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From Whitney Houston to Young Civic Innovators: Inspiring Change in Public Hearings

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

Whitney Houston might have had an apt solution for renovating the public hearing process when she sang: “I believe that children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.”

We’ve spent the past few months engaging with youth aged 18 to 30 in British Columbia to get a sense of the changes they would like to bring to the world of land-use decision-making.

One of our project partners, City Hive, is a Vancouver-based non-profit organization with a mission to transform the way young people are engaged in shaping their cities and civic processes. Through their partnership with the Renovate the Public Hearing Initiative, they developed a two-month curriculum and recruited 20 people from across the province with varied lived experiences to join their Civic Innovators program. Designed for participants to learn about public hearings and their places within the process, the program sought to tackle some of the biggest challenges we experience in engaging with younger demographics.

Zoom meeting for Civic Innovators group

In the Civic Innovators three month cohort program, participants learned how cities work and what a public hearing is, and explored different forms of governance. They connected with municipal staff, community members and grassroots organizations across BC’s rural and urban centres.

The ideas generated in this group were echoed in other stakeholder groups we heard from earlier in the year. Highlights included:

  • Need for improved accessibility

  • Moving away from the current dichotomy of residents in support of and against developments and moving towards more meaningful dialogue

  • Innovation in the way information is shared about public hearings, especially considering the different technologies available to us

  • Increased civic education in public school and to the public at large

What we’ve heard is that while public hearings are a matter of business in council chambers and are quite often embedded into already busy agendas, there’s clearly an appetite for folks to engage.

However, we must bring public hearings to the community instead of asking the community to come to the public hearing.

Creating opportunities for discussion and mutual understanding, and making space for residents to speak directly to their elected officials is paramount for good engagement. The Civic Innovators cohort also sharply identified some current barriers to participation in public hearings, such as:

  • Variance in process between different municipalities

  • A common culture of prioritizing input from speakers over written submissions

  • Difficulties attending due to scheduling, lack of child-minding, and inaccessible or unwelcoming locations

  • Lack of translation and interpretation services

  • Time limits for presentations

  • Fear of retribution (neighbors, landlords, etc.)

An entire collection of thoughtful ways to reimagine the public hearing process from CityHive’s Civic Innovators cohort can be found in their final event recording.

While the Civic Innovators identified challenges and looked for opportunities to improve the public hearing process itself, SFU’s Human Geography (GEOG 363) class, taught by Professor Leanne Roderick, considered ways to better inform and connect with youth on the public hearing process.

Group photo of SFU's Human Geography class

SFU’s Human Geography (GEOG 363) class

The class saw opportunities for:

  • Attention-grabbing signage with information about the system alongside project-specific signage

  • Transit-oriented information systems like interactive maps to see what is planned for your community and perhaps in the community where you work or go to school (for future residence options)

  • Improving civic education curriculums in high schools

A few of their projects are shown below:

Class project example of rezoning application sign

“Unveiling the Unconventional”

By: Kevin Matheson, Gagan Nagra, Kai Clark, Jovian Kwan & Daniel graham

Class project example with photo of two students

“What’s Going On in Your Neighborhood?”

By: Mathew Chong, Kiana Lim, Michael Penco & Adrian Wong

Class project example of Youth to City mind map

“Youth to City”

By: Lucy Evans, Shaunee Katili & Maddy Gomes

The similarities in the messages from these two groups, the Civic Innovators and the students of GEOG 363, shone a bright light on the need for better civic education in public schools. Youth are interested in community building, yet often don’t know much about the public hearing process. In fact, some attended their very first public hearing this spring as part of their respective programs, and many others watched recordings online to better understand the process. The people who have to live with land use decisions the longest are youth. They must be better engaged in planning for their future needs—and public hearing processes are just one of many ways to do that. The RPHI team will take these valuable learnings and incorporate them into their final report and recommendations.

What changes do you think would be impactful in the public hearing process? Let us know.

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