Late last year, Mayor Gregor Robertson launched an initiative called the Engaged City Task Force – aimed at improving the way residents connect with one another and the City.
The Task Force is comprised of all sorts of interesting folks, and given the mandate to “examine innovative best practices for civic engagement, and work to improve the ways the City engages and communicates with citizens.”
The Task Force has released a first “Quick Starts” report, which showcases a series of recommended actions. They note that there’s more work to be done… and are seeking further ideas and input.
We’ve written a letter outlining some of our thinking in this regard. VPSN members will recognize some of the ideas from our Public Space RouteMap which we produced for the 2012 municipal election. Other items in our letter aim to further enhance Task Force recommendations with some of the lessons we’ve learned in our own work.
Here’s an excerpt of what we wrote:
[The VPSN's] work is aimed at building engagement around more traditional public space matters (parks, streets, etc.). We also believe that good engagement on civic matters is a form of public space in its own right.
To that end, we have been supportive of the work of the Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force and keen to see the results of their deliberations. We’ve had a chance to review the Taskforce’s Report and recommendations, and wish to share our impressions with you.
In general, there is much to commend in this report – and we want to thank the Taskforce members for their good work in assembling this material. With this in mind, we would like to offer a few comments and suggestions for additional ‘actions’ – and ask that Council and the Taskforce consider including them as they move forward with this initiative.
(1) Strengthening access to City Hall and the Civic Processes
Many of the Task Force recommendations involve simple initiatives that have the potential to better connect people to each other and City Hall. The VPSN is particularly supportive of the following:
- The Task Force’s report recommendations to open the doors of City Hall – while also bringing city hall to the community – through storytelling, tours, and mobile kiosks.
- Council liaisons for each of the City’s 22 Local Areas. This will build on earlier Council motions around providing liaisons to areas that are undergoing community planning work. On this last note, we would encourage the City and Taskforce to think about how this could be operationalized. We’d suggest an annual or semi-annual ‘town hall’ meeting in each neighbourhood, so that liaisons could engage face-to-face with community members.
- Improving engagement, notification and early-involvement in planning and rezoning initiatives. This is an area of particular concern for many residents. Fostering improved dialogue between all stakeholders (residents, City officials, developers, etc.) is key to alleviating some of the combativeness that often occurs during mandated public hearings. (It doesn’t mean that everyone will always be happy – but it does mean that early involvement and dialogue can attend to at least some of the issues).
Here are a few things that we’d like to see added to the roster of ideas contained in the report:
(a) At minimum, a doubling of the current 1-week pre-Council meeting release time for Council and Park Board reports. The current City practice makes it very difficult for individuals, let alone volunteer organizations, to: (a) find out about a report that is relevant to them; (b) have time to read it and/or share it with others; (c) compose a response; and (d) plan a deputation. At minimum, the lead time should be two to three weeks unless exceptional circumstances apply.
(b) Consider rescheduling Standing Committees of Council – Standing Committees of Council meetings should be scheduled in the evening to allow more people to attend, and to enable the public more opportunity to present on motions and/or reports. The current 9:30am and 2:00pm meeting time slots mean that members of the public have to take time off work in order to make a face-to-face deputation.
(2) Supporting Neighbourliness
As Vancouver’s population increases, our need for good, neighbourly relations – an enhanced sense of community – has become more acute. While there are many things that we as individuals can do to strengthen neighbourliness, the City can play an important role. We offer particular support for Taskforce recommendations around:
- Neighbourhood Block Parties – which would encourage citizens across the city to get out of their homes and meet their neighbours. It doesn’t have to be one collective block party day either, rather an effort to raise awareness about the ease in which block parties can be created… and a simple tool kit to share good practices in this regard.
- The report’s recommendation for Participatory Budgeting for Neighbourhoods could provide a unique opportunity to support citizens in having an important say in how local, neighbourhood-improvement projects are supported. Of course, it will be important to ensure that the many and diverse voices of a given neighbourhood are heard – and not just those that feel most comfortable with civic process.
- The task force’s recommendation to develop a crowd-sourced venue list would help organizations like the VPSN to easily locate no- and low-cost meeting spaces for meetings and public evens in the city. We’d recommend supporting this with a modest review of the varying policies and procedures that exist around city-owned spaces. How can these spaces be made more accessible? (e.g. booking a small room at the central library requires you to show up, in person, on the day of the advance… as no advance bookings, or electronic/telephone bookings are allowed).
We offer another item for consideration:
(c) Allow more and better spaces for ‘writing on the city’ – Twitter handles and list-servs are important, but so are neighbourhood-scale notices. Currently there are only 200 or so poster cylinders – metal bands that wrap utility poles and provide space for event notices – located throughout the city. It is unlawful to post fliers elsewhere and private notice boards are few and far between. In fact, there are more unlawful billboards than there are officially designated places for the sharing the sort of everyday information – such as lost cat notices, block party invites, or leaflets on a planned rally against salmon farming – that make our city lively and interesting. Worse still, commercial poster companies quickly (and repeatedly) blanket poster-cylinders with their paid advertising.
We suggest: (1) placing more poster cylinders on high streets and commercial areas, as well as selected residential areas; (2) amending the Street and Traffic Bylaw to allow neighbourhood notices (not paid advertising) on utility poles and other spaces; (3) experimenting with other types of sanctioned notice and information space (public information boards, etc.).
(3) Budgeting for an Engaged City
Finally, we feel that it is important that the City consider formally resourcing the work that is outlined in the Taskforce’s Report. To this end, we offer our support for the Mayor’s motion to investigate recommendations for implementing items that fall outside of the current City budget. Speaking from experience, local volunteers and individuals are willing to help with many of the initiatives here… but they need some support to make this happen.