Common wisdom holds that our cities – their design and governance – are emblematic of the values and priorities of its citizens. Yet common wisdom doesn’t always hold true. Our cities too often reflect the interests of the few, not of the community in all of its diversity.
A good first step in this endeavour is deepening the engagement of all community members in the design and governance of their urban spaces.
Cities in Canada, and more widely, face many unique challenges. Topping the list are often housing affordability, economic inequality, social isolation, and shrinking public space. If we are to accept the common wisdom, that the current reality is reflective of residents’ priorities, it would mean that Canadian city dwellers are a terrible bunch actively working against our best interests and shared hopes of happy, healthy and vibrant urban spaces.
Or, we can raise questions about the processes that channel a community’s values and desires – abstract and lofty – into the design of the city -- e.g. physical infrastructure and municipal policies. For many cities, these processes do not suitably reflect the local residents’ highest aspirations nor the diversity of their lived experiences.
These processes aren’t reflective because they are skewed in favour of entrenched interests: that of big business, real-estate developers, and political power-brokers. They also don’t encourage democratic participation, as evidenced by the traditionally low turnout in municipal elections across the country.
There is also a dismal engagement of city dwellers in public consultations on major projects. The Ipsos poll from 2017 identifies several reasons for this: a lack of information, a sense of apathy, and apprehension towards the few voices that tend to dominate discussions in consultative settings.
In addition, the process of city design and renewal is increasingly reliant on non-human and community factors, including surveillance technologies, big data, and automated computational models. They are built and managed by an army of consultants and tech companies with profits, not community priorities, in mind.
Change is, however, coming. Municipal officials, grassroots organizations and activists, as well as ordinary citizens, are increasingly reclaiming their right to the city. They are challenging the traditional community engagement model, i.e. public consultations, in favour of collaboration, co-creation and prototyping. They are moving away from addressing stand-alone issues to mobilizing for systems-change. And they are having fun along the way.
Community organizations, such as Happy City in St. John’s, NL, are working on engaging community through interactive Neighbourhood Summits, and a series of follow-up activities. There are efforts in St. Louis, MS (U.S.) to tap into artists to drive community engagement. In Detroit, MI (U.S.) municipal leaders are turning to children for neighbourhood design.
The new and emerging ways of community engagement should be documented, celebrated, replicated and further developed to reflect the changing needs of cities and its citizens. It is imperative for these initiatives to unleash the imagination of city’s residents and be inclusive of the needs and input from the vulnerable populations (e.g. newcomers, those living in poverty, etc.).
Since its founding in early 2018, our team has investigated community engagement practices of small and mid-sized communities taking part in Canada’s first-ever Smart Cities Challenge. We learned that a lot of work remains for cities to reflect the needs and aspirations of its most vulnerable populations.
Informed by our research, we also worked with youth and young professionals across Canada to provide them with spaces for urban future imagining. We facilitated interactive future-cities-visioning sessions with a goal empowering them for civic action on a local level.
Imagining with youth often entails confronting the stark predictions about our urban futures if we do not act on climate change realities. Yet, the exercises also helped participants recognize the important role community members can play in influencing the development of policies and structures that lend themselves to more sustainable cities.
Once the community is truly in charge of shaping and building spaces around us, our cities will look very different. And once our cities – some of the biggest contributors to climate change – look different, the very survival of our planet will be guaranteed.
Contact Bojan Francuz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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