Do citizens today have a real say in policy decisions affecting how and where they live? Two interdisciplinary SSHRC grants awarded to professors at McGill examine citizen engagement: where it comes from, where it went and how to get it back. //
By Mark Witten
It had all the hallmarks of an urban consultation event put on by a local community group: a few dozen people gathered on a weekend morning in a converted brownstone to discuss land development in their neighbourhood; a whiteboard pinned with maps of streets, buildings and proposed real estate developments; orange juice and doughnuts on offer in the back corner.
What was unusual about the event, however, was that it was organized and led not by a community-based organization but by a group of academics.
Hoi Kong and Nik Luka, associate professors, respectively, in the Faculty of Law and the Schools of Architecture and
Urban Planning, are conducting a real-world experiment to test the theory of deliberative democracy.
Their lab on the ground is the Bellechasse site, which is located in a socially and economically diverse neighbourhood in the Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie borough of Montreal and became the subject of a government-led study for redevelopment in 2008. The proposed plan for the site includes mixed-uses and a rebuilt bus maintenance centre for the Societé de transport de Montreal.
“This is a large, post-industrial site in transition, where two-thirds of the land is publicly owned and there are concerns about housing costs and gentrification,” says Luka. “This project is really exciting because it’s an opportunity for a major reurbanisation initiative to be co-produced by citizen users and experts.”
The project, which is funded by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, seeks to overcome traditional barriers to participation in community consultation, be they physical (accessibility, timing) or psychological (apathy or helplessness born of the challenge of staying informed on a complex subject).
A bilingual website written by McGill students in collaboration with the Comité logement de la Petite-Patrie, a local
affordable housing organization, offers a helpful primer on the intimidating terminology of urban planning and municipal legalese. The site, imaginonsbellechasse.com, also lists ways to get involved in the project: community engagement stand-bys such as exploratory walks and in-person design workshops are listed, as are digital tools such as a
password-protected discussion forum.
In the project’s next phase, the consultation sessions will feature student-researchers going into the community with iPads in order to encourage participants to share their opinions through virtual voting and to contribute to an interactive design forum. This forum will present virtual models of various redevelopment scenarios generated by the research
project and will seek community members’ feedback on these models.
“People feel disempowered and disengaged. They feel left out of the regulatory planning processes that determine how land is used and developed,” says Kong. “Although people are typically invited to participate, there are concerns about the quality of the participation and also about who comes to participate.”
Kong, the principal investigator on the project, is leading the legal dimension of the research with fellow law professor,
Daniel Weinstock. They will examine the project’s implications for municipal governance, institutional decision-making processes and, in the courts, judicial doctrine.
“Governments everywhere are attempting to use online tools to bridge democratic deficits and this project aims to enable local governments to achieve this in a land-use planning context,” Kong explains.
Working with Martin Blanchard, a community organizer at the Comité logement de la Petite-Patrie, Weinstock will approach the research from a theoretical perspective, investigating whether this kind of citizen participation facilitates or undermines the capacity of community groups to protest and to meaningfully have their opinions heard. Kong , Luka
and their students, meanwhile, hope to present local officials and planning staff with a set of options for incorporating digital, community-based techniques into existing planning and design processes.
“We have to encourage cities to make neighbourhoods that people recognize themselves in,” says Kong. “This project proposes a process plan that reflects the experience and aspirations of residents, which we believe is going to result in a better neighbourhood.”
On a Canada-wide scale, Renée Sieber, an associate professor in the McGill School of Environment and the Department of Geography, is investigating how new digital mapping technologies are reshaping interactions between citizens and their governments. Leading a cross-country team of researchers, Sieber is examining the much-hyped Geopatial Web 2.0, or Geoweb.
The concept refers to the new form of mapmaking created by “mashing” together the mapping efforts of technology giants like Google and Apple with those of governments and ordinary citizens.
“People contribute the data: they tweet street conditions or their mobile apps deliver directions to the nearest coffee shop, whose reviews also were contributed by individuals,” Sieber explains. “Governments add to the data stream by increasing accessibility of their data, like realtime transportation information.”
The aptly-named Geothink project examines both the promise and the perils of this technology. It will receive a total of more than $2.5-million in funding from a SSHRC Partnership Grant and over $3-million in additional contributions from its 30 partners over six years.
Maps are powerful creations, Sieber points out, quoting the late geographer Bernard Nietschmann’s observation that “more indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns.” Geothink is the result of years of research and collaboration with citizen groups, with this power of mapping in mind.
