On the Value of Community Consultation

At the Centre for City Ecology, we believe that Torontonians are experiencing a resurgence of engagement, pride, and hope.

Esel Panlaqui asks a question at our event about Section 37 of the Planning Act

Discussion at our MobiliTO event

We see your strong appetite for a deeper understanding of urbanism and civic engagement as almost every event we host on these topics sells out. At those events, we see your local knowledge on display in the rich and nuanced questions you ask our speakers. We see your desire to contribute to this city when you ask for opportunities to volunteer. We hear deep pride in your neighbourhoods when you tell us about your projects and initiatives and residents groups. We know you are inspired when we see so many students committed to pursuing deeper knowledge of urbanism, architecture, urban planning, environmental studies, and urban studies.

This enthusiasm is infectious. It also leads us to a question:

Are you being consulted about the future of your neighbourhood?

On a tour of Mount Dennis with Rick Ciccarelli and Marabelle McTavish of Mount Dennis Weston Network

At the end of the day, very few of us want to be spectators. We want to have a measurable result when we invest our time and energy into something. We want to have an impact on the city we live in.

Right now, the City must consult you when a developer applies to change the zoning of property in your neighbourhood. You can see on the City of Toronto’s website that Community Consultation is a key step in the planning process. In the 1970s, we fought for and won the right to have local input taken into consideration when the City receives these applications.

Many of us have attended these public consultations. Some of us are working to make them easier to find out about in the first place, and here at CCE we have been thinking more about the kinds of conversations that are and aren’t had at these consultations.

Why is the input of locals important?

The people who live or work on a street know things about that street that others do not. An example:

On my walk to work, I pass through a small section of one block where there is always glass on the ground from smashed car windows.

‘Broken Glass’ by Flickr user ‘mayhem’

There is a developer who wants to build on this corner, and he held a consultation with the community before drawing up his plans. We mentioned this and said that it would be important to have windows facing onto this street and good lighting so it would be safer to leave a car there overnight. The developer has an opportunity to make this part of the street safer for everyone.

This is the kind of knowledge that does not come from urban professionals, City staff, nor developers. This is the kind of knowledge that comes only from daily observation.

What else do you know about your neighbourhood? Is there a tree or a nook that you particularly enjoy and want to protect? Is there a corner that could be safer with some small changes? Is the bus stop unbearably hot in the summer sun with no trees to shade you? Is there a fence in the way of a route that could easily become a great short-cut? What is working in your neighbourhood? What would you miss if it was gone?

This is the kind of knowledge that is supposed to come out of community consultation. It can greatly improve the decisions made if it is given and taken into account. Your input is incredibly valuable!

Conflicts in community consultation

Perhaps that sounds naive. Haven’t we seen how these things go?

“Not in my backyard” by Flickr user ‘Kotare1718’

Yes, we hear the same complaints you have heard: Residents cry Not In My Back Yard at every change! Developers don’t care about the neighbourhood and just want to make money on the smallest units in the tallest towers! City staff are indifferent or unreachable!

These stereotypes are tricky. We do have different motivations when discussing the future of our neighbourhoods and we have different constraints: Residents are trying to defend neighbourhoods that they love and cherish, and protest often seems like the most effective route. The developers have complex calculations to run on every project, and many stakeholders to consider. City departments have tight deadlines and are often short-staffed and facing cuts despite our city’s yearly growth.

Everyone’s playing defense. No wonder these meetings are so fraught.

We think there is a better way.

Let’s have a different conversation

These conversations usually start with a development application, to which the community can say “yes” or “no” or “yes, but”. Many times, the community is riled up by the developer’s application before the meeting even starts.

What if we started the conversation earlier?

What if the community got together to talk about the future(s) it sees for the neighbourhood, to identify common goals and common values? What if there was a venue for community knowledge to be curated and updated and owned by the community, accessible to City staff, developers, and other partners in this conversation?

‘City-in-the-Box’ by Flickr user Yau Hoong Tang

What if the developers knew your neighbourhood wishlist(s) and could build that into their developments? What if your day-to-day knowledge of your neighbourhood was taken into account, leading to better planning?

What if we were on the same team before the fight? What if we didn’t even need to fight?

A pilot project

We’ve started to explore an approach to this conversation in Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park, a neighbourhood in East Scarborough. In partnership with East Scarborough Storefront, we have been working with the community to create a 3D digital model of the current neighbourhood, to draw out local knowledge of the community and their hopes for the neighbourhood, and to partner community members with urban professionals so that the community is well-informed and able to articulate their visions.

A new conversation begins in Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park

Over the next few months, we will be sharing our reflections on our progress so far and share stories, photos, videos, and data with you so you can join in this conversation with us about how community consultation could be transformed in Toronto.

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