These are some of the things I love most about my neighbourhood: I can walk the length of the shopping street as quickly (or sometimes more quickly) than the time it takes for the bus to arrive and carry me from one end to the other; the variety of foodstuffs and staples available within walking distance; the wealth of restaurants and coffee shops; brick and mortar bookstores, record shops, and even a video store; the mix of heritage homes, 1950s walk ups, and affordable apartment buildings, many with room for vegetable gardens; a feeling of engagement with one’s neighbours across the district. The things that I don’t love include the increasing unaffordability of the neighbourhood for both residents and small business owners, the proliferation of condos designed to last little longer than a mortgage cycle, and the increasing feeling that our neighbourhood is destined for suburbification and its attendant disconnection from the deep feelings of community that have been built here.
With all this in mind, I found myself inside on a sunny Saturday along with almost seventy other Grandview-Woodlanders, debating the questions around the construction of a Citizens’ Assembly and the part it will play in crafting the plan that will guide our neighbourhood’s future. The City hired a facilitator who specializes in forms of deliberative democracy like Citizens’ Assemblies and over the course of the afternoon, participants had an opportunity to tackle at least two of the structural questions the City put before us. We met in small groups for half-hour periods, then at the end of the day, there was a summary from each of the tables about the most important ideas that had emerged. All ideas were written up on tear sheets that were taped up around the room and at the end of each session, participants marked their priorities dotmocracy-style.
We were encouraged to choose the discussions we felt most passionate about, but a more accurate assessment for me would be that I chose the discussions I was most worried about. My choices were Composition of the Assembly and Community Engagement. Some of the ideas that came out of the first group included: representing three kinds of tenure – owners, renters, and housing co-op members; reserving seats for aboriginal members, whether or not candidates are identified through the initial call out; using a multi-pronged strategy for recruiting candidates that includes outreach to community groups as well as more passive strategies like mailouts; that twenty Assembly members was probably too few and fifty probably too many; and making sure that there’s representation across the district. The ideas that came out of the second group drilled down a little deeper. Outreach by Assembly members to community groups to capture viewpoints that might not be represented by the Assembly, especially those of vulnerable populations. The three levels of the process (City-led, Assembly, and Community) should not be separate, but should inform each other – community consultation should happen in conjunction with the Assembly and the City, rather than separately; the Assembly’s report should be brought to the public for critique and comment on a regular basis; the City’s plan should be both informed by the Assembly’s proceedings and incorporate the Assembly’s critiques and comments.
I hope that when the City finishes gathering the suggestions from the two sessions and the online consultation, that the information is presented in an unabridged form and that the Assembly is constructed on the most representative basis, not just on the basis of demographic diversity, but also with a socially just distribution that accounts for differences in privilege.
I came away from Saturday’s session with a cautious optimism, not because I believe that this process will be the salvation of my neighbourhood, but because I was engaged with so many people who care about the district as much as I do. I know that a number of people felt the session was too constrained and directed by the City – you can find out more about that here and here. My hope is that the Assembly might help shift the focus of Grandview-Woodland’s future away from developers and toward residents and that through this process, the City will come to value the area as the model of liveability (mixed-income, walkable, diverse, lovely) that it is already.