Public Engagement Case Study: Livingston
How Brookfield Residential is expanding its approach to public consultation.
Livingston is one of Calgary’s newest communities, a master-planned neighbourhood that straddles Centre Street north. Like many new Calgary communities, Brookfield Residential designed Livingston to include a mixed-use “town centre,” a homeowners’ association (HOA) and a range of housing styles. Unlike most new communities, however, Livingston is the ongoing product of an unusual and ambitious public consultation project.
Heather Cockerline is the communities experience lead for Brookfield Residential, a role that didn’t exist before 2018. She works with Brookfield’s development team, marketing team and HOA leader to make the communities her company creates match up with its tagline: The best places to call home. In order to deliver the “best,” Cockerline must first determine what that means. What do people really want from their communities?
Cockerline says developers in Calgary have traditionally built communities and delivered them without going through much of a consultation process – a process called “design and defend.” As it began to form plans for Livingston, the Brookfield team had been observing changes in the city that called for a new approach. Residents had been demanding a quality of life that was about more than square footage. The City was demonstrating a new openness to ideas from developers. It was time to try something new.
In the past, the exploration process would have determined what types of housing products people wanted. The Livingston exploration is more complex and more illuminating: Cockerline is trying to find out what people hope to achieve by living in a community. She’s asking questions that aren’t usually asked.
- What lifestyle are they seeking?
- What type of family structure do they have?
- How do they want to connect with neighbours?
- What makes them feel a sense of belonging?
Identifying the Gaps
In 2015, Brookfield Residential launched a survey to determine what “quality of life” meant to Calgarians. The results showed a gap between what people wanted from their neighbourhoods and what they were getting.
- 66% of Calgary residents reported that they believe community has a direct impact on their quality of life.
- Only 26% of Calgarians reported feeling a sense of connection and belonging in their communities.
A 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth showed the communities play a significant role in health and activity levels. Communities with infrastructure (such as pathways, sidewalks and bike lanes) that promotes physical activity; parks, programs and playgrounds; and a safe environment, can contribute to increased activity and a sense of belonging.
Taking a Scientific Approach
Brookfield Residential wanted to take a scientific approach to learning how its communities affected their residents. The company chose two partners to help design a study that would develop an objective baseline measurement of the values and activities of residents in Livingston.
Mount Royal University and Vivo for Healthier Generations participated in developing the Livingston Legacy Families study, which will follow 150 resident families for five years to find out how the community’s design affects their health and happiness over time. The study includes qualitative and self-reported data including surveys, interviews, the systematic observation of parks in established Brookfield communities (to see how residents were actually using these spaces) and activity monitors that some residents wore for 10 days to document their physical activity levels. The study measures how community design affects:
- Sense of belonging.
- Physical activity behaviours.
- Level of social engagement.
As of fall 2018, Brookfield is in the process of creating a report card on its findings with baseline data and proof points. The study will continue for five years as Livingston is completed. Ultimately, the study will show if and how the progress of the community’s physical environment is affecting the physical activity levels of residents.
“It was the first time people had been asked, ‘Hey, you’re going to live in this community – what would help improve your sense of belonging and overall quality of life?’”
- Heather Cockerline, Communities Experience Lead for Brookfield Residential
Cockerline says Brookfield started connecting with Livingston residents as soon as it started selling houses in 2017. This isn’t the usual way of doing business, but Cockerline believed it would help Brookfield make better decisions as it worked toward completing the community. She says people were excited about participating. “It was the first time people had been asked, ‘Hey, you’re going to live in this community – what would help improve your sense of belonging and overall quality of life?’”
Cockerline says the City of Calgary is increasingly open to the concept of “co-creation,” which replaces the conventional top-down decision-making process with a more collaborative approach. With co-creation, policy makers, planners, developers, builders and residents all have a role to play in improving the city.
