the civil rights and women’s movements, but there were also blind-spots in relation to indigenous planning, disability planning, trans planning and environmental justice concerns. And as argued by planning scholar-activists, such as Marie Kennedy (see her chapter in Transformative Planning), even those gains that were made have been increasingly coopted by the ‘state’ in the form of public participation or ‘consultation’, which retains the place of the ‘planner’ as expert and the reliance of community planning on what are often rigid funding regimes – regimes that measure success by the quantity of deliverables produced rather than the building of relations and bottom-up channels of control. A technical and bureaucratic turn to advocacy planning means that planning is less oriented to fundamentally disrupting the uneven power relations and wealth distribution on which the cities rest. And it raises the key question of how to shift planning from being a mere tool for the technocratic neoliberal (and increasingly, fascist) state to being a site for contestation. How can we stem the cooptation of bottom-up planning and the professionalization (institutionalization) of ‘community planning’?

Even as the challenges today grow more daunting, the same confluence of forces are also spurring on new forms of organizing and resistance – movements against colonial dispossession, climate strikes, labour strikes, gilets jaunes, Green New Deals and mass mobilizations in Lebanon, Chile, Rojava, Algeria, Sudan, Hong Kong, India and many other locations. As well, there are new community-labor coalitions that are posing a challenge to how global corporations (such as Google, Amazon and others) operate (or not) in cities and the nature of operations (e.g., the $15 campaign). The intense polarization of our socio-economic-ecological settings is opening new windows of opportunities for new forms of contestation and the forging of new connections, as well as new possibilities for a more transformative planning, the form that Barbara has articulated in her contribution above. Planning under capitalism has always faced a contradictory existence and this new – authoritarian populist and eco-cidal – stage of neoliberalism is no exception. With influence over land-use, resource allocation and public goods provision or regulation, planning still holds the potential to reorient the politics of city development. But only a transformative form can steer us from this current path. The Transformative Planning: Radical Alternatives collection seeks to move beyond critiques of our current moment and to share alternative approaches and practices of planning – practices that strive to center those who have been most harmed by, yet simultaneously most excluded from, city ‘development’ processes. The project remains an ongoing on. So many voices are still missing, from both the greater struggle and the book. And our challenge in PN is to find ways to give visibility and support to the transformative potential of planning, where such voices can command both the process and the ends.

Could you briefly discuss neoliberalism and its implications for Planning?

Kanishka Goonewardena, Associate Professor, Department of Geography & Planning, University of Toronto

This is hardly an original question, given the extensive and familiar literature on the topic. With reference to what we already know, I would like to offer here just a provocation concerning the relationship between neoliberalism and planning. Typically, neoliberalism has been understood as a political-economic ideology promoting the virtues of ‘free markets’ against Fordist-Keynesian forms of planning undertaken by the welfare state. In this kind of common sense, neoliberalism often appears as the enemy of planning and the state. But this is misleading, to the extent that the state as we know it, or what Lenin might have called the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’, has also been the prime instrument of the neoliberal project—the essence of which is class struggle, in conjunction with other struggles over nature, patriarchy, colonialism and imperialism. Against the view that neoliberalism and planning are simply antithetical, we must recall Karl Polanyi’s famous words: ‘laissez-faire was planned, planning was not’. In spite of its pretension to be the ideology of the free market, which equates economic liberalism and political freedom with seductive appeals to human rights, neoliberalism is also a product of planning. It is a plan by, for and of the ruling classes of the world, to revive their powers, privileges and profits in response to the crisis of the Fordist-Keynesian regime of accumulation punctuated by the global recession of 1973—of course at the expense of the organized and disorganized workers of the world, in factories, fields and households. More than a universal expansion of free markets, neoliberalism represents in fact a rigging of markets to enrich global elites, by dispossessing subaltern classes worldwide. It is the dominant form of accumulation in the latest stage of capitalism, combining ‘so-called original accumulation’ critiqued by Marx with every conceivable extraction of surplus value—with all the tricks in the book of capital, from ground rent to finance capital to unpaid labour.

We are already familiar with the mechanics of this transfer of value from the poor to the rich, from peripheries to centres of the world, thanks to the writings of David Harvey, Neil Smith, Jamie Peck and Peter Marcuse—especially the urban consequences of neoliberalism involving housing, gentrification, precarity, policing and targeted disempowerment. But to underline the role played by planning in neoliberalism, a few new studies are also helpful. Quinn Slobodian’s recent book Globalists tells in fascinating detail the story of how neoliberalism as a political project was conceived by intellectuals such as Friedrich von Hayek between the World Wars and implemented by politicians like Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s, inviting us to think about how scores of influential liberal, social democratic and even Marxist thinkers have rallied to its class agenda. Indeed, much of the global hegemony of neoliberalism rests on its ability to co-opt a wide range of radical anti-statist critics and libertarian advocates of creative subjectivity—from Austrian neoconservatives to French poststructuralists to Italian autonomists. Again, as far as the contemporary urban manifestations of neoliberal hegemony are concerned, the closely related paradigms of ‘smart city’ and ‘creative city’ are exemplary. As the German scholar Klaus Ronneberger says in an essay on Henri Lefebvre’s conceptions of autogestion and right to the city, the ‘Marxist’ Richard Florida and the liberal Charles Landry are both ‘outstanding examples of a neoliberal program, which can be understood as cultural governmentality of the city in the spirit of Michel Foucault’. Needless to add, University of Toronto’s own School of Cities too is very much a part of this neoliberal grand strategy, which Wendy Brown, in her book Undoing the Demos, theorises as a fundamentally undemocratic political project encompassing not merely economics, but the totality of social life—including the university and its talk of ‘excellence’. It is best therefore to see the decisive struggle not as one between neoliberalism and planning, but as one between two kinds of planning—neoliberal planning and radical-democratic planning—a struggle that demands a dual power response, on the terrain of official institutions and beyond.

