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July 01, 2020

Anti-Black Racism in the Liveable City and Canada

Anti-Black Racism in the Liveable City and Canada

Justice for Regis solidarity rally in Toronto

Credit: Steve Russell

Since May 26, 2020, there have been sustained protests in Canada and the United States, in response to the police killing of George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and countless other Black lives lost to the structural violence of anti-Black racism. These resounding calls for Black lives to matter should elicit deep concern from the urban planning profession which has yet to adequately confront its own institutionalized anti-Black racism that render cities unliveable for Black lives (Manning Thomas, 1994).
In Canada, the history of livability discourse in urban planning dates back to 17th century European colonial town building principles that centered the economic prosperity and comfort of white settler populations at the expense of Indigenous and Black lives (Maynard, 2017). During the 1600s, both French and British colonialist relied on urban planning and land use practices to build cities that advanced their imperial expansionism and white supremist ideologies. This took the form of heavily fortified colonial settlements that facilitated the military and administrative control over Indigenous lands and peoples (Stelter, 1980). At the same time, enslaved Indigenous and Black labourers contributed to both the infrastructure development of early towns and the relative comfort of settler households as domestic servants.
20200702.pngCredit: David J. Hulchanski
Consequently, as Canadian cities grew to consolidate imperial dominance and ameliorate the quality of life for white settlers, the subjugation of Indigenous and Black lives—including the abject conditions of enslavement and dispossession of lands—ensured that these communities were pushed to the lowest rank in all socio-economic indicators (Maynard, 2017). In the post-abolition period, anti-Black racism in urban planning is entangled with decades of private and public sector divestment in housing and transit that produced delapidated housing, poor public infrastructure and inadequate transit connectivity. There is a direct line between this history of dispossession and enslavement and condition of Black lives in Canada. For example, Black home ownership is disproportionately lower in comparison to whites with equivalent household type, education level, occupational level and age in Toronto (Darden and Kamel, 2000). Black tenants experience forms of discriminatory constraint choices, in part, due to tenant placement systems that concentrate Black residents in the least desirable buildings (Murdie, 1994).
Urban planning, and planners, were critical to the construction of this extractive and racist system. The complicity, and worst the instrumentality, of the planning profession is evident in specific planning practices, such as urban renewal and large-scale public housing revitalization projects, which have exacerbated these racialized disparities through forced tenant relocation and displacement caused by processes of gentrification in low-income and Black communities. Overtime, this has culminated in the concentration of low-income and Black residents in the peripheral neighbourhoods as the downtown core becomes increasingly more expensive (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2019; Kipfer and Petrunia, 2016). In 2016, Black people were disproportionately over-represented in low-income neighbourhoods and under-represented in middle and high-income neighbourhoods (Hulchanski, 2019). Currently, the city’s Black population is concentrated in the inner suburbs of Etobicoke and Scarborough, where some of the many Black residents are subjected to disproportionate rates of
20200703.pngGeographical distribution of Black population in Toronto Credit: David J. Hulchanski
state surveillance and the dehumanization of Black life through policing tactics such as street checks or carding – all of which contribute to Black death.
Since the 1980s, Toronto’s municipal planning regimes have adopted a highly institutionalized conception of the liveable city in the form of generalized policies related to global livability metrics (McArthur and Robin, 2019). These indices score cities on rigid frameworks on what it means to be a liveable city and ascribe to an “objective” and “race-neutral” framework that conceals the deep material inequities within cities. Consequently, this has created a distorted conceptualization of livability that, in the contemporary moment, privileges the lifestyle needs of white, wealthy, educated, professionals (Amin, 2011). The discrepancies between public and private sector approaches to livability and the subjective experiences of Black and Indigenous peoples speaks to the deeply ingrained structures of anti-Black racism and settler colonialism that, in the afterlife of slavery, continue to inform what a liveable city is and for whom it is planned.
At the present juncture, the planning profession has ascribed to a race-neutral, colour blind, objective and technocratic framework for planning that, in and of itself, is grounded in white supremacy and seeks the outcome of racialized disparities and anti-black racist planning resolutions. What is particularly disturbing is that none of the major professional planning bodies have seemed to find it necessary to explicitly confront institutionalized racism in urban planning through anti-racist professional standards or a code of ethics that recognizes the centrality of Black life to livability. Nor have they meaningfully engaged with Black urban scholars and practitioners who have raised concerns about the ways in which policies of social mix, urban revitalisation, walkability, open streets and transit orient development negate Black lives. What would it mean to rethink livable cities, and urban planning more broadly, to center the lives of Black people?
The labour of confronting institutionalized anti-Black racism and settler colonialism in urban planning has been shouldered by Black and Indigenous communities, who are doing the necessary work to realize more liveable cities for all urban dwellers. This is evident in Indigenous communities which rely on their own heterogenous notions of livability that offer alternative perspectives to Eurocentric planning practices. In Nova Scotia, the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health (ENRICH) Project offers an interdisciplinary approach to tackling the socio-economic and health effects associated with environmental racism that disproportionately impact Mi’Kmaw and African Nova Scotian communities. On the West coast, Hogan’s Alley Society advocates for and with Black Vancouverites “who have endured the legacies of urban renewal and works to build the capacity of racialized and marginalized communities to participate in city building”. In South Ottawa, the Herongate Tenant’s Coalition, intervened in Canada’s largest mass evictions that resulted in the displacement of a predominately low income, immigrant and Black community. The Black Planning project in Toronto is creating necessary space for people of African descent who are planning practitioners, or demonstrate an interest in urban planning in their personal lives, to share their experiences.