In 2016 The City launched a project called Civic Innovation YYC, which is a public engagement platform in two parts: It’s an online portal where citizens and City staff can submit ideas for how to improve municipal issues (not just planning and development), and it’s also a physical “Innovation Lab” for brainstorming at City Hall.
Cockerline says Civic Innovation YYC gives Brookfield the opportunity to provide research and “proof points” to The City, which will help both the planner and the developer understand what residents’ priorities are. This data could influence decisions about how communities are built, and how communities can be more “complete” when their first residents arrive, such as having (instead of waiting for) bus routes, infrastructure and public spaces.
A Brookfield survey revealed that 63% of residents were concerned about road safety and traffic lights in the community. Cockerline sees this data point as an opportunity for cooperation between the developer and The City as they plan the roll-out of a new community. For example, The City has a process that determines when it installs traffic signal lights, based on the number of residents and road usage stats. “By having comments from residents, we hope that we can have a stronger voice with The City to get traffic control lights sooner,” Cockerline says.
Cockerline says the engagement process for Livingston was, in part, a product of the success of home owners’ associations and community amenities in established neighbourhoods, such as Auburn Bay. Brookfield understood that offering community programming and maintaining parks and public spaces enhanced residents’ sense of belonging. This would require the developer to commit to an ongoing presence in the community.
In Livingston, Brookfield built a physical information hub/sales centre for residents (and would-be residents), which would function as an informal, drop-in open house. Just as importantly, it would function as a place where neighbours could meet each other. As the community has grown, Cockerline says the original information hub has become a gathering place where people can keep up with neighbourhood news and meet neighbours.
Through the info hub, Brookfield launched a contest to name the home owners’ association. The contest produced an opt-in mailing list, which gave Brookfield another channel for connecting with residents and inviting them to future information sessions.
Resident feedback has already influenced decisions about how Livingston will be built, particularly with respect to outdoor spaces:
- Because residents reported that outdoor gathering spaces contributed to their sense of belonging, Brookfield moved the construction of pathways and landscaping forward in the roll-out of the community. In fact, a study by the Center for Active Design showed that welcoming public spaces enhance a sense of community connection and civic trust.
- Instead of constructing a standard “tot lot” playground in one of Livingston’s parks, Brookfield decided to rethink the plan entirely. Residents requested shaded seating areas, ziplines and a sharing swing for all ages. Brookfield took the feedback and redesigned the park as a multi-generational, multi-use gathering space for residents. The original plan had two picnic tables and a standard kid swing and playground apparatus. The new plan has three pergola-covered seating areas, four benches (the original plan had none), a bowl net sharing swing, zipline and tall slide.
“We sat down and plotted out the top requests from residents according to product type, expected demographic, access, etc. We determined that we would completely revamp the original park design to integrate what residents requested and how they said they want to use their outdoor space. Instead of the park being a standard ‘tot-lot’, we have incorporated some very cool elements and a bit of Livingston charm that will really make the park a destination for all demographics for years to come. We will use emerging themes to design out the rest of the parks.”
- Heather Cockerline, Communities Experience Lead for Brookfield Residential
Continuing to Engage
The Livingston engagement process was an ambitious experiment for Brookfield, but Cockerline believes it has been worthwhile. Her colleagues share her optimism about the benefits of a deep engagement process – Brookfield plans to carry out similarly in-depth consultation processes in its proposed communities of Rowan Park and Seton, where they’re rolling out a survey to residents and potential purchasers to ask how they envision themselves using Seton’s park spaces.
Innovation in public engagement is a relatively new idea in the development industry. Cockerline says she’s not sure why projects like Brookfield’s Livingston study haven’t been tried before. It may be because the process demands significant resources. It may be because seeking public opinion has traditionally been viewed as a roadblock (rather than a better path) to getting a community built. “I think people are always of the opinion that if you seek more opinions you’ll never get anything done, but that’s not always the case,” Cockerline says. “What we found is that it was a chance for us to do things differently and let the residents have a voice.”