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How Toronto's urban planning department embraced diversity

Toronto's planning review panel helps city staff receive input from people who aren't just "affluent white homeowners."

Jihan Abrahim, a volunteer who provides consultation on city planning issues, inside the Albion Library in Etobicoke.

Lance McMillan/For Metro

Jihan Abrahim, a volunteer who provides consultation on city planning issues, inside the Albion Library in Etobicoke.

Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by attending an urban planning consultation.

“The people who come to our meetings are generally white, generally affluent homeowners,” said Daniel Fusca, head of stakeholder engagement for Toronto’s planning department.

That’s a problem, Fusca says, because it means the department tasked with planning the entire city is only hearing from part of it.

To fix it, Fusca and his colleagues created the Toronto Planning Review Panel. They sent out 12,000 invitations, and used a lottery process to pick 28 applicants who, together, reflect a city where nearly half of residents rent, 49 per cent are visible minorities and the median age is 39.

Over the past year, the panel members have reviewed the city’s new complete streets guidelines and pushed for policies requiring more family-sized condo units. They even got the concept of safety by design – the notion that the design of architecture and streets can impact safety – enshrined in official planning guidelines.

“It’s been really amazing,” said Jihan Abrahim.

The 29-year-old Etobicoke resident told Metro that joining the panel has given her a real insight into how – and why – the city makes certain decisions.

Bejaimal Satyanand, 58, said his time on the panel has completely changed how he views development. Instead of going to community meetings to complain about tall buildings and density, he now champions them.

“The last time I went to a neighbourhood consultation, one of the things I said is that 90 per cent of the people coming to the area are immigrants, and like all of us, they want to be house owners. But if we don’t build these houses, they’ll never get the chance,” he said.

Fusca says going to review panel meetings is very different from typical planning consultations. Whereas wealthier homeowners are usually concerned with property values and the character of neighbourhoods, he said the 28 panellists take a more “holistic” approach.

“It’s not just a perspective of self-interest,” he said. “They worry about social justice and the environment and how vulnerable people might be affected.”

As the program heads into its second year, Fusca says other cities – some as far away as Finland – have reached out to Toronto to learn more about the model.

The original 28 panellists will be finished their duties at the end of the year, but a new selection process will begin soon for the next panel.

“I’m sorry it’s done so soon,” Satyanand said. “I always felt like we were being listened to.”

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