Calgary at a Crossroads

Originally published February 1. 

Community engagement is becoming community confrontation.

The City of Calgary adopted a public consultation process in June, 2003, which was updated in 2013. The assumption is and was that decisions are improved by engaging the community, that we build a better city when local people have a say. Good enough.

But we have to wonder if this assumption is true for every decision. Or if a process designed to bring communities together actually creates divisions.

Engagement gone wild

Over the past 10 years or so, it seems "community engagement gone wild" has become an apt phrase, not only for Calgary, but cities around the world. 

No longer are a few open houses with information boards, and maybe a short presentation, sufficient. Today, a professional community engagement strategist — yes, such a profession exists — must be hired to develop a multi-phased engagement plan that in some cases can last for years. 

Calgary Traffic Crowchild Trail Winter

The city has been engaging citizens on plans for Crowchild Trail for two years. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Take the Crowchild Trail study. It's had six phases over two years. That's a heck of a lot of talking.

While all this ostensibly creates multiple ways for people to participate, it also excludes. There are only a few Calgarians who have the time to participate in a process that involves dozens of meetings and walkabouts, and read long, long documents.

What happens is that special-interest or self-interest groups end up dominating the community engagement process.  Their views become the views of the community. Their issues are the community's issues.

The loudest wins

One of the unintended consequences of increasing the public's engagement is that self-empowered groups now believe they should have a say in everything that happens in their community.

Recently, a group of Inglewood residents was in the media protesting a local landlord's plan to lease retail space to Domino's Pizza, because in their opinion it would hurt the character of the community. However, they are fine with another landlord leasing to an upscale pizzeria down the block.

Inglewood 9th Ave

Some Inglewood residents don't want to see a Domino's Pizza set up shop on 9th Avenue. (Google)

This illustrates a central problem. There are no easily definable borders in our communities around who gets what say, over what issues. There's no objective criteria around words like stakeholder, or impact, or character. No agreed definition of what is "your backyard" in the urban sense.

So in local disputes, often the loudest  — those who are the most media savvy — get the attention, and thus, their way.

The engagement process can be taken over mostly by anti-development, anti-change zealots and bullies.

Neighbour against neighbour

In an ideal world, community engagement would be a catalyst for bringing citizens together to create a better community for everyone. In the real world, it is creating an increasingly combative community. Pitting neighbour against neighbour.

My most recent experience involved the Kensington Legion site public meeting.


The plan for the Kensington Legion site in northwest Calgary. (Truman Development Corporation)

It was organized by people who were opposed to the height and density of the development. To me, it was obvious that while the meeting was open to the public, the people running it only wanted to hear from those opposed to the project.

I had publicly supported it, but given the tone of the meeting, I didn't feel comfortable speaking out. I heard from several others who felt the same way.

We need to ask ourselves if in many cases it is the loud minority, the naysayers who attend, or at least feel comfortable speaking at, open houses. If the people attending public meetings are really a representative sample of the community.

And more, if they have the knowledge and expertise to make informed decisions on what are largely complex decisions.

Why we should consult

We citizens can make cities work more effectively because we understand our own neighbourhoods better than anyone else.

Communities are a complex web of interrelated components. Their context is not always something that can be read on a map or understood in a plan. No one knows the local context of a community as well as the local residents.

This can be good all around. It acts as a counter-balance to official plans which aren't well thought out. It helps developers avoid problems before they have a chance to begin. It can make things easier for the planners at city hall — they have to deal with fewer appeals to an application.

Ask any developer and they will tell you the community engagement process is useful — to a point. Beyond which it just adds unnecessary cost and time delays.

I expect the same is true for the city's file managers, who spend endless hours trying to educate individuals on city policy and plans. Trouble is, many people don't want to be educated, they just want a given project stopped, or changed to meet their demands.

17th Avenue reconstruction

Calgarians look over plans for the reconstruction of 17th Avenue S.W. The busy roadway will be completely rebuilt. (CBC)

Planning utopia

The problem with community engagement is that everyone has a different idea of urban utopia.

For example, when a new condo is proposed in an established community, some will focus on the positives that are often associated with new infill projects — better transit and parks, more retail, more street vitality and increased school enrolment. Others focus on the negative — increased traffic, lack of parking and crowded transit.

There is no perfect development/infrastructure project for everyone.

But by opening up the process, and giving everyone a 'say', we create that idea that everyone's opinion is equally valid. That everyone will be 'listened' to. And while we may listen, we must be careful not to let citizens think that means their particular concerns will necessarily win the day.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.