For the People, With the People: Planning and Public Engagement in St. John’s

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Somewhere in the depths of 10 New Gower Street, a cabal of planners and bureaucrats are busy drafting the regulations that will guide development in St. John’s for the next ten years.

Envision St. John’s, our new municipal plan (currently in draft), was written with input from more than a dozen public consultations, but the regulations that will enact it have not yet entered the public discourse.

City Hall is not the fortress I make it out to be; our friendly planning department is easy to reach by phone or by visiting the third floor. In fact, St. John’s appears to be a very engaging city. In 2013 we established the Office of Strategy and Engagement (OSE), in 2014 we convened the Engage! Task Force, and later that same year we passed the Engage! Policy based on the Task Force’s work. Our city is downright open to  input!

These are all good things, inspiring hope for the future of public decision-making, but in practice they are not all new; consultation has been in the City’s toolbox for decades. In the early 1970s, during the development of the twenty-year Plan 91, the public of the day were invited to participate; surveys were mailed, meetings were advertised, and documents were distributed. Yet the people were not engaged.

Recognizing the public’s “severely limited” control over planning, Roger Bill and Bill McCallum founded the People’s Planning Programme (PPP) in 1972. They suggested that low turn-out was not a result of apathy, but of the process itself. The public were involved too late, they were illiterate in the theory and methods of planners, and they did not have the ear of power.

Using new, legible ways of communicating planning concepts, such as models, map overlays, and video, the PPP brokered dialogue between the public and the City. They found great success from an engagement standpoint, but less from a policy one. Limits on the public’s power became all too clear when controversial projects such as Atlantic Place went ahead with little regard for criticism.

Forty years later, we can communicate in more ways than ever before using online surveys, polls, and forums. We have listservs dedicated to city developments. But building it does not mean the people will come. The OSE launched an online budget consultation in June, and with the topic set to close this month there are still only two suggestions and one poll response. The OSE is in its troublesome twos – too young to write off – but it must acknowledge this lack of input, account for it, and remedy it.

Before Envision St. John’s is adopted and its regulations are opened for input we need a City ready to partner with its people. The public must see how its input will shape policy to build confidence in the process. The Office of Strategy and Engagement  must think beyond traditional methods and reach those who have historically been excluded. And while the onus should not be on the public to be heard, we must participate. Good plans have the support of citizens, but great plans are owned by them.

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