The democratic health of a city is intrinsically linked to the health and well-being of its public realm. Not only are public spaces a vital ingredient for public expression and the healthy exchange of ideas of all kinds (even the ones that we don’t agree with), but the specific ‘spaces’ created through dialogue enable residents to share valuable input into the future of their city. When these spaces are inaccessible, when they appear privatized, or when they are impacted by an excess of regulation or bureaucracy, this becomes problematic.
Civic spaces and civic processes that invite deliberation and public expression, and support the notion of urban democracy.
(1) Expand civic representation at the neighbourhood level – In July 2011, City Council passed a motion to designate Council representatives to the nine CityPlan neighbourhoods (neighbourhoods that had been part of the 1996-2010 CityPlan Neighbourhood Visions planning process). This comes on top of the Council-created Mayor’s West End Advisory Committee. We propose going a step further – and assigning Council representation to each of the City’s 22 Local Areas. We may not have wards in Vancouver, but this would go part way to achieving some of the benefits that are associated with neighbourhood representation – ensuring that each neighbourhood has a designated point of contact with an elected official.
(2) Enable better two-way conversations between the City and residents – We refer to the current mixed messages around public involvement as the “Engagement Two-Step.” In the last three years some great strides taken in gathering ideas and input for city processes. The Greenest City initiative was a good example, and recent Transportation Plan work is another. But the various new tools and techniques that are being employed to gather ideas are hampered on two fronts: Council and Park Board meeting processes that require people to take time off work, or schedules key discussions at inaccessible times; and restricted scheduling in the release of key staff reports, whereby reports are released for public review with little more than one week time (and sometimes a lot less) for public review. These two areas represent key concerns that must be addressed.
(3) Allow more and better spaces for ‘writing on the city’ – 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. We suggest: (1) placing more poster cylinders on high streets and commercial areas; (2) amending the Street and Traffic Bylaw to allow neighbourhood notices (but no, not posters for GM Place rock concerts) ((3) experimenting with other types of sanctioned notice and information space.
(4) Facilitate, rather than hamper, public and political expression – In April 2011, the City passed an amendment to the Street and Traffic Bylaw that significantly limits opportunities for political expression, and formalized the requirement that residents seeking to engage in many types of political expression must require a permit to do so. These requirements are unlikely to stand up to legal challenge (on constitutional grounds) and should be stricken from the bylaw. Instead, the City should be looking for ways to encourage civic engagement in a variety of issues, facilitating expression and ensuring that permits and regulations do not stand in the way of peoples’ democratic right to civic assembly and free speech.
(5) Eliminate non-compliant billboard advertising and other corporate signage – Signs are an important way to convey information – but in order to prevent the proliferation of the sort of advertising and branding ‘noise’ you find in other cities, the City has, over the years, developed a strong Sign Bylaw. Unfortunately, despite the good steps forward, there are a large number of non-compliant billboards, signs and guerrilla marketing efforts that are turning parts of our public space into marketing canvases. Stronger bylaw enforcement is needed in this area.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Expand Council Advisory Committee Structure – to ensure that each neighbourhood has a committee that meets 4 to 6 times a year and can act as a ‘town hall’ forum with a Council designate. Committee composition should be representative of the Local Area in question – ethnocultural, intergenerational – should be transparent in its processes, and should feature a scope of activity (Terms of Reference) consistent with one another.
Continued investment in new tools and techniques for public involvement – Social media, on-line engagement and modelling and visualization tools should be components of all new and expanded public involvement processes. Continue to experiment with these and ensure that they are utilized in a consistent (but modifiable) fashion across a range of civic activities.
Amend civic processes to facilitate engagement with Council reports and Council meetings – We suggest, at a minimum, a doubling of the current 1-week pre-Council meeting release time for Council reports, and doing so through a resolution that the minimum should be two to three weeks unless exceptional circumstances apply.
Reschedule 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 time slots require many members of the public to take time off work in order to make delegations.
Bylaw Amendments – Neighbourhood notices and other opportunities for political expression should be allowed on utility poles and possibly other civic infrastructure. This can be done through formal amendments to the Street and Traffic Bylaw. These amendments would require approval by City Council and should be done with input from the public.
Bylaw Enforcement – Creating a robust penalty structure for non-compliant 3rd party advertising could assist the City in financing additional staff resources for enforcement.
Modest investments in infrastructure – Poster cylinders and information kiosks would represent a nominal investment in City infrastructure. Funding could be linked to areas of streetscape improvement, the development process, or the license fee attached to commercial bill posters.
1> Good spaces to congregate: ensuring more and better places to gather
2> Good spaces for connection: facilitating better, more active and sustainable ways for people to move
3> Natural spaces: for habitat, heritage and recreation
4> Spaces that are healthy, safe and welcoming
5> Spaces for culture, economy, learning and play
6> Spaces for expression and engagement