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Planning with Empathy: A case study on collective action in the housing sector

10:30, Tuesday 9 May 2023 EDT (30 minutes)

What if planning was an act of empathy? I pose this question as an alternative ideological standpoint to rethink the applied practice of contemporary market-based planning and urban geography and confront the institutional barriers challenging citizen-led and insurgent planning movements. 


In this current moment, a post-covid world, the stratification of housing is at an all-time high, with access skewed to wealth (Raco et al., 2022) and to investment (Government of Canada, 2023).  In Canada, housing precarity is growing everyday with 1.7 million Canadians living in unaffordable or insufficient housing (Houle, 2022). A recent report published by the human rights commission has stated that houselessness is the “new epidemic” in Canada (Houle, 2022). Despite efforts by the national housing strategy legislating that housing is a human right and that everyone has a right to housing they can afford (Place to Call Home, 2017), financialization continues to dominate the housing sector and neoliberal policy is at the centre of urban agendas (Raco et al., 2022). This is exemplified by housing policy geared towards building more and faster such as Bill 23, Ontario’s More Homes Built Faster Act passed in 2022 (More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022) furthering, the commodification of the places and spaces that we live and spend our time. 


Confronting this narrative, through a rights-based approach, right to the city (Harvey, 2008) and housing as a human right (Place to Call Home, 2017), this paper will present preliminary findings from a literature review of critical planning theory and insurgent planning, and a case study that is currently ongoing to investigate a collective uprising of community-led planning within the housing sector in Cobourg, Ontario.


I have defined insurgent planning as a planning model that blurs the line between informal collective action and state sanctioned planning (Miraftab, 2009). It is propelled by the will of community and transforms planning in favour of the public interest as its driving force for change (Freitas, 2019).  Across Canada, many towns and cities are following the practice of insurgent planning and challenging the way housing is planned, the idea of a home and models of land ownership. In Cobourg, citizens are proposing to build temporary accommodations, sleeping cabins, that provide a one-room shelter for unhoused residents as an alternative to encampments. Citizen advocates are not suggesting this as a solution to houselessness. Through action they are challenging the lack of support and planning from all levels of government to enact change in the face of crisis. This research has revealed the incompatibility of the planning system to enable a localized and community level response. Planning instruments such as zoning by-laws are designed with land ownership as an implied assumption and site control bylaws are designed exclusively for permanent structures (personal communication, January 2023). These institutional barriers are symptomatic of a planning system designed for housing as a commodity and are delaying and in many cases impeding the power of collective action.   

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