Uncovering JAPA

Human Rights and the City

What are the implications of human rights for planning?

In "Human Rights and the City: A View from Canada," a recent Viewpoint article for the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 1), Sandeep Agrawal contends that human rights are a critical issue at the municipal level for both moral and legal reasons.

Canadian Human Rights Legal Framework

Agrawal defines human rights as "inalienable rights that we each possess by virtue of being human, based on our inherent dignity and equal worth as human beings." The foundation of modern human rights law is the United Nations' Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which has been ratified by almost all nation-states.

In Canada, human rights are protected through both constitutional and quasi-constitutional means. Constitutional forms have existed since 1982, when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed. Agrawal argues that while the Charter has raised awareness of human rights in Canadian society, it only guarantees the rights and freedoms of Canadians concerning government activities. Quasi-constitutional legislation, including federal, provincial, and territorial statutes, compose the remainder of Canada's human rights laws. Together, Agrawal argues, there is a network of human rights legislation that can be applied to address a wide variety of urban problems.

Toronto Zoning Law Challenge

To illustrate this, he uses two case studies. The first explores a legal challenge to a proposed citywide zoning bylaw in Toronto. In 2010, an advocacy group of psychiatric treatment survivors argued that Toronto's proposed citywide zoning bylaw was discriminatory against residents of group homes. Objections were raised over the definition of a group home and mandated separation distances. The author was retained as an expert in the case and concluded that the bylaw violated the Charter as well as the Ontario Human Rights Code, which prohibits "people zoning." This case demonstrated that zoning changes with clear implications for access to housing are subject to human rights legislation.

Lafontaine Zoning and Religion Rights

The second case study examines whether the Village of Lafontaine, Quebec, violated the Charter's freedom of religion provision. A group of Jehovah's Witnesses unable to find suitable land for sale in a previously approved zone, applied twice for a zoning change and were refused. Initially, the appeal was dismissed on the grounds that the municipality was not responsible for the unavailability of land. However, the Supreme Court of Canada ultimately sided with the Jehovah's Witnesses, stating that the municipality acted in bad faith and infringed on the group's freedom of religion.

Human Rights in Municipal Planning: Recommendations

These cases illustrate the scope of human rights protections as they relate to municipal planning. The author argues that a human rights lens "may resolve conflicts before issues fester and opponents become entrenched, thereby ensuring more inclusive planning policies and processes and avoiding costly and time-consuming litigation." However, while progress has been made on human rights legislation in Canada, several issues persist. The author cites examples relating to housing and homelessness, university accessibility, Indigenous rights, and freedom of religion.

To address these challenges, Agrawal makes three recommendations: first, he proposes implementing a municipal training program to help planners understand the human rights implications of their work. Second, he suggests an internal audit of municipal documents to determine potential human rights challenges and make the necessary changes. Finally, he recommends revising curricula in planning schools to include course content in human rights and planning. Although Agrawal notes that "human rights are not the definitive solution for all complex urban problems," the article makes a convincing case for a broader application of the existing legislation.

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About the author:
Gemma Holt is a Master in Urban Planning and Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard University.

June 10, 2021

By Gemma Holt