City of Calgary's public engagement work goes virtual during pandemic

Even during a pandemic, the city's public engagement work continues. It's just happening differently.

Planning, development and construction industries all remain active

Often, public feedback for the city is provided in-person. Now, engagement has moved entirely online. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Even during a pandemic, the city's public engagement work continues. It's just happening differently.

All in-person public engagement in Calgary has been scrapped until at least Aug. 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's been replaced with a variety of online and virtual platforms.

After all, construction is an essential service and the city's planning and development processes are still chugging along even in a pandemic.

So open houses, workshops on pop-up sessions are out. Real-time chats, phone conference calls and streaming videos are the new norm.

The city's engagement team has used virtual tools over the past three or four years. But now it's the only way to get public feedback on projects.

More accessible

The leader of the city's engage resource unit, Derek Heric, told city council's planning and urban development committee on Wednesday they're noticing more people are interested in engaging online.

For example, he said a really busy open house might involve a few hundred people. But Heric said online, they might get thousands providing input on a project.

He said there have always been digital barriers to people providing feedback but now it's as simple as calling the city's 311 line.

For those without a computer or a smartphone, access has always been as close as the nearest library. But libraries are now closed during the pandemic.

"We do have to figure out how to make sure everyone has the opportunity to engage with us. We don't want people left behind so we're figuring out different ways of getting those people that may be behind those barriers," said Heric.

A person with experience in the local development industry, Chris Ollenberger with Quantum Place, told the committee that the city's online engagement tools are good and have been improving.

"There can be translations lost when you don't have that face to face, in person interaction so I think we will still need a variety of tools whenever we can to reach out to those people," said Ollenberger.

In-person brainstorming 'superior'

It's an opinion shared by Gary Sarohia with the Richmond Knob Hill community association.

He said many older people are interested in engagement but may not be comfortable with computers or new apps.

While it can't be done now, he's encouraging the city to ensure that public meetings remain part of its engagement strategies.

"Engaging in person, having brainstorming sessions in-person are far superior than having them online," said Sarohia. 

"The results you get are way better when you have 30-40 people in a room, talking, breaking up into different groups and having that live feedback. To try this in Zoom, you don't get the same results."

Challenging time for community associations

Engagement during a pandemic might not be a priority for some but Ali McMillan with the Bridgeland Riverside Community Association pointed out that planning and development activities are continuing and keeping the economy going is a top issue for many.

She encourages the city to do what it can to reach people in ways they can provide input, whether that's in person, on the phone or via computer.

It's also a challenging time for community associations which frequently comment on development matters or help organize citizens around particular issues.

"I'd like to flag for folks that lots of our CA buildings are shut down. We've had to let go employees. We have now budget realities so there's been some emergent issues that are sort of floated to the top for those of us on CA boards," said McMillan. 

"People's time has certainly done a 180 in terms of where planning ranks on the hierarchy."

The chair of the planning and urban development committee, Coun. Jyoti Gondek, said the city's online tools seem to have levelled the playing field for Calgarians who might not have been able to get to a public meeting because of other responsibilities in their lives or time constraints.

"For every con, there is a pro and I believe we will just get better and stronger at what we're doing. But for the time being, we are opening up as many channels as we can
to hear from folks."
Gondek said that means some of the new online tools might be sticking around even after in-person meetings can resume.

"I think we've learned quite a bit about the things that we've done that have worked well and how we could possibly incorporate into the future."


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