“Democracy is fragile and it doesn’t mean only voting,” she adds. “We want a more politically engaged public and that public needs to engage directly with the government.”
One way to encourage this engagement is through accessible, visually compelling digital mapping and design technologies. For example, Sieber and her students developed interactive mapping tools for a local agency responsible for monitoring the watershed of the Noire River in Quebec. The researchers collected user-generated information and created maps to protect citizens’ homes from river flooding and to implement a phosphorous reduction plan to preserve water quality.
Other applications — and, true to the power of maps and mapping, they are diverse and many — include wildlife monitoring, invasive species identification, local food systems, human health, forest fire history, estuary management, sustainable urban design and planning, watershed and erosion monitoring and global climate change.
“Canada has long been a leader in producing maps and is credited for developing the first geographic information system in the 1960s, but our leadership has waned,” says Sieber. “This project will make Canada a leader not only in open geographic practices but also in open government practices.”
Geothink is also probing the potential perils of the Geoweb, which can be used by governments as a tool for repression rather than expression. The Philippine government, for example, has used geographic data to track the movements of political dissidents. Closer to home, Canada Post’s 2012 lawsuit to stop Geolytica Inc., a one-person Ottawa firm, from distributing postal code data, by asserting copyright claim on postal codes, illustrates the challenges involved in democratizing geographic data.
Still, successful examples abound. The City of Regina used an open data platform to reduce the cost of fulfilling freedom of information requests from citizens. Indeed, the top five Canadian users of open geographic data — the cities of Regina, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Edmonton — are all partners in the Geothink project. These cities are repositories of citizen-volunteered geographic information (VGI) and researchers will look to them as innovative models of best uses for VGI in local government decision-making.
“We emphasize cities,” Sieber says. “Citizens have stronger attachments to their local governments and cities are potential sites of creative energy and innovation.”
These initiatives aim to harness the potential of emerging digital technologies to empower citizens in their dialogues with governments. In these interactions, where does a university fit in?
Enter the idea—and the practice—of social innovation.
A relatively new term used to refer to a long-standing concept, social innovation seeks to profoundly change the routines, beliefs and channels of authority of any social system, with the goal of solving complex problems. The intricacy of such an undertaking plays well to the creative and research-intensive strengths of a university, especially with interdisciplinary initiatives such as the ones led by Kong, Luka and Sieber.
For example, Geoweb depends on governments and citizens alike taking the initiative to exchange locational information. However, governments and citizens do not always see eye-to-eye, often clashing over such concerns as individual privacy, legislative hurdles to sharing information, or the accuracy or even the authenticity of crowd-sourced data. Sieber points out that academic research can contribute a level of knowledge and understanding.
“There are people in government who have a public service inclination and who want to do good. They can get disappointed when public participation is not supportive,” she notes. Similarly, “many people in urban planning
who advocate for social justice need support from citizens to fulfill their plans.”
Luka likewise envisions the Imaginons Bellechasse project as an opportunity for McGill, as an institution in the community, to show leadership in giving ordinary citizens a real voice in civic affairs.
“Through this project, McGill is very directly a player in city-building and community capacity-building,” he says.
“We aim for this project to be a model for community-academic-government collaboration in land use planning and research,” adds Kong. “It’s an exciting way of doing scholarship and research. We’re not just sitting in our armchairs thinking about the ways things can work. We’re trying to test our ideas by seeing how they play out in the real world.” ■
As an undergraduate student in the Department of Geography, working under the supervision of Renée
His research convinced him of the need for better communications tools—ones that were both digital and visual—to help urban planners show the public what projects were in the works. Improved computing power and software now allow
designers to construct visual renderings of project proposals, but most of these tools, such as AutoCAD or Sketchup, are either technically challenging to use, expensive to purchase, or both.
Beaudreau decided to capitalize instead on Google Earth’s availability as a free plug-in and use it as a base to develop an application that the general public could easily understand and manipulate.
The resulting platform, YouSayCity, takes many of its cues from Google’s ubiquitous and relatively intuitive mapping interface. By entering an address, city or landmark, users navigate via 3D flyover to a visual representation of the area or building, where they can add their own photos, documents, comments and 3D models.
The City of Montreal’s Office of Public Consultation has incorporated the software into its consultation processes and the entire platform is available to the public at www.YouSayCity.com.
Beaudreau, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says his aim for YouSayCity was to demonstrate how digital earth applications can enhance the quality of public participation.
“By inspiring more people to participate in development discussions,” he says, “we can begin to shape innovative and sustainable solutions to the problems facing our cities.”