These perspectives and initiatives offer an invitation to imagine a different ethics of urban livability that is firmly grounded in eradicating anti-Black racism and improving Black lives. If it is true that urban planning, as a profession, determines that improving the lives of all people in cities as a major driver, then the resounding calls for Black lives to matter—in planning and beyond—should be welcomed as a first step towards dismantling institutionalized anti-Black racism in order to attend to Black livability. However, for those willing to do the  meaningfully and necessary work of dismantling anti-black racism in planning, I would strongly recommend engaging with Black urbanists and planners who have put forward concrete, actionable steps for transformational change. These include:
Amin, A. (2013). Telescopic Urbanism and the Poor. City, 17(4), pp. 476–492. Retrieved from:
Calliste, A. (1995). The Influence of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement in Canada. Race, Gender & Class, 2(3), 123-139. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from
Darden, J.T. and Kamel, S.M. (2000). Black and White Differences in Homeownership Rates in the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area: Does Race Matter? The Review of Black Political Economy, 28(2), pp.53-76.  Retrieved from:
Hartman, S. (2008). Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Hulchanski, D. (February 14, 2019). Neighbourhood Change Research Network. Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. 
Kaal, H. (2011) A Conceptual History of Livability. City, 15(5), pp. 532–547. Retrieved from:
Kipfer, S. and Petrunia, J. (2016). “Recolonization” and Public Housing: A Toronto Case Study. Studies in Political Economy A Socialist Review, 83(1), pp.111-139. Retrieved from:
Manning Thomas, J. (1994). Planning History and the Black Urban Experience: Linkagaes and Contemporary Implications. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 14(1), pp.1-11. Retrieved from:
Maynard, R. (2017). Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
McArthur, J and Robin, E. (2019). Victims of their own (definition of) success: Urban discourse and expert knowledge production in the Liveable City. Urban Studies, 56(8), pp.1711-1728. Retrieved from:
Murdie. R. (1994). Blacks in Near Ghettos? Black Visible Minority Population in Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority Public Housing Units. Housing Studies, 9(4), pp.435-457. Retrieved from:
Stelter, G.A. (1980). Urban Planning and Development in Upper Canada. Urban History Review, pp.143-155. Retrieved from:
The Canadian Encyclopedia. Black History in Canada. Accessed July 2019
Tomiak, J. (2016). Unsettling Ottawa: Settler colonialism, indigenous resistance, and the politics of scale. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 25(1), 8-21. Retrieved from


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Jamilla Mohamud

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