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Seeing with Community Vision: A look back on our National Dialogue on Public Hearings, Land Use and Democracy

Updated: Apr 8




No man is an island.

 

As individuals, we exist within communities, and in this country, we all live within a larger community of Canadians. In communities across the country, elected officials and urban planners are grappling with decisions around how land use decisions are made, and every individual is affected by the outcomes of these conversations.

 

For nearly 40 years, researchers have found public hearings are rarely representative of constituencies and do little to influence the decisions of elected officials. Nor do public hearings produce shared understanding among speakers. In many communities, public hearings also reproduce patterns of structural marginalization. There is a clear need for new, better ways of making land use decisions.

 

It’s a critical, ongoing conversation from coast to coast, and though particular processes, policies and challenges can be unique to certain areas, the overarching problems have strong common threads. In that light, there is great value in bringing together voices from across the nation to learn from one another and share in possible solutions.

 

The Renovate the Public Hearing Initiative’s work has largely focused on public hearing legislation in British Columbia; however, last month we organized a panel-style dialogue event at the Wosk Centre and online to elevate the conversation around land use decisions and public hearings to a national level. 

 

Moderated by Vancouver City Councillor Christine Boyle, our expert panel of councillors, urban planners and public participation practitioners brought together perspectives from across the country. Offering their insight, knowledge and ideas on land use processes and decision-making in our country were New Westminster City Councillor Nadine Nakagawa, Markham Director of Planning and Urban Design Giulio Cescato, Tsleil-Wautuh Nation Elected Councillor Dennis Thomas Whonoak, Calgary City Councillor Courtney Walcott and Institut du Nouveau Monde Directrice Générale Malorie Flon, who joined us online from Quebec.


HIGHLIGHTS

 


The conversation was captivating, and it covered a lot of ground.

 

Nadine highlighted a fantastic pilot project in New Westminster for a Community Advisory Assembly created to include a full, diverse representation of community members and facilitate opportunities to be in conversation with each other. Crucially, it gives voice to non-landowners, including renters and precariously housed community members, whose interests are rarely represented at public hearings.

 

We learned that in Ontario, land use decisions can be appealed to a court-like third party, which Giulio laughingly refers to as the “Law and Order Special Planning Unit,” and this extra step often stalls projects – especially desperately needed affordable housing projects. Giulio discussed a new strategy to mitigate this issue, dubbed the “More Homes Built Faster Act,” which eliminates appeals in certain cases, questioning whether or not it indeed builds more homes or faster.

 

In Calgary, Courtney says the conversation has centred less on the utility of public hearings and more on access to public hearings. It is a conversation about equity and inclusion and overcoming barriers to participation – barriers that exclude people like mothers, hourly workers and economically precarious community members from the public hearing process. Incredibly, Courtney explained that a high school teacher would have to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket to get cover for a day of work in order to attend a public hearing – a toll many can’t afford. Some solutions were born out of the necessity of Covid protocols, like digital participation, while others, like offering childcare, free transit and translators, were created intentionally to address barriers and have met with mixed levels of success.

 

The legal context in Quebec is different from the other provinces represented, requiring public meetings instead of public hearings for zoning changes. The difference in wording may be small, but the difference in process is significant. Public meetings are less prescriptive and open to different formats, but zoning changes may also require referendums, which Malorie says are at the heart of the debate in Quebec. Projects are bound by the outcome of referendums, a form of direct democracy that is nonetheless very controversial because it allows a small group of people who live near a certain piece of land to block large transit or social housing projects that could benefit the larger community.

 

Dennis emphasized the value of connection to place for Indigenous Nations, explaining pre-contact economies in British Columbia, the places that were important in that economy, and how colonial laws ultimately disconnected them from the places that were integral to their lives. The First Nations on the coast of British Columbia have now come together to purchase back their own land and are partnering with the City of Vancouver and others to Indigenize rezoning and development processes through cultural liaisons like Dennis. Embedding their value system in the development process, meshing Indigenous values and Western theories, and pairing business with sustainability, they created a wildly successful detailed concept map of how cultural hubs can be built for the social development of healthy, vibrant, lively communities.

 

COMMUNITY VISION




 

Almost all the common themes that emerged throughout the discussion stem from the concept of “community vision.”

 

We need representation from the whole community to make truly democratic decisions. Public hearings, however, have “frequent flyers” – a small number of people who benefit from the status quo, who are overrepresented in decision-making. We’ve seen the trend of getting caught up in discussion concerning the needs of the people who live around a proposed building, while the needs of the people who will live in that building are rarely represented.

