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May 2019

Citizens shaping the spaces around them: How a carefully layered participatory planning process gave Hamilton’s Ward One residents a voice in municipal spending.

Deciding how to spend a cool million each year on infrastructure improvements for a sector of a city is no mean feat. Which projects get the money over others, or do you divide the spend evenly across all potential ventures? Assuming a split according to greatest needs, how do you prioritize those needs? And the execution of such a large taxpayer spend undoubtedly comes with public scrutiny and opinion. In the fall of 2017, Hamilton Ontario’s Ward One Councillor, Aidan Johnson, consequently turned to a team of planning and public participation experts at Civicplan to engage citizens over a nine-month period, making sure the 2019 budget rollout would truly meet the needs and expectations of Ward One’s local residents.

Ward One, City of Hamilton

Paul Shaker, RPP and Sonja Macdonald, M.A. of Civicplan, a community planning and public engagement firm based in Hamilton, were just the team leads that Ward One needed to bring citizens onside ahead of major infrastructure investments. Their award-winning process, PlanLocal is a proven method for successful online and in-person resident engagement. Significantly, the process “offers a fair, transparent, and efficient means for local government to engage residents, while providing concrete, data-driven insights municipal officials can use to inform the planning process,” says Shaker.

The City of Hamilton annually allocates a ‘Capital ReInvestment Reserve’ to a few wards across the City for infrastructure improvements. Each Ward’s Councillor determines how that infrastructure investment money should be spent. So for Hamilton’s Ward One participatory engagement approach, the PlanLocal model was augmented to focus specifically on participatory budgeting, which allows local residents to offer project suggestions and eventually vote on a list of potential options in a series of phases. Macdonald summarizes that it “engaged directly with residents in four different neighbourhoods on how to spend a pot of capital dollars on infrastructure in their community, and it all started with the citizen advisory committee right at the beginning.” That citizen advisory committee proved crucial.

Made up of locals from varying cultural, social and economic backgrounds from each of the Ward’s four different neighbourhoods (“and anyone at all could apply,” emphasizes Macdonald), they were champions for their communities and an important liaison group between their fellow local citizens and Councillor staff. The Civicplan team worked with the advisory committee to gather project ideas from residents by providing the committee with carefully designed tools and activities for events complementing the online platform for gathering similar information. “There were drop boxes, for example,” says Macdonald, “at public libraries and community centres and the advisory committee worked very hard to piggyback on established community events like park cleanup days or neighbourhood association meetings.” While these familiar neighbourly faces interacted with Ward One’s residents to glean ideas for the spend, Civicplan worked behind the scenes to deeply analyze results and report back to the Councillor’s staff. They in turn liaised with City staff throughout the project so that eventually “concrete projects [could] go forward, and actually fit into someone’s work plan,” says Macdonald. This chain of communication and cycle of activity was orchestrated and monitored carefully by Civicplan.

Poster Promoting the Process

Community Workshop

With these on-the-ground and online opportunities for local engagement occurring well before spending the $1M was scheduled, a very positive, very proactive tone developed. A common complaint from local citizens in towns and cities undergoing major change is that plans are developed by the City who then present a near finished product to citizens. Any civic engagement then feels reactive rather than proactive; opinions are heard, but they are not and cannot be taken aboard because the framework and the context of the plan are already set in motion. The end result is often a group of disgruntled citizens left feeling as if their taxpayer dollars are spent before plans to spend them are even finalized. With Civicplan’s process, Ward One’s residents had the opportunity to guide the spending of that money themselves. Even those with negative opinions about what has happened before to their communities and with concerns about its future became more positively engaged. They could attend an event where a dialogue was opened by the advisory committee and Civicplan team, rather than being presented with a finalized plan as an ‘FYI’. “Even people who start with a negative disposition end up getting very involved,” says Shaker. He explains, “this project is great because it’s forward-looking. It’s a very positive approach to dealing with infrastructure investment in the community. We sometimes are called in on projects that are more reactive; fixing something that was broken or hasn’t worked. This is more about trying to shift that relationship where it’s less confrontational and more about getting voices on the productive side of things. Because you’re not just asking people to highlight a problem inherently, you’re asking them to propose solutions. It may not end up being a solvable problem for a reason, but [we’ve explored] all possible solutions.”

