Engaged City or Estranged Communities?

Today, at City Hall they're reviewing the Mayor's Engaged City Task Force Report, which is expected to be approved by the Vision-dominated council. Ostensibly, the report is about enhancing citizen engagement, but it includes some troubling recommendations that would dismepower neighborhoods and community associations.

There's lots to like in the report, which seeks to "increase Vancouverite's sense of belonging and inclusion, deepen their electoral engagement and address frustration regarding access to municipal decision making."

The report looks at the social isolation resulting from increases in highrise condo housing, the need for public space, improving civic literacy and voter turn out, and fostering community interactions. The report even pays lip service to the growing frustration and tension neighbourhoods city-wide are expressing with the current civic government.

"Meanwhile, there are huge tensions in Vancouver neighbourhoods where the local community feels the City has embarked on planning processes without adequately consulting and collaborating with those living there. In turn, the City has expressed frustration with the criticism, noting the high number of opportunities for engagement it has offered."
Page 6, The Mayor's Engaged City Task Force Report

As a community activist and chair of the Strathcona Residents' Association, I'm personally familiar with this frustration dealing with the City: from their Prior Street plan, to their Union Street plan, to their Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan — I've been a part of that tension, a tension I soon came to realize was shared by other neighbourhoods city-wide when our own residents association voted to join the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods and work with dozens of similarly disgruntled neighbourhood associatons.

Unfortunately, the report's panacea for this tension is where things go a little sideways.

Rather than acknowledging their own role in these neighbourhood tension, the City chose to blame the victims and in more than one instance this report is being used to quite deliberately undermine and disempower "neighbourhood groups"

"Neighbourhood groups need to be more accountable to those who hold diverse opinions within their community and to acknowledge the legitimacy of a variety of views and perspectives on issues." p.31

"Many residents expressed an interest in becoming more invested in neighbourhood and citywide decisions, yet were concerned that some groups dominate consultations and can intimidate others with alternative views." p.32

At first blush, these seem legitimate enough concerns (although in our own RA we've gone to great lengths to provide a more democratic and open forum, often the only hard-done-by disenfranchised complainants are VV "ringers" [verified on more than one occasion]). What concerns me about the approach is that rather than work with neighbourhood groups to improve inclusion, the City is proposing to circumnavigate them altogether. A few weeks ago, I attended the Wendy Sarkissian lecture and met a woman from Portland who described that city's approach. Since 1974, Portland has had an Office of Neighbourhood Involvement, which specifically liaises with, provides funding and infrastructure and democratic criteria and guidance for neighbourhood groups and facilitates their engagement with the City.

Certainly, this sort of engagement is exactly the sort of thing you would expect from a people powered free-thinking city like Portland, but as a life-long Van City kid, I would like to think we haven't slid too far down the developer-speculator "world class city" mantra rabbit hole rabbit hole that and idea like Portland's couldn't fly here.

"Many residents expressed an interest in becoming more invested in neighbourhood and citywide decisions, yet were concerned that some groups dominate consultations and can intimidate others with alternative views. Community Reference Panels are noncompulsory, randomly selected public juries who participate in consultation processes to provide policy advice to the public and elected officials. The City should explore the use of Community Reference Panels in future decision making, which would empower a broader spectrum of local residents in decision-making processes."
Page 32, The Mayor's Engaged City Task Force Report
I don't think I am understating the case when I suggest that "neighbourhood groups" play a critical role in the democratic and city-building process. Neighbourhood groups stopped the freeway through the East End; advocated for safe injection sites; saved the Hollywood Theatre; traffic calmed the West End and thwarted thin streets in Marpole. It is quite telling that the City did not choose to formally engage with the various neighbourhood associations, at least on some sort of cursory level [of the 23 members of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, all legitimate and long standing associations - only one was approached by this Task Force]. There is a very important role for neighbourhood groups as necessary watchdogs and legitimate means of civic engagement.

As for Community Reference Panels, the premise seems a sound model of participatory democracy. The reality of our system, however, is that of representative democracy - as voters, we elect leaders to represent our interests. The very same is true of communities, where residents elect leaders to speak to their concerns and even more importantly elucidate some of the more complex planning minutia that most average citizens neither have the time or capacity to fully understand (dog knows, I've learned a LOT about planning and land use and built form in the last two years of my own civic engagement). 

The notion that randomly selected public juries should provide policy advice is predicated by the supposition that they receiving accurate, unbiased and honest information. Certainly this is not the case with what we see in general terms of dealing with the planning department specifically and City in general. In our own DTES LAPP "public learning session" that the City has just rolled out - we are getting a lot of sizzle, but very little steak. To the uninitiated, the slick presentation and jingoism is a pretty good sell, but the devil is in the details. I worry that a randomly selected panel - under the guise of participatory democracy - will be used to undermine and delegitimize comments from the kind of citizens who have spent enough time in the city planning milieu to be able to spot the devil in the details.

Talk Vancouver, who's talking? 

This report also makes mention of the City's Talk Vancouver program as part of a successful engagement strategy. The recently launched Talk Vancouver is operated by Vancouver-based Vision Critical, a public opinion and research firm, and is expected to cost $75,000/year to run . Having used the system myself - it certainly isn't transparent, and questions are often leading. Based on my first impressions, the construct seems very much a top-down approach that allows for the potential manipulation of the audience with loaded questions. I think before too much credence is afforded this specific platform, an independent audit of the system is necessary.

I've since had the chance to meet with Portland's Mark Lakeman, and discuss that city's Office of Neighbourhood Involvement. Mark is a champion of localization and a national leader in the development of sustainable public places. He shared some insight about the Portland way, and I'll be writing about that in the near future! Check out Mark's site at CityRepair.org