 

In the same way, we are constantly getting caught up in the minutia that distracts from the bigger vision for a community. The big vision is easier to identify, and quite often our vision is the same, but we get bogged down in conversations about individual vested interests. Rather than spending all our time arguing about one contentious building, it would be more productive to decide on a vision and priorities in a democratic way and then have agency to make smaller decisions in alignment with those big decisions. Giulio uses the analogy of giving developers a sandbox to play in instead of creating each individual mould to build in.

 

There are also two different conversations taking place: one about community and one about property. Our population is rapidly growing and changing, and the way we make land use decisions has to change with it. Decision-makers should be engaging people on community rather than property, discussing how we use this land together and generating shared values as a community to articulate a larger vision to guide us. In no way should the wishes of individual property owners be taking precedent over the needs of other members of the community.

 

“Public hearings have an opportunity to return to the vision instead of focusing on individual interests…It’s not society’s job to make sure your investment is successful.”
– Cllr Courtney Walcott

 

The conversation should not be focused on certain individuals’ investments and properties; it should be focused on how we build our communities. This is exactly the vision that Dennis has articulated regarding Indigenized development processes – building with community in mind from the very beginning.

 

THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC HEARINGS

 

What does all this add up to? As one audience member asked, if we abolish or fundamentally change the process of public hearings, what’s next? What takes the place of the public hearing as we know it? Outside of ensuring full, diverse representation and moving away from individual interests toward community visioning, here are a few key ideas regarding the future of public hearings that were discussed at the event:

 

Young Voices:

Engage youth and young people - this is the world they’re inheriting, and they should be involved in the visioning that will impact their future.

 

Indigenization:

The implementation of UNDRIP in land-use decisions can improve our connection to place and create more vibrant and cohesive developments and communities. Collaborating with Indigenous voices is an incredibly important way to achieve social and economic well-being in our communities.

 

Upstream Consultation:

As Malorie pointed out, inviting input late in the process creates opposition rather than participation in a project. Conversations and consultation should be moved upstream to the point of the process where meaningful conversation and input can happen, instead of being relegated to the end where we are only given a binary “yes or no” decision to approve or reject a project in its decided form.

 

Dialogue-Based Participation:

As we seek more meaningful and representative input, we need to move toward more dialogue-based participation forms. In dialogue, we are able to ask questions and understand other points of view, and enhancing our ability to understand the interests of others is a key component of creating a process that could work.

 

Political Bravery:

We need political bravery from our elected officials and for the public to show support for them to make brave choices. Campaigning and advocating for what we want from our elected representatives helps to break through the echo chambers and make change happen.


 

Though the landscape of urban planning differs across Canada, there was certainly a shared, hopeful vision for the future among our panelists and participants.

 

We are deeply grateful to our panelists who shared with wisdom and candour about the struggles and hopes for meaningful participatory democracy in urban planning and equitable land use decisions in our nation. Our sincere gratitude goes out to Cllr. Boyle, our panelists, and everyone, both at the Wosk Centre and online, who shared this special night with us.

 

If you would like to watch and listen to the entire conversation, you can view the event in full on our media page.

 

 

A BIT MORE ABOUT OUR MODERATOR AND PANELLISTS



 

Christine Boyle is a Vancouver city councillor, serving a second term as a member of OneCity Vancouver. She is also an ordained United Church Minister, climate leader and community organizer, passionate about tackling inequality, increasing affordable housing options in every neighbourhood, strengthening accessibility and inclusion, and addressing climate justice with concrete proposals for action.

 

Nadine Nakagawa is a second-term city councillor at the City of New Westminster, as well as an activist, intersectional feminist, creative writer, co-owner of consulting business Ablaze Services, and co-founder of The Feminist Campaign School.

 

Giulio Cescato is the Director of Planning and Urban Design with the City of Markham and works closely with the Mentorship Initiative for Indigenous and Planners of Colour (MIIPOC). Giulio consistently advocates for creating a government policy environment that promotes equitable outcomes, where young people especially can find housing and start their careers on the right foot.

 

Dennis Thomas Whonoak is a member and elected councillor of səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nation in Deep Cove, North Vancouver. He also has ancestral ties to Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nation, Welsh ancestry and close familial ties to xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nation. Dennis has over 15 years of professional experience in business leadership, with expertise in Indigenizing business initiatives, and a strong commitment to strengthening and unifying communities.

 

Courtney Walcott is a city councillor representing Ward 8 in Calgary, Alberta, where he played a pivotal role in creating the Housing and Affordability Task Force. Courtney has a wealth of experience as an educator and community advocate. He believes in making housing a human right and is committed to revitalizing urban spaces and fostering inclusive, equitable communities.

 

Malorie Flon serves as Directrice Générale at the Institut du Nouveau Monde in Quebec, an independent and non-partisan organization that aims to increase public participation in democratic life. Her last decade of professional experience has been dedicated to public participation process design, facilitation and management, as well as to policy analysis and testing innovative practices for materializing participatory democracy.



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