Voting Location at McMaster University

This positive atmosphere, and hard work by the Civicplan team and the citizen advisory committee, paid off. Over the course of the nine-month engagement process, almost 17,000 households were asked to propose their thoughts with a mail-out; 4,400 residents heard word of the budget planning via an e-newsletter, over 400 residents were engaged at pop-up events and more than 2,600 children were invited to participate via school mailout. In the end, 1,675 residents actively participated in the project idea submission and voting phases for how to spend the $1M. With a total Ward population of 29,515 at the time, this was a significant representative of opinion for the Councillor.

A big win for the Civicplan team with processes such as these is seeing how it “breeds civic engagement beyond the process timeline,” says Shaker. “People get interested in the practical way of helping to shape their environment around them and understanding how planning plays a role in that.” Finding his own opportunities for civic engagement was what led Shaker into the field of planning initially. “My background was in Geography, but I got involved in community issues where I was attending university and saw how civic engagement can shape the space around you. Between that and reading Jane Jacobs, I was hooked!” Macdonald agrees that seeing local residents become passionate about improving their space and engaging in ward and City planning on an ongoing basis is a rewarding aspect of the participatory planning process. “What happens is that perhaps their idea doesn’t fit within the parameters of [the particular infrastructure budget spend] and their program-specific idea can’t get capital dollars, but by participating in one process [the locals] can find out that other channels can be pursued. For example, a lot of folks are interested in issues around food security. That’s where community gardens come into play. But then people evolve their idea into food share programs and that’s not what this process would support but they have the means to find other pathways [with the City] to develop that idea now.”

The Civicplan team’s participatory planning approach, customized for the needs of the Ward and its citizens, also happened to win a reputable award, another - very literal - win for Macdonald and Shaker. They were honoured with a 2018 International Association for Public Participation, IAP2 Canada Core Values Award - specifically for Extending the Practice through Creativity, Contribution and Innovation in the field. It underscores Macdonald’s passion for public engagement work. “The IAP2 as an organization is interesting,” she says, “because it is about core values around engagement in similar ways that we already do it, but [to be recognized for your work] that is pushing boundaries on how things are traditionally done feels good. I think we’d love to see this [process] replicated.” Shaker brings the award win back to his professional values as a Registered Professional Planner. “It gets to the core of why you get into planning in the first place,” he says. “I wanted to contribute to helping people effectively shape their spaces around them. There are innovative and creative alternatives to the status quo of planning and engagement and these alternatives can more effectively help people shape their communities.”

IAP2 Member Michelle Dwyer (centre) presents award to Sonja Macdonald and Paul Shaker of Civicplan.

While musing further about the core values of planning, about the responsibilities of being an RPP, Paul offers some advice to potential planning students or those on the brink of becoming certified planners. “Get involved with a neighbourhood plan, or neighbourhood association,” he presses. “Understanding the point of view of locals is essential to being an effective planner. It educates you on where the gaps are from a citizen’s perspective and gives you a clear idea of how politics affect planning. Marry that with a more academic learning of the discipline for success to apply your expertise as a planner to help solve problems.”

For Ward One, it looks as though many of its infrastructure problems will indeed be solved over the next couple of years, thanks to the projects suggested by its community stakeholders during Civicplan’s process. They are to be rolled out within the next year and include improvements such as park and trail upgrades, cycling improvements and the development of a community hub in an underserved neighbourhood, that the residents expressed a need for and can now own as their projects, as a part of a space they shaped. Macdonald and Shaker ponder the future of the Ward, and the infrastructure of the City of Hamilton as a whole. Where will it be in ten, fifteen, twenty-five years? How will major issues facing all of Ontario, like climate change or uneven growth affect this diverse city? And how will planners adapt to meet the challenges?

It’s a combination of uneven growth thanks to urban economics, and climate change that Shaker hones in on. “[We need] better planning practices from a sustainable perspective, and that’s going to be an ongoing thing that I don’t think we tackle well enough, and I think it’s only compounded when you have uneven growth. There’s still a lot of economic transition that’s going to happen and it will affect how cities are planned, moving forward, in Ontario.” But he trusts that continued participatory planning processes will keep citizens engaged as guides or stewards for their own communities as they tackle these meta issues head on. “There’s collective wisdom in the population. We’re able to report on that and [with data] we’re able to show decision makers the evidence of what people want - it becomes a push, a pressure on those decision makers but with the positive approach of multiple voices who want to make their community better.”

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