Public consultation in the age of COVID-19

From critical evaluation to public contribution

Projects such as Dundas Connects included a wide range of activities and engagement tools to maximize accessibility and inclusivity. In addition to on-the-ground outreach and meetings, digital engagement included a suite of online tools, like mapper, quick polls, conversation forums and idea walls.

As our entire industry acclimates to its new normal, amidst stay-at-home orders, one of the critical emergent issues for architects and planners will be the role of public conversation around our projects in the age of COVID.

During this time of social distancing—and in response to the reality that there is a continued and critical need for housing in our cities—our profession has a collective opportunity to re-evaluate and revolutionize the way in which public engagement is considered and conducted. By exploring new digital tools and approaches, a new engagement paradigm that removes barriers and expands contributing voices can reveal itself, making for informed citizens willing to support more daring architecture.

As designers and planners, we are empowered to give a voice to diverse groups and to meaningfully respond to community needs and aspirations in the way we design and retrofit our communities. We embolden civic participation and inclusivity, and if successful, ignite the love affair and sense of belonging between people and their places. Community engagement is critical to this process.  By reprioritizing engagement and consultation—not as a burden or an unfortunate necessity, but as a fundamental part of city building—we can reduce NIMBY-ism. We can also provide opportunities for unanticipated partnerships to emerge that introduce non-standard ideas into project designs and rhetoric. It’s often thought that too much consultation can inhibit a fluid planning process, but at SvN, we’ve found that more conversation, implemented from the very beginning, can help us to avoid acrimony and even speed up timelines.

In recent years, online platforms have increasingly complemented typical in-person community forums, increasing the reach and frequency of engagement activities and allowing us to collect a more diverse set of ideas.  Working in partnership with other leaders in public facilitation, our team has used a range of tools  to yield successful results. For instance, the West Toronto Railpath Environmental Assessment encouraged community members to post precedent imagery on Instagram and Twitter during walking and cycling tours. Though the images and the geo-referenced locations were shared in real-time at a public event, one can imagine how this could be implemented wholly online, spurring interest and participation with community members during a stay-at-home injunction.

Similarly, in partnership with Swerhun Facilitation during EGLINTONconnect in 2013, we identified champions for the project via a heated Twitter debate. The “Twitter storm”  involved a diverse cross-section of community members: Toronto taxi drivers concerned about lay-bys; business associations and local business owners concerned about rolling out their recycling bins and signage; advocacy groups including Walk Toronto and Cycle Toronto; among others. We reached out directly, inviting these groups to small in-person discussions to resolve issues from each group’s perspective. This led to the roll-out of a block-by-block plan of the 19-kilometre corridor, shared digitally as a “mega map” for residents to see. Demonstration renderings were also posted on YouTube to communicate the transformative design, making this information accessible and digestible.

Early experimentation with these channels has proven fruitful, which raises the question: can we reach an even wider public audience and entice participation, without in-person interaction? And if so, what must we do to be respectful and mindful of the personal challenges facing individuals during this difficult time?

Fortunately, government amendments are being put in place which could start a chain reaction. Bill 187, the Municipal Emergency Act, 2020, which received Royal Assent on March 19, 2020, introduced new, optional tools that enable municipalities to minimize disruptions to local decision making during emergency situations. They translate into more flexibility towards acceptable meeting formats, including allowing for electronic participation at meetings, and decisions as to whether electronic participation counts towards quorum.

These government interventions come at the same time as architects and planners are transitioning to the online world, quickly shifting our internal studios and design sessions to Jamboard, Explain Everything and LiveBoard ideation workshops. As we become more skillful at using these platforms and attuned to their nuances, we can start to imagine how they may be used to host a client workshop or a steering committee meeting. Live videos, online movies, demonstration rendering animations, and/or community newsletters and papers may be used to disseminate information. Online surveys, pinboards, and pre-stamped postcards can be effective sources of input. Debates on Twitter, Facebook, Urban Toronto and similar web interfaces are already commonplace, and will likely continue to dominate the virtual world. Effective facilitation will be needed to maintain a degree of order, record keeping, and civility.

Even as we seek creative approaches to participation and online collaboration tools, we also have to ask ourselves if there will be difficulty in attracting public involvement while we’re in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. People have lost jobs and significant investments, and are just plain scared. We need to be mindful of this. Will community engagement on development or secondary plans become trivial, or will consultation in neighbourhood improvements become even more relevant as we become more tethered to our local environments?  Only time will tell.

Though today’s events are unwelcome, they are forcing us to reimagine our typical engagement practices, both in our workplaces and communities.  These result may be a renewed approach to public engagement. As some Canadians take this time to consider how they want to re-engage in their personal lives “post-COVID,” so, too can our industry re-think how to pursue our future conversations mindfully, transparently and without haste.

Drew Sinclair is Managing Principal at SvN Architects + Planners.

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