Collaborating to build better communities

Development should not happen to a place. It should happen with a place.

How do we engage communities to create better places and lived experiences?

How do we harness the lived experience, knowledge and creativity of locals to make a better place?

How do we engage people at the level where they can provide the most valuable input?

Locals are experts in their communities - not planning, pro formas or real estate development. They have the lived experience to tell you about that neighbourhood in granular, and surprising detail. They know what their community needs.

Traditional public engagement models feel something like this:

An urban planner stands in front of a room, gives a presentation and then asks the public to raise their hand if they have questions or want to talk.

Ultimately this type of engagement creates a dynamic that doesn’t put people on the same level. Is this the foundation or the starting point we want to have for public engagement and the way we build our cities?

Planning v Reality and Supply v Demand Side Development

Urban planning is a long-term, big-picture practice with a supply-side emphasis on what the future looks like: buildings, roads, and parks. A practice rooted in rational, perfect plans. Within this approach the demand for place is not addressed.

Communities, businesses, and people are much messier in reality. These entities don’t conform to rational plans and are much more nimble and entrepreneurial.

We need approaches to city building and collaboration that reconcile the data obsessed practice of urban planning with the unstructured reality of day to day communities.

  • How can we quickly test new possibilities?

  • How do we test at an urban scale?

  • How do we better identify community assets?

  • How can we confirm demand and create momentum toward small initial investments in neighbourhoods?

Giving incentives and huge tax breaks as is being proposed for huge swaths of Montreal Road in Ottawa (Vision Vanier) is a big, expensive bet on what the future could look like in that neighbourhood.

A new and better approach is needed for all stakeholders.

What is the City of Ottawa doing?

To help evolve these methods, and develop things like the Official Plan in Ottawa, the City of Ottawa has created a digital platform called Engage Ottawa:

“Engage Ottawa introduces new and innovative online tools to improve how the City engages with you. These online tools give you the opportunity to weigh in on the projects and initiatives that you care about, at your convenience.”

A start but still a long way to go

More needs to be done to address inequality, to empower, and to help people situate themselves within the development process.

Who is being engaged and asked to participate in these conversations? Who naturally engages in these conversations?

A look at homeownership data in the metro Ottawa area shows some pretty stark realities around who owns, and who doesn’t.

According to 2018 Stats Can data, 70.6% of homeowners in the National Capital Region are between the ages of 45 and 75+, and only 15.4% of these folks belong to a visible minority group.

Ask yourself, if this group is the most financially invested in their neighbourhoods, how much more engaged will they be as a starting point? How do their voices skew the conversations we have around planning and designing our city?

An interesting model, rethinking supply side rationale: The Neighbourhood Playbook

Too often developers are afraid of community, and community are afraid of developers.

Imagine a method of public engagement that engages both community leaders and developers and brings them together to work on a common goal.

In the United States an interesting book / tool was recently created to help bring these groups together.

“The Neighbourhood Playbook is a field guide for community members and developers that facilitates the activation of spaces with the goal of influencing physical and economic growth in neighbourhoods.”

The playbook aims to have people who were previously unengaged in the city-building process to become co-authors of their neighbourhood.

It can also serve as a way to attract land owners and developers around positive, community driven-change and spur new, exciting investment in communities.

The playbook offers 5 key plays to help accomplish these goals (quoted directly from the Neighbourhood Playbook):

Play 1: Pick a Space

Most likely, your perfect space is going to seem a little...uninviting to start. Discovering opportunity in blighted or under-utilized space takes vision, but you’ve made it this far, so clearly you already have that going for you. 

Play 2: Pick an Amenity

Ultimately, it’s the people who will turn your unused space into a vibrant place, so most of your time should be spent focused on creating a space for your audience. And to do that, DETAILS ARE THE SECRET.

Play 3: Broadcast

Wayfinding can be another place to slip in useful design and creativity in spots that are typically under-used. Use your resources wisely and effectively. What do you have at your disposal to help people find your amenity.

Play 4: Rethink, Evolve, Repeat

Think about your event. Where did you succeed? Where did you fall short? Take notes and begin to determine if it’s time to build or time to continue developing your amenity.

Play 5: Develop

Whether you’re building on what you’ve done or in some way replacing the space, your early social experiments will drive your brick- and-mortar development work.

Looking forward

These are just some thoughts on how we can collaborate to develop a better city. Would love to hear your thoughts and learn about other examples you’ve seen.

Please leave your comments below. Thanks for reading.