Transforming Toronto: building community participation into local planning

Slated for a mixed-income, mixed-use neighbourhood, Toronto’s Regent Park project seeks to transform Canada’s largest low-income public housing site through public input.    

Shauna Brail and Nishi Kumar’s article, Community leadership and engagement after the mix: The transformation of Toronto’s Regent Park, published in Urban Studies, suggests that by fully utilizing the area’s real estate assets with a range of commercial spaces and community facilities, the project provides for public housing residents while addressing the pressure on funding.

Across two-decades, the project has built community participation into its planning. However, as the article illustrates, despite engagement strategies used by planners, participation has not been free of barriers. The authors draw on interviews with community leaders, professionals, volunteers and resident and non-resident participants in the redevelopment, as well as those involved in the project over its long history, to provide context to the project, the consultation, and the issues addressed over time.

Three main themes emerge. First, the respondents acknowledge that existing relationships in local networks affect how they understand and engage with the redevelopment process. Second, despite the presence of strong local institutions, the planning process gives little thought to ‘institutional memory’ – referred to as undocumented knowledge accumulated over time by key people in organisations. According to participants, this is due to frequently changing or rotating administrations, and poor record-keeping. Third, the respondents suggest that training to understand challenges in administration and budgeting could help encourage community leadership and participation.

The authors recommend addressing these points to overcome tokenism, improve accountability, and give the community a fair say in their future. The Regent Park model, they argue, could benefit from continuous learning, greater adaptiveness, and community-building. Despite its challenges, they find, it remains an international point of reference – and a source of lessons for planners.

Shauna Brail is Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, in the Urban Studies Program at the University of Toronto and a Senior Associate at the Innovation Policy Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs. Nishi Kumar is a Junior Fellow at the Wellesley Institute, Toronto.  

Photo: The City Of Toronto/Flickr/cc

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