There has been a lot of discussion in the city lately about the engagement of the public on decisions affecting individual communities and the city as a whole. Projects like Calgary NEXT, the Cycle Track Network, SWBRT as well as local redevelopment of private golf courses and aging retail centres (Oakridge Co-op, Southland Crossing as examples) have received a lot of media attention and debate. Transit Oriented Development (TOD) sites like Anderson Station, are also important projects where engagement will be critical.
Community engagement is important. After all, we as citizens have to live with the choices made within these projects for years to come. Meaningful engagement and thoughtful planning produces better, more profitable outcomes for all stakeholders in the long run.
There are mixed opinions on what constitutes meaningful engagement. Some citizens believe that they should be able to provide input and have control over all project details affecting their neighbourhoods and city. Others believe engagement is simply about being informed; people want to know what projects are planned and how it will affect them, but they don’t expect to influence the planning or decision making.
Engagement vs. Informing
There isn’t one perfect way of ensuring public engagement is done. I believe meaningful engagement should be a multistep process, over time, where the City, citizens, businesses, community associations (CAs), private landowners etc. come together with open minds and clear communication on project details including limitations, opportunities, concerns and ideas.
Currently, the key element of the City’s Engage strategy is that the residents/stakeholders and City have meaningful conversations to gather information for the purposes of influencing decision making. If there is no opportunity to influence, it is not engagement and it is really just informing. Problems seem to occur when it is not clearly identified that a process is meant to inform vs. engage. When this miscommunication occurs, people feel that there was no intention of their feedback being considered, which is detrimental to the process. It is important to note that engagement and informing both play a role in project planning and development – however we need to be clear in how we label things in order to manage expectations for all stakeholders.
Communication and clarity are the foundation of meaningful engagement
Items that are open to engagement, in that information gathered can influence decisions, should be clearly identified. Engagement should also happen early in the planning process where there is still an opportunity to make changes and implement ideas. If there are boundaries on the scope of influence engagement can have (which is perfectly normal), these should be identified. For example, if assessing an intersection to improve traffic flow & an interchange is outside the scope of the project, identify that, explain why and focus the conversation in a meaningful way on what is possible to improve the current situation. In cases where certain decisions are unable to be influenced (such as structure placement or density requirements) then this needs to be clearly identified & explained as to why it is not open to engagement.
Moving forward, we need to make improvements in how we all work together on these projects – I believe the process needs greater clarity and better communication. I think all stakeholders share responsibility in this – including the City, Council, residents, community associations, businesses and developers. We need to all understand each other’s perspectives; be clear as to what is on the table and what isn’t. That way the focus can be on those areas where change is possible and meaningful conversation can occur on items that are open for discussion and collaboration.
Community engagement is both a process and an outcome
Part of the improvements in engagement could occur by exploring multiple ways of sharing ideas and details about a project. I believe this could help with the quality of engagement. For example, stakeholders could look at tactics and activities beyond display boards and sticky notes typically found at large open house events. Additional activities like conversation café style meetings and small group workshops would improve feedback and promote better understanding of perspectives. Focus groups with a small group of stakeholders, such as community associations, immediate neighbours, nearby businesses, the applicant, City representatives, could produce some very meaningful discussions and brainstorming. In the case of planning applications, finding a way to coordinate City involvement in applicants’ engagement earlier in the process would help, prior to an official application being filed. It would also be beneficial if there were clear expectations made as to the engagement responsibilities of all parties, from the developer to community associations and residents.
I believe it is critical to empower community members, community associations and businesses to influence change through meaningful engagement. We need to acknowledge and trust in the expertise and experience all stakeholders bring to projects and programs. By improving communication and how we engage with one another, we will create stronger partnerships in our communities. Face-to-face involvement is an excellent way for the City and stakeholders to monitor viewpoints, gather valuable information and hold each other accountable for intended progress. This will allow the City and planners to be in a position to better understand the complex issues in the communities they serve, and citizens will be in a position to better understand the processes of the City (and developers where applicable) including the demands and limitations of projects, capital and resources. Not only does meaningful engagement build important relationships, it increases the chances of project success. With resident and stakeholder support, these projects strengthen the future health and prosperity of our communities.