What are some of the promising alternatives emerging from on-the ground struggles, ones that embody and even push further principles of transformative planning? What conditions are necessary to make those alternatives “radical”?

Katharine Rankin, Professor, Department of Geography & Planning, University of Toronto

While undertaking research on community economic development with Kuni Kamizaki, chair of this session, I came to appreciate the significance grassroots struggles in Toronto, as they have pioneered in countering the commodification of land and labor with alternative institutions of accumulation and democratic community control—two key ingredients of ‘radical planning’.

Based on this work in Toronto, as well as a graduate seminar I teach on Planning the Social Economy, I would argue that to be ‘radical’, transformative planning must broach the terrain of market-making; it has to be economic planning. Now, the economy is not typically regarded as the purview of planning practice. Neoliberal ideology, as we have just heard from fellow panelists, makes a point of getting us to believe that markets have laws of their own and therefore that there is nothing we can really do about, for example, gentrification and the displacement it causes. But of course, markets are human creations, and, as Karl Polanyi reminds us, planning grew up around the human impulse and imperative to manage the social costs incurred when markets are made to commodify land and labor.

In these terms, we could say that Toronto is an oasis of radical (economic) planning. Planners and community organizers have leveraged today’s massive investments in transportation infrastructure to secure jobs, apprenticeships, and other economic opportunities in proximate low-income communities, through community benefit agreements. They have similarly leveraged capital development projects of all kinds to procure supplies and services from “diverse suppliers,” including local small or medium enterprises. In so doing, they have demanded that economic development be explicitly linked to labor markets favoring opportunity for low-income and marginalized residents of the city.

Toronto is also home to a few philanthropic foundations that have recently integrated economic planning into long-time engagement with social policy and community development, and are staffed with brilliant, critically-minded practitioners cognizant of the distinctive politics of coloniality, race, and socio-spatial inequality. These foundations are committed to supporting planners and community organizers in building equitable labor markets, fair economies, and decent work.

I would also like to acknowledge the catalytic role played by a group of Masters students in our Planning Workshop course back in 2009 (including Kumi Kamizaki), who proposed that a community land trust might be a good way to combat gentrification in the neighborhood of Parkdale. The Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre, on behalf of whom the students’ report was prepared, subsequently secured funding from the Metcalf Foundation to create the Parkdale Neighborhood Land Trust (PNLT), which was incorporated in 2014 as a non-profit, membership-based, community organization that acquires, owns and stewards land for community benefits, particularly for low income and equity seeking community members. In Toronto CED circles by now the story of PNLT’s genesis and its original link to the University of Toronto Planning program has been widely told, but I wanted to mention it because I think PNLT is useful to think with in order to answer the question that Kuni assigned me, What conditions are necessary to make transformative planning “radical”? I think PNLT ticks all the boxes.

1. Radical planning, as I argue in my social economy course, must aim for redistributive justice – for collective ownership, appropriation and distribution of the social surplus. PNLT does this by removing land from the speculative market, decommodifying it, challenging the principle of highest and best use, and committing land to collective ownership. And it innovates a comprehensive approach, where that land could be used for housing (as is common for CLTs), or social enterprise, or affordable commercial space, or urban agriculture.

2. Radical planning must practice economic democracy—extending genuine decision-making powers into the realm of the economy and cultivating anti-capitalist economic subjectivities. PNLT does this by putting land in the trust of grassroots democratic governance.

3. Radical planning must pursue relational forms of local autonomy, which would require building a collective recognition of how multi-scalar processes and extra-local politics shape a locality like Parkdale. So that it then becomes possible to think in terms of strategically transforming those connections. PNLT knew that just owning some parcels of land would not stop gentrification. They knew they would have to put those democratic processes to work learning about, and opposing, wider political-economic processes. So they launched a Participatory Planning and action research process to come up with a wider neighborhood plan for decent work, shared wealth and equitable development. Incredible.

Now they were ready to respond quickly and effectively to redistributive justice opportunities. I guess the most recent success on this front was how PNLT transmuted an analysis of the rise of corporate landlords into a strategy to preserve a distinctively local form of affordable housing, the rooming house—through both a campaign to change citywide policy on rental housing protection and the acquisition of a rooming house as the city’s first community-owned, community-controlled permanent affordable housing.

I’d just end by suggesting that these principles—of redistributive justice, economic democracy, and relational autonomy—can offer a point of reference for radical planning practice and scholarship—as Kuni and I argue in a paper for a forthcoming book recently co-edited by Norma Rantisi, called Market/Place. They can serve as normative principles by which to evaluate and hopefully create transformative planning!



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