Finding new ways to talk

Public engagement can be fun and games.

Across North America, cities are trying to encourage people to settle in established areas. For municipal governments, it’s an attractive goal because it:

  • Takes advantage of existing infrastructure 
  • Puts people closer to existing amenities
  • Makes cities more resilient 
  • Lowers greenhouse gas emissions.

But it’s not an easy process. Local governments have to invest in these areas to make them attractive to residents and developers. They also must address the concerns of current residents.

Increasing density means building something other than single-family housing. Duplexes, triplexes and townhomes are some of the structures needed. Many residents see this as changing the character of their neighbourhoods. Municipalities have to convince them that these changes will be for the better. New amenities and improved streetscapes can help with that mental shift. When these investments take shape, residents can see the benefits of adding density. 

Construction in established areas produces noise and dust. For the City of Calgary, the lead up to it creates a vast array of documents and policies. It also creates an urgency around public engagement.

Engagement has several goals. It seeks to:

  • Inform residents about potential new developments;
  • Give those people a chance to express their concerts;
  • Give developers a chance to respond to those concerns.
  • Give city governments a chance to explain polices

The ultimate goal is to make it acceptable to build in new ways in established areas. It’s not to achieve consensus, but to let residents have a meaningful say in how their communities change. It is not a veto.

It’s also an important way that cities seek to increase density. Good engagement also takes a little of the heat out of the debate. Given the importance of engagement, it’s no surprise that it has become a subject of study and innovation.

EngageHub was a sophisticated approach to engagement effort around the West District Master Plan. It was a significant investment of time and money on the part of the developer. It was also a hugely successful way of engaging residents and avoiding the “siege mentality” that often come with large, ambitious projects.

Games and online tools have also become more common means of encouraging engagement. It’s all a means of getting people who have different view around the table — even if it’s virtual one. 

All these techniques are aimed at encouraging productive, reasoned and calm debate around new projects. Ultimately, that is the best way to encourage more people to settle in developed areas.

March 5th, 2020
Updated: March 9th, 2020

Different approaches to an old challenge