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Ill communication 

City planners want to gather advice from a more diverse group of Haligonians. But do they actually know how to do it? Mike Fleury opens a dialogue.

Urban planning. Civic engagement. Public consultation. All perfectly good words that, when combined, become very unappealing concepts very quickly—especially in Halifax.

At least, that seems to be the problem facing HRMbyDESIGN, a broad planning project that aims to direct growth and development in the city. This week, HRMbyDESIGN will begin its second phase of public discussions.

According to Andy Fillmore, a city developer and project leader, organizers had been hoping for a more diverse crowd during the first phase of public meetings. The city is trying to make sure round two of HRMbyDESIGN doesn’t suffer the same fate.

“We’ve been very aggressive about reaching out to various community groups and residents’ associations,” says Fillmore. “It’s something we’ve really worked on this time around. So far, we’ve had good responses.”

Fillmore mentions a few specific neighbourhoods—Uniacke Square, Mulgrave Park and north end Dartmouth—that the city simply hasn’t been able to reach.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “and I want to be careful here…we tend to see people of a similar complexion…or a similar age, or a similar income level. This project is about them, but it’s about everybody.”

To fight the trend, HRMbyDESIGN has directly contacted a number of local community groups in the hope that their involvement will help attract a wider range of people to the discussion.

The Heartwood Institute is one such group—its primary focus is on youth engagement. Program manager Cathleen Naylor is glad the city is making the effort, but says traditional methods won’t work.

“Young people don’t feel inspired or engaged by those very long discussions. And they can’t call on this long electoral history. They can’t say, ‘I remember what happened 15 years ago,’ and adults seem to feel a need to do that in this kind of public forum.

“A lot of it,” she continues, “has to do with creating an environment that’s receptive to the way that young people would like to give input. With a lot of...marginalized groups, you need to go where those people are actually gathering, rather than expecting them to see a poster or an advertisement inviting them to a space that’s foreign and unfamiliar to them.”

Bob O’Neill is a former president and current member of the Commons North Community Association—it also received an invitation. He says some downtown residents have grown skeptical about where the city’s priorities lie geographically, and tuned out.

“There’s still a perception that a lot of people with the city don’t understand the issues affecting inner-city neighbourhoods, as opposed to, say, suburban neighbourhoods.”

O’Neill mentions an example when CNNA met with traffic planners to discuss the corner of Robie and Cunard. “They were in the business of moving cars and we were in the business of improving our neighbourhood.

“When the preoccupation seems to be with the people that live in the suburbs, it’s very disheartening for people who say, ‘This is the city I’ve lived in all of my life and suddenly I feel like I don’t have a say in it anymore.’”

Race is another hurdle for the city. The first planning sessions attracted a largely white audience, almost exclusively so. For phase two, the city has made contact with the Africville Genealogy Society.

“This applies to everyone they want to get involved,” says Irvine Carvery, president of the society. “You have to relate the subject down to the level where the everyday, ordinary person can say, ‘Yes, this is something I need to be a part of.’ Right now, come off as way too highbrow for most of the people that aren’t offering input.

“A blue-collar worker in a low-income group, trying to survive day-to-day—how does this really affect their life? Or their children? And it’s got to happen at a time that’s convenient for those workers—they’re not going to take time off to participate.”

Carvery has other suggestions.

“Spend a little money. Have some workshops on the weekend. Provide daycare for children. Offer somebody a meal. Be communal. Turn these talks into a community event. I think that kind of thing would go a long way.”

Urban Design Symposium and Public Workshop, 6pm, December 4 at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Public viewing on December, 4pm at Alderney Theatre. Closing presentations, December 7, 6pm, Alderney Theatre.

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