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Analysis: Guidebook for Great Communities and the public engagement

As Calgary’s Guidebook for Great Communities waited in the wings, one could have imagined the 1984 Genesis song Land of Confusion playing in the mind of the 131-page planning document.

Three days of public hearings and 139 speakers later, it became clear that perhaps the Guidebook was, in fact, misunderstood. The question is why?

Most of those speaking against it during the marathon affair attributed it to a lack of public engagement. Not enough time spent with people it would impact today – and in the future.

Councillors eventually voted to send the Guidebook for Great Communities back to city administration to iron out some of the kinks. They’re to take the information heard at the public hearing and “synthesize” it for a return to council reflective of citizen desires.

It’s set to return in early May 2021.  

“I think the overall work here addresses the feedback we’ve received in this public hearing and provides the public some assurances that they are in fact, part of the process, not outside of it,” said Ward 6 Coun. Jeff Davison, in his late Wednesday close on the amended motion.

“The collective point here is to show the public this is not just a box-checking exercise, and that we continue to show those we serve that meaningful engagement and constructive conversation is valued by this council.”

It’s important to note, the final amendment to put together options and a budget for full city-wide engagement on the revised document failed.  Engagement of some sort will likely be done prior to that May meeting of the Planning and Urban Development committee. Public concerns could also be brought forward at that meeting.

If approved, the document would head back to council in June. That’s just prior to summer break and then a blackout period before October’s municipal election.

Guidebook principles already approved

Depending on how you look at the issue, Calgary’s Guidebook for Great Communities has already been approved… in theory.

Twice, in fact.

Wait, how is it that the Guidebook has already been ‘approved’?

Technically speaking, it’s the definition phase of the city’s 171-page Municipal Development Plan (MDP). The MDP is the document that prescribes, in detail, how Calgary will build and grow for the next 30 to 60 years. This is a document required by the province’s Municipal Government Act.

The MDP was first approved in 2009 and updated and approved again in 2020.

What this means is today anyone, at any time, can submit a land-use redesignation that allows for an infill, a townhouse, row house, in any neighbourhood in Calgary. Anywhere, anytime, anyplace.  It’s because the principles that allow it – anywhere, anytime, anyplace – are already in the MDP, with more details.  

If the Guidebook is eliminated altogether, all the issues raised at the public hearing: single-family detached loss, heritage loss, density gain, traffic, parking, character loss… can still happen. It WILL still happen. 

That’s part of the changing and evolving Calgary – covered by the Municipal Development Plan. The Guidebook (we’re really distilling this) gives fancy names to the things the MDP says you can already do.

As stated repeatedly in the media (and by the city) in March, the Guidebook is then used to direct the implementation phase – the Local Area Plan.

Crafted simply, this is pretty straightforward stuff.

Let’s talk about public engagement

Whether you were referring to heritage or building type, or even just the existence of the document itself, many speakers indicated there was a lack of public engagement.

The city has said the engagement can be traced back to the original 2009 MDP. Engagement on that began in 2005 with the imagineCALGARY plan. That started the process for the MDP.

After that, more than 6,000 Calgarians provided feedback on land use and transportation plans that would be used in the MDP.

The city would likely say public engagement on the Guidebook is an extension of that process.

“We spent the better part of five years engaging with Calgarians on what is important to them. We’ve been learning, sharing, listening and growing as a team to gather input for the Guidebook,” Lisa Kahn with the Guidebook team said during the Guidebook presentation.

On Nov. 18, 2019, the Guidebook for Great Communities was first brought to Calgary city council.

There, Couns. Gian-Carlo Carra and Jyoti Gondek gave direction to administration to build awareness about changes being made to the document. It asked them to communicate the vision and intent of the document before it becomes “statutory.”

It returned at the March 4, 2020 Planning and Urban Development (PUD) committee meeting, where a public hearing was held. Twenty-six speakers participated and eight letters were presented.

Feedback was collated and brought back to a July 15, 2020 PUD meeting. Feedback included heritage, low-density residential areas, scaling, climate references and more.

COVID-19 takes engagement toll

Though this work was going on, COVID-19 ramped up. It postponed or eliminated most in-person engagement opportunities.

The city drove messages through social media with paid promotions and advertising. They worked with the Federation of Calgary Communities (overarching support agency for community associations) to help deliver the information to CAs.  They held online information sessions.

When COVID public health measures allowed it, they had an installation at the Calgary Public Library that drew thousands of responses. It was set up to capture feedback from a diverse cross-section of Calgary.

They also had a poster campaign at libraries and rec facilities and advertised in community association newsletters. The city had working groups with Calgary communities working through their local area planning process.

“The adoption of the guidebook isn’t the end of engagement. It’s continuing the conversation with communities through the local area planning process,” said Kahn.

Maybe you care about planning. But for most people, when you say planning, eyes glaze over. (Yours probably have already.) For most Calgarians, planning is only of interest when a matter that directly affects them is brought forth.

A rowhouse a block away; an infill with secondary suites next door; land assembly for a potential eight-plex – this is when people care about planning.

When you talk to them about concepts, about complete communities, about the MDP…

Blank stare.

And then when you try to ‘hip’ it out with the imaginary journey of Maria and David, you risk further alienating those who’s attention you may have grabbed. This mystical couple may reflect some Calgarians, but certainly not all.

There’s a disconnect because people don’t see this as their community or their family.

Patching up public engagement  

The Guidebook team was given a challenge: Gather this public hearing feedback from Calgarians and come back with a refined document.

To those familiar with planning, the Guidebook seems like a benign document that’s a simple description of building typology (reflected in the different land use types) that creates a mechanism to execute the MDP through the Local Area Plan.

Simple, right?

Trust was brought up regularly during the public hearing. The Guidebook and the way it was presented created a distrust with citizens, people said.

Elbow Park resident Beth Riley said listening to the process, reading the newspapers and speaking to fellow residents the issue became overly divisive.

“And that is something that is caused by the process, and the lack of trust it seems between relevant parties. That, in and of itself, is something that I think we have to do better at,” she said.

Simplicity might be the answer.

People want to know how it works – not through Maria and David, but in their neighbourhood. Even if it might not happen for another 10 or 15 years. The city said that happens through the Local Area Planning process. 

But those whose communities stand to be impacted in 2032 by this document have a stake in this, too.

This must be in simple terms, too. Not planning jargon, not sexy, new-age marketing terms that trigger citizens’ BS early warning systems. They don’t want to feel like the wool is being pulled over their eyes. Perception, to many, is reality.

What could be next?

When this comes back on May 5, a lot could happen.

City administration could talk about extensive engagement on a newly-produced document that showed they listened to Calgarians feedback.

Councillors could applaud them for listening to the people and vote overwhelmingly to approve it and send it to the June meeting of city council for final approval.

Reality sets in.

If the goal is to kill the document in its entirety, which seems to be the motive of Coun. Jeromy Farkas when he wanted to split up posed amendments so he could potentially shelf the document, this could happen.

It could happen by being defeated at committee. While it can still be forwarded to a full meeting of council, it may be tough to get a win there.

A motion could also come to reinstate the city-wide public engagement. That was the item lost in the March 24 vote.  If this happens, that would easily be a six- to nine-month process that would take us to the end of 2021 or early 2022.

That means it would come after a municipal election and depending on that result, it could be killed depending on the council makeup.

If it becomes an election issue, all bets are off.

It will likely define the 2021 election campaign.

“Can’t you see this is the land of confusion…”