Well Nobody Told Me!

This article originally appeared in Issue Zero of our print magazine, April 2016.

That is a common refrain whenever something is done in our city. Well, make that pretty much any city, really. Whether it’s the rezoning of a lot or the installation of a dog park, there are always people caught by surprise.

In creating our cities and, by extension, building our communities, the need for a public consultation process that both engages and produces results is of the utmost importance. But is it really worth the fuss? And is it the sole responsibility of the city to engage its residents or do we as residents also play a role in the engagement process?

It’s undeniable that public engagement and the consultation process itself can be an ongoing challenge for cities to undertake. There will always be a certain segment of the population who will shout “why wasn’t I informed?” regardless of the efforts undertaken. And let’s be honest, many of us live pretty busy lives and miss things. There are examples of public consultation successes and the transformations that can occur when residents get involved and are included by their cities. These are successes we should strive for.

A study by the Center for Advances in Public Engagement on the experiences with public consultation in the city of Bridgeport, CT, for example, found that ten years after a shift to a more engagement-centric process, the city saw an increase in collaboration, better engaged residents, and a shift to more inclusive leadership and sustainable policies. Public engagement has become a culture there that has expanded ownership of the decision making process simply by allowing people to be heard.

Meanwhile in Toronto, the creation of the Midtown Planning Group, a cross section of residents and stakeholders, allowed city officials and staff to take what they described as being “tense first meetings” into a comprehensive community plan for the parks, open space and streetscape in the Yonge-Eglinton area. They gained support through the implementation of public feedback and created a plan that, while by their own admission may not have led to a consensus, was something the majority involved could live with because the transparent process made them feel that their opinion had been valued.

Cities and city staff can’t do it alone, though. Public consultation is that most clichéd two-way of streets and requires a resident population that wants to be engaged. If we don’t make the effort to get involved then we forfeit that opportunity to have our say. By being engaged we have the opportunity to strengthen our community and the processes that define it.

Don’t be that person left saying “well, nobody told me!” Because when we as residents are truly engaged in the decision making process, all of us are better off.