The Possibilities for Citizen-Led, Community-Level Change… in Canada?
Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

In an effort to follow new and interesting practices in engaement, I’ve spent some time looking into the work of Everyday Democracy – a non-profit organization that works closely with communities across the U.S. to address complex, local level issues through public involvement (PI). Its work seems to reflect a much larger trend around PI, which is the rise of community-based initiatives, particularly in the U.S.

To help demonstrate the type of impact that PI can have on the local level, let’s look at Portsmouth Listens, a collaborative effort between the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and its citizens to impact important local issues through increased PI. According to Matt Leighninger, “Portsmouth Listens shows that public engagement processes do not have to be ‘owned’ by government – that they in fact may be more effective and sustainable when they are jointly owned… it harks back to a time in New England when public life was as much a function of community as politics.”

It all started in 1999 with the issue of bullying in the city’s middle school. In an attempt to address the situation, the school invited students, teachers, parents and neighbours (e.g. homeowners, shop owners and individuals from a nearby senior’s housing complex) to participate in a dialogue.

Some of the most notable ideas came from students themselves, which included moving the school’s bike rack to another area that has more traffic and is less isolated, and increase lighting in certain areas around the school grounds. A year later, the town council used this process as the foundation for gathering public input on school redistricting, which can be a ‘hot’ issue in any community. With a significant enrollment imbalance between Portsmouth’s three elementary schools, rotating dialogues were held in each one. This process helped increase comfort levels, as parents were given the opportunity to get a feel for all the schools, thereby decreasing the antagonism around “moving my kid from their school.”

These types of participative initiatives continue to be used in Portsmouth today. For example, residents can review the city’s Master Plan, which outlines the framework for the community’s planning and land use decisions. In one review, citizens came up with a unique idea that wasn’t in the Plan – to convert an old soap factory to an art colony, which could also attract tourists to the city. For more information, please visit this link for Everyday Democracy’s two-part orientation video (scroll down).

All of this leads me to ask three questions:

  • Are these types of community-level initiatives emerging to the same extent here in Canada? (I would argue that they aren’t, or are not as well publicized)
  • How is the potential for community-level change affected by the fact that our municipalities are “creatures of the provinces,” which provide less funding sources and regulatory levers in relations to their American counterparts?
  • What actions we can take as citizens, so as not to limit the possibilities for citizen-led, community-level change here in Canada?

-Tristan Eclarin-

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