Let’s improve public engagement in city planning so that all voices can be heard – not just the loudest
As our city and communities continue to grow in both size and complexity, how do we positively elevate the level of engagement in planning our neighbourhoods of the future? That’s a question the Urban Development Institute’s (UDI) Under-40 (U40) group is currently examining in a series of workshops and community dialogues.
Representing the young professionals in the development community, the women and men of the UDI’s U40 bring a uniquely positioned perspective to this important challenge.
Public engagement was once a much more civil process, allowing diverse stakeholders to meet and rationally work through common community concerns to craft shared solutions. Today, this is less so the case.
Sadly, in a world of accelerating change, communication in 140 characters or less, and so-called “fake news”, positive community engagement and the search for shared solutions seems to be increasingly rare. More common are the divisive community and neighbourhood conflicts, by increasingly entrenched parties. NIMBYs versus YIMBYs. Owners versus Renters. Baby Boomers versus Millennials. And so on, and so on.
Inconvenient… and Intimidating
When it comes to public hearings at City Halls in our region, the desire by governments to be inclusive of all voices can often ironically result in the opposite. That’s because council meetings or hearings are held at times or dates that conflict with people’s regular work days, children’s extracurricular activities and senior care obligations, especially for the “sandwich generation” who balance caring for young children and elderly parents. Attending a public meeting excludes many people who can’t wait for hours for their name to be called from a list of 200 registered to speak.
In addition to this time barrier for working professionals and parents, another factor is the rise of intimidation at these public events. Tempering voices are drowned out by angry, loud protestors from all sides with decisions based on how many oppositional letters were submitted, counterproductive to a rational, evidence-based presentation.
Municipal politicians and staff have also been targets of this growing incivility, documented by lawyer Kathleen Higgins, in the Vancouver Sun. She said public conduct has produced “an environment in which government becomes more difficult and legislative productivity is severely reduced, if not impossible.”
An increasingly “anti”-social media has become the new normal. But opting out of the public dialogue for fear of harassment means the bullies win. How do we ensure equal participation by those whose voices have been silenced or who can’t attend public hearings?
Emotional, knee-jerk reaction is human nature when confronted with change. NIMBYs often rule in public debate on many forms of housing and other developments. Our region has said no to increased transit, no to big-box stores, no to palliative care homes at UBC, and so on. Little wonder we lack business investment from high-paying employers.
How do we get to yes, or YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard)? What’s the best way to canvas public opinion beyond nasty tweets or media headlines driven by protestors? How can we ensure city councils and other elected officials can make informed decisions without fear of ballot box retribution?
Plenty of best practices do exist, particularly if you integrate digital public participation, such as short online or video presentations, allowed by the BC government’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services. This approach is also recommended by UDI’s U40 committee.
A very funny satire of the public hearing process found that of the top nine things people say, number one was, “I’m not opposed to all development, just this development.” But if the opposing voices always rule, then nothing will ever change. And structures such as the Eiffel Tower – whose early critics once called a “belfry skeleton” – would never have been built.
Let’s be inclusive, be respectful and provide more scheduled and digital participation opportunities, instead of making people wait hours to speak. Most people I know don’t have that kind of time.