In episode 5 of the Courage My Friends podcast, urban planner and author Cheryll Case and community organizer, author and activist Dave Meslin discuss our cities, their structures, priorities, politics and the relationships they foster with those that call them home.
With more people now living in urban areas than at any other time in human history, cities are of increasing importance.
Centres of commerce and industry, focal points of political and social engagement and cultural crossroads of greater and greater diversity, our cities are sites of complexity and innovation.
From the opioid epidemic and the climate crisis to the current pandemic, cities also stand on the frontlines of so many of our current crises; crises made all the worse as they play out against the backdrop of deeply entrenched inequalities.
What has COVID-19 revealed about our cities? According to Meslin, if we’ve been paying attention, not much that we didn’t already know:
“…all the problems we’re seeing with COVID were already all there — I mean, except for the disease itself, of course. But in terms of how it’s impacted racialized communities and those with lower paying jobs, where folks have to go into a factory and then have to get crowded onto a bus. I mean, those are just symptoms of problems that have been lingering forever.”
Problems that are inherent to a system that insists on prioritizing economic growth over social well-being. Or as Case puts it “a system that is rigged in favour of the wealthier people…[while] past harms done unto marginalized groups, including women, lower-income people, racialized communities, and Indigenous nations is underdeveloped.”
From Case’s human rights approach to urban planning to Meslin’s activism on public engagement across a range of areas from bicycles to ballots and billboards; much of their work (and much of this discussion) is focused on Toronto. Yet, where Toronto holds the distinction of being the world’s most diverse city, the lessons it offers are far-reaching.
Toronto is plagued by deep intersections of race and class. As Meslin says: “I just think we have to stop pretending that Toronto isn’t highly segregated and that income and class and ethnicity and skin color aren’t tied together…we should all be absolutely disgusted with the degree of economic segregation in Toronto, right now in 2021.”
By hook or by crook or just sheer short-sightedness, cities like Toronto routinely exclude its most marginalized members from having a say in the policies that directly impact their lives. Be it in our competitive winner-take-all electoral system that feeds into increasingly centralized systems of government or the lackluster (if not outright lack of) meaningful consultation in infrastructural design, vulnerable communities tend to be sidelined; sidelined in city planning, but frontline when those plans fail.
However, community-centred approaches to municipal planning offers us a way forward. According to Case, this means, “building the capacities of the marginalized members of society to understand the system as it is. To develop their own opinions on how the system should function and then work with people in power so that policies can be developed — so that their interests are also met.”
For Meslin, this also means moving toward decentralized systems of power, defeating top-down approaches to politics and reinvigorating local democracy by meaningfully integrating the wisdom, work and needs of communities. Perhaps even creating a fourth level of community government:
“Public space should be designed in a way to maximize bottom up, neighbourhood, diverse community expression. And our democracy should be designed, not for a handful of dinosaur parties who’ve been around for generations, but for new innovative voices. Younger voices. Diverse voices… I think if we decentralize power, problems will sort themselves out. Because collectively we have the wisdom to figure all these things out.”
For Case, the work is already being done by communities themselves.
“You’ll find oftentimes that the community work that they do supplements the work that cities do…The city has these visions for inclusivity and diversity, [but] the city cannot achieve this vision without the labour of these residents.”
This work is now being collated into the Toronto Atlas of Neighbourhood Groups and Organizations or TANGO, a collaborative project involving Case, Meslin and others advocating for a more just city.
How do we envision urban centres that are built on rights rather than capital?
Can we redesign more meaningful and inclusive systems of local democracy?
How do we make cities a place of belonging for all of us and that we are all truly proud to call “home”?
Host and co-producer Resh Budhu begins the conversation on the meaning of an inclusive and human rights approach to cities and city-planning.
About today’s guests:
Cheryll Case practices a human rights approach to community planning. As founder and Principal Urban Planner of CP Planning, Cheryll coordinates with charities, private sector industries, and communities to resource the systems necessary to secure dignified living for all peoples. This includes housing as a human right, urban agriculture, and improving the ability for marginalized residents to access arts and culture opportunities. She has lead a Toronto wide and grassroots led consultation on housing as a human right, as well as work local to the Eglinton Avenue West neighbourhood. In partnership with Black Urbanism TO, she led Black Futures on Eglinton, an arts based community research project. She is author and editor of “House Divided: How the Missing Middle Will Solve Toronto’s Affordable Housing Crisis” shortlisted for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario’s 2020 Speaker’s Book Award. She served as a member of the City of Toronto’s Expert Advisory Committee on the 2020-2030 Affordable Housing Plan, is currently a co-chair of the Balanced Supply of Housing Node of the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative, and is a member of the ULI Equity Diversity and Inclusion committee.
With one foot planted firmly in the world of mainstream politics and the other in the more vibrant universe of grassroots activism, urbanist, community organiser, trainer and political entrepreneur, Dave Meslin has found ways to turn energy into action. Leaving a trail of campaigns and organisations in his path, including the Toronto Public Space Committee, Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, Unlock Democracy Canada, Dandyhorse Magazine and Cycle Toronto, Dave has spent the last twenty years as a passionate transpartisan political disruptor and political biologist exploring the strange and mysterious worlds of protest movements, party politics and non-profit organizations. Dave has worked as an executive assistant at both city hall and the provincial legislature, painted do-it-yourself bike lanes on the street, organized hundreds of volunteers, started a handful of non-profits, worked as federal lobbyist, helped draft provincial legislation, survived tear-gas riots in three countries, buried his car and got thrown in jail. Not in that order. His best-selling book, Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up, is a roadmap for change and a cure for cynicism.
His TED talk about apathy and his 90-second video clip using Lego to explain our voting system has garnered millions of views online.
Transcript of this episode can be accessed at georgebrown.ca/TommyDouglasInstitute
Images: Cheryll Case and Dave Meslin. Used with Permission
Music: Ang Kahora. Lynne, Bjorn. Rights Purchased
Intro Voices: Chandra Budhu (General Intro./Outro.), Miriam Roopanram, Sharon Russell Julian Wee Tom (Street Voices); Bob Luker (Tommy Douglas quote)
Courage My Friends Podcast Organizing Committee: Resh Budhu, Victoria Fenner (for rabble.ca), Ashley Booth, Chandra Budhu, John Caffery, Michael Long
Produced by Resh Budhu, Tommy Douglas Institute and Victoria Fenner, rabble.ca
Host: Resh Budhu
A co-production of the Tommy Douglas Institute, George Brown College, Toronto, and rabble.ca with the support of the Douglas Coldwell Foundation.