Remember Town Hall meetings? They still exist in their original form, but community consultation is increasingly moving to the internet. This seems like a natural evolution – most people spend at least some time each day in front of their computers, while public meetings conjure up images of drafty gymnasiums, sparse crowds and cold coffee. Physical meetings do have their advantages, though. Internet consultation can have difficulty replicating the exchange of ideas that happens face-to-face and it’s also easier to disengage from online conversations than it is to walk out of a roundtable discussion. Different strategies attract different participants and given the low level of community engagement with most consultation processes, it’s smart to make use of more than one.
The City of Vancouver’s Transportation Plan is doing just that, with a series of public meetings set for neighbourhoods throughout the city and a Facebook-based discussion group process. I’ve been participating in one of the online discussion groups and so far, there hasn’t been much participation. I’m curious to see how well-attended the public meetings will be. Transportation can cause heated debate, but it seems that this is mostly reactive, as when the downtown bike lanes were put in place. Planning doesn’t get people as worked up, unfortunately.
Even if participation isn’t high, it’s encouraging to see government making an effort to include public consultation earlier in its planning processes. The Ministry of Agriculture’s survey on the Agricultural Land Reserve is another example of consultation with a potential for getting a wide cross-section of opinion. The preservation of farmland is an issue that’s finally starting to get widespread attention. Allowing people across British Columbia to weigh in on at least part of the decision-making seems like a step toward direct democracy; focus groups and opinion polls can’t compare.
I’m always for a diversity of strategies and making it easy for people to get involved. Having a number of ways for people to engage makes active citizenry accessible.