Public Engagement Case Study: University District

Setting a new standard for public consultation.

By 2012, West Campus Development Trust (WCDT) had prepared a proposal to redevelop 200 acres of land in northwest Calgary. In 2018, the product of that proposal, a new master-planned community called University District, welcomed its first residents. In the years between, WCDT carried out an extensive public engagement project that helped to refine its plans, build trust with stakeholders and even attract buyers.

Transparency Builds Trust
The traditional approach to redevelopment has been “design and defend,” where the developer finalizes a plan and then reveals it to the public. The trouble with design and defend is that it can spark resistance and resentment in neighbours and other stakeholders. Emily Allert-House, communications and community engagement lead for WCDT, says her team flipped this idea upside-down when designing University District. 

Rather than designing and defending, Allert-House says WCDT went with a “transparency builds trust” approach. “You can’t just come into an area in the middle of established, well-loved communities and assume you can build whatever you want,” she says.

She credits WCDT president and CEO James Robertson for this approach, saying his experience in the private and public sectors (he holds a degree in planning and is the former president of the Calgary Housing Company) enhanced his understanding of the possibilities of civic participation. 

Stakeholder Working Groups
The land that became University District is surrounded by five established neighbourhoods, and it’s also home to the Alberta Children’s Hospital, the Foothills Medical Centre and the University of Calgary. WCDT decided to establish relationships with all these stakeholders as early in the process as possible.

“You can’t just come into an area in the middle of established, well-loved communities and assume you can build whatever you want.”

- Emily Allert-House, Communications and Community Engagement Lead for West Campus Development Trust

In redevelopment projects, the developer usually begins to meet the public as part of the land use re-designation application process. For University District, the public engagement project began well in advance of this stage, with a series of Stakeholder Working Groups. 

These meetings, which functioned more like committees than open houses, each focused on a single element of community design. Each event welcomed about 40 people representing the surrounding communities and the main stakeholders, as well as the WCDT design team. Allert-House says it’s unusual for stakeholders to work directly with architects and other experts. “There were relationships developed through that process that you wouldn’t necessarily see,” she says.  

Each Stakeholder Working Group opened with a review of the decisions made at the last meeting. WCDT set clear deadlines for feedback so that stakeholders understood their responsibilities. Later, when The City held a public hearing about the University District land use re-designation (a standard step in the process), Allert-House says she doesn’t think anyone stood up in opposition – an unusual result in a city where redevelopment has often been the source of time-consuming conflict between developers and citizens.

Setting a Collaborative Tone
Next, WCDT held three open house meetings (the last of which was required by The City as part of the redevelopment application process). Each of these events tweaked the standard open house format.

For one thing, they didn’t occur as one-off meetings. Each open house took place over two or three days, and in more than one location. For example, a single open house might happen in Varsity, on the University of Calgary campus and again in University Heights. 

At the meetings there were different ways for members of the public to participate, depending on their schedules and locations. Allert-House says her team wanted to bring people along on the journey rather than trying to convince them. “It wasn’t, ‘Come to this open house to see what we’re doing,’ it was, ‘Come to this open house to see what we’re all doing.’ It’s a fine line that you have to walk all the time,” she says. 
At the meetings, WCDT displayed large information boards, and participants placed Post-It Notes directly on these boards to indicate approval, concerns and/or disagreements. Allert-House’s team would then photograph the boards, compile all the feedback (positive and negative) and report it back to the participants and communities. These notes were also given to the WCDT design team to analyse and consider.

This inclusive, responsive approach to open house-style engagement proved popular with the public. During the approvals process, all five surrounding communities submitted a letter to the City of Calgary expressing their support for the University District Plans. Allert-House says she’s never heard of this happening before. 

Multiple Points of Connection
Recognizing that not everyone can attend meetings (and that people who do attend meetings don’t necessarily represent the entire population), WCDT set up opportunities to connect with the public in other ways. The team established online feedback forms. It placed an information “touch kiosk” at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and set up a storefront in Yamnuska Hall at the University of Calgary, where people were welcome to come in, find information and ask questions. 
WCDT established a quarterly community newsletter to report decisions and feedback on the project. It also wrote letters directly to communities, providing the name and a cell phone number of the CEO for people to contact. This is unusual – CEOs don’t normally take personal phone calls from community members – and it helped to build trust. The WCDT team attended monthly area stakeholder groups to report updates on the project. It even engaged about engagement, checking in with communities to make sure their questions had been answered.

Best Practices
Aller-House says certain decisions about how to conduct public engagement were effective and helped the process go smoothly. 

  • Need to know: Instead of what Allert-House calls a “spray and pray” approach – sending information out en masse – WCDT took maps of the surrounding communities, figured out which people needed to know what, and targeted them directly.
  • Maintain focus: Each meeting needs a clear agenda and a goal, and it’s okay to leave some subjects off the table for discussion – especially elements of the plan that can’t be changed.
  • Hands-on: At meetings, provide plenty of practical elements: things to look at, interact with and draw or write on. WCDT even worked with a creative partner to develop a virtual walk-through of the University District main street.
  • Go beyond the communications team: Invite your design team, urban planner, traffic engineer, City staff, etc. – make sure the minds that formulate the plans have an opportunity to interact with the people who will live with the results. 
  • Define the terms: Define terminology (especially development jargon like “multi-family dwelling”) to avoid confusion and assumptions. 
  • Don’t get flashy: Using simple, straightforward language and avoiding gimmicky technology is the best way to communicate clearly.
  • Be a team: Work in terms of shared goals, rather than as “us” and “them.” As Allert-House says, “It’s not about who loses. It’s about how innovation can happen when we come together and think differently.”

What Changed?
Several elements that WCDT changed as a result of what Allert-House’s heard from stakeholders and the public. 

Graduated Density
After people expressed concerns about building heights, the WCDT design team found a way to achieve mid-rise density without compromising views and light for neighbours. WCDT changed the plan so that higher-density dwellings were concentrated around the high street, gradually becoming less dense toward the perimeter of the community. 

Street Design
WCDT worked collaboratively with The City to balance immediate pedestrian needs with future infrastructure needs (in keeping with Calgary’s “Complete Streets” policies), coming up with a phased transition called “The Street Story.” The Story shows how the street will function for all its users now and years from now, as buses are incorporated and infrastructure evolves. 

Open Spaces
Green spaces, parks and public spaces emerged as a priority for stakeholders (green space is also a major priority for The City), so WCDT tried to create conditions where its building partners could contribute to such spaces. As a result, University District will have about 30% more trees than the average community. In fact, saplings from an existing tree nursery on the University District land will be relocated inside the community. 

“Ultimately, we got through the land use approvals process in a record amount of time – just under a year. For a community of this size, that’s unheard of in Calgary.”

- Emily Allert-House, Communications and Community Engagement Lead for West Campus Development Trust

Being a Good Neighbour is Good Business
Allert-House says it’s possible to deliver on business goals while behaving in a socially responsible way – in short, it pays to be a good neighbour. She says it took guts on the part of the WCDT leadership to invest in such an in-depth (and optional) engagement process, but the decision expedited the process and built good relationships. “Ultimately, we got through the land use approvals process in a record amount of time – just under a year,” she says. “For a community of this size, that’s unheard of in Calgary.”

Not only that, but many people who participated in the engagement process still feel a sense of affinity and ownership over University District, sometimes literally. Many of the community’s early buyers have come from the surrounding areas, and that’s the most positive feedback a developer could hope for. 

October 19th, 2018

Case study: WCDT’s University District public engagement process.