February 9, 2018

Urban Development: Putting civility back into civic politics

Seeking positive ways to engage communities in future planning

By Anne McMullin

As our city and communities continue to grow in both size and complexity, how do we positively elevate the level of engagement in planning future neighbourhoods?
That’s a question the Urban Development Institute is currently examining in its “Under 40” series of workshops and community dialogues aimed at broadening the knowledge of under-40-year-old professionals in the development community.
Public engagement was once a civil process that allowed diverse stakeholders to meet and work rationally through common concerns to craft shared solutions. Today, this is less often 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 seem 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.
When it comes to public hearings at city halls in our region, the desire by governments to be inclusive of all voices can, ironically, result in the opposite.
There are a number of reasons for this.
One is the time barrier for working professionals and parents. Often council meetings or hearings are held at times/dates that conflict with people’s regular work days, children’s extracurricular activities and senior care obligations. 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.
Another factor is the rise of intimidation at these public events. Tempering voices are drowned out by loud, angry protests from all sides. Too often, decisions are based on how many oppositional letters were submitted.
Municipal politicians and staff have also been targets of this growing incivility. In a recent story in the Vancouver Sun, lawyer Kathleen Higgins was quoted as saying 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)? How can we ensure city councils and other elected officials can make informed decisions without fear of ballot box retribution? Plenty of best practices exist, particularly if you integrate digital public participation, such as short online or video presentations, allowed by the province’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services. This approach is also recommended by UDI’s U40 committee.
Let’s be inclusive and 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.

Anne McMullin is president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, an association of the real estate development industry, which supports more than 220,000 B.C. jobs plus billions of dollars in economic activity. Through municipal fees and contributions, the industry funds the construction of daycare centres, social housing, parks, public art, museums, schools and community centres throughout BC.

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