The introduction of physical distancing directives in mid-March 2020 means that a critical tool in the public planners’ toolbox is unavailable for the foreseeable future. Urban planning processes in Canada and around the world rely heavily on public meetings to engage stakeholders and uphold democratic ideals. Since the 1960s, planners have used instruments such as Arnstein’s ladder of public participation to promote meaningful consultation with the public. Meetings outlining proposed developments and new policy initiatives are one of the most important opportunities that planners and decision makers have to ensure that citizens have a say in the shaping of our cities.
Without the option of face-to-face meetings, online platforms have emerged as the best way to engage people in planning discussions. The same tools that governments and businesses are using to let workers self-isolate in the safety of their homes also provide new avenues by which members of the public can participate in the planning process. However, Canadians do not have equal access to these tools or to the Internet connections required to make them work. For example, one might expect significant differences between stakeholders of different ages or between rural and urban dwellers with vastly different access to broadband connections.
The Ontario Government passed the COVID-19 Support and Protection Act with several amendments to planning and related legislation. This legislation makes it possible to suspend certain municipal planning decision timelines during the state of emergency, as well as changes to the Development Charges Act. The Planning Act amendments authorize the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to suspend specified timelines associated with land use planning matters. However, municipalities and planning boards can still make decisions on land use planning during this time of suspended timelines and they can consider using electronic and virtual channels to engage with public stakeholders. With these circumstances in mind, we provide the following insights based on our research with stakeholder engagement.
Research we have recently undertaken in Halton region provides some interesting insight into the question of how new tools will affect stakeholder engagement. Over the course of 2018-19, we carried out over 200 web-based surveys, 20 phone- or computer-enabled interviews, and 2 widely-advertised physical workshops with planners, workers, and residents of Halton region. This work – originally designed to ask questions about incorporating ecosystem services into Natural Heritage System planning – thus provides a very interesting set of insights into the power of different engagement methods to bring groups of stakeholders to the table.
One of our first key insights is that internet- or phone-enabled engagement with stakeholders can bring a wide diversity of people to the table. Our work targeted industry (including farmers), residents, planners, government officials, and ENGOs. We found that we were able to solicit the views of each of these groups in meaningful ways in our surveys and interviews. In part this is because these tools were flexible; respondents could choose to answer a survey over an extended period, and interviews were scheduled to respect people’s schedules. By comparison, our workshops were dominated by residents who took time out of their schedules to attend; we had no representation from industry (despite scheduling meetings at different times in the day), and far less representation from government and the planning community. If our work were to rely solely upon public meetings, we would miss important viewpoints from key stakeholder groups.
Another key insight is that different tools provide stakeholders with different kinds of opportunities to engage. Some stakeholders respond well to question-and-answer formats that provide structure and guidance throughout the interaction; others prefer more open styles of engagement. We observed some stakeholders that were comfortable engaging in all forms of communication (workshop, survey, and interview), but others restricted their engagement to a single pathway. While not definitive, this suggests that opening different kinds of channels for public participation is critical to ensure that different viewpoints are heard.
A critical takeaway from our work is that tools for remote engagement have emerged that are far more powerful than what might have been available even ten years ago. Our ability to conduct sophisticated surveys is far better and cheaper today than it was in the past, thanks to free or low-cost online tools. Surveys and questionnaires can be developed such that participants can rank choices, pick from multiple choices, use sliders along a scale or answer open-ended questions. These tools provide qualitative and quantitative data that is important to inform the planning process.
Our ability to remotely conduct meaningful interviews is dramatically increased by the potential to observe stakeholders via skype or similar tools, and this enriches the feedback received through these interviews. Emerging video conferencing tools should allow virtual meetings to be held with members of the public in ways that will allow them to interact, not just with the planners, but with each other. However, the use of these types of tools also raises important ethical questions; should meetings be recorded for future viewing? Are individuals as comfortable with remote connections as they are in person, and does the nature of the connection affect their responses? These are questions to be answered.