Even though one or more specific actions, ready to include in the report, did not come out of the Sustainable City of Sustainable Neighbourhoods project, there were many lessons learned about the challenges of evolving as ‘a sustainable city of sustainable neighbourhoods.’
The outcomes of the symposium were not what the Vancouver City Planning Commission had expected at the outset. We thought that the process would end with a next action step in the form of an informational or knowledge-building event, such as a panel, lecture series, workshops to develop concrete sustainability directions. The Commission had hoped that such a group would meet at the conclusion of the symposium.
Instead, the focus returned again to what we kept hearing; namely that relationships — knowing your neighbour and personal connections — are critical pre-conditions to engagement and action, not only on sustainability but also on any local community initiatives.
As noted in the final report, the two groups working on neighbourhood capacity and on sustainability goals for neighbourhoods both came to a similar conclusion, which is that the very first step for neighbourhoods must be a tool or process to come up with an inventory of who’s doing what in the neighbourhood. In other words, before these entities we call our ‘neighbourhoods’ can organize to work sustainability directions or goals, there needs to be some preliminary ground work done.
At the conclusion of this project, the Commission was obliged to report that there was not a group ready to take on a specific action related to the first two directions (neighbourhood capacity and sustainability goals) ,although there is already one neighbourhood group working on the second (consultation processes).
Below are some highlights from the Observations and Lessons Learned outlined in the Commission’s report to Council, which may be helpful to the City of Vancouvrer in future relationship-building work with neighbourhoods.
Sustainability for neighbourhoods
While important, sustainability whether narrowly seen as ‘greening’ initiatives or in the broader sense is not the main priority for neighbourhoods in Vancouver at this time.
What is a neighbourhood?
- Most ‘neighbourhoods’ in the city do not self-identify by their planning area boundaries.
- Vancouver’s ‘neighbourhoods’ are not homogeneous.
- A broader understanding of inequities among ‘neighbourhoods’ is needed.
- The concept of a ‘neighbourhood’ profile or unique fingerprint was identified as helpful.
Who speaks for a neighbourhood?
- There is no truly representative or accountable organization that the City can tap into.
- Neighbourhoods have sub-communities which may not have a voice in planning dialogues.
- Even active groups do not necessarily know about other groups in the neighbourhood.
- Neighbourhood groups and newcomers have no easy to connect with others.
- There are competing claims for who speaks for a neighbourhood.
How to build neighbourhood capacity?
- Lack of a comprehensive list of contact information for neighbourhood groups is a major challenge.
- Neighbourhoods lack a portal or point of contact for engagement.
- Currently difficult to put together city-wide neighbourhoods conversations about any topic or issue.
- Consultations are in silos rather than cross-cultural and inclusive.
- Relationships among people in neighbourhoods are the foundation for collaborative action on sustainability.
How to improve City-neighbourhood relationships?
- Resilient relationships take time and effort to build.
- Compressing processes due to resource limitations can prove counter-productive when resources must be diverted to damage repair.
- Lack of a City contact person with neighbourhood knowledge conveys the impression that the City does not really support the idea of a ‘city of neighbourhoods.’
- Often there is not enough time for groups to become informed about issues or developments in neighbourhoods prior to them coming to Council.
- Lack of clarity about the City’s discretionary zoning policy is associated with an experience of lack of transparency.
How could the City help?
- Future neighbourhood planning processes could include the development of a pilot project on representative structures.
- Use City’s data base on groups such as grant applicants/recipients as the start of a self-updating online inventory of groups.
- City could list, or even designate, free or cheap spaces in each neighbourhood for neighbourhood groups to meet.
- Formal recognition of volunteer groups.
- Acknowledge implications of the City’s discretionary zoning process for community plans and communicate its role in financing amenities.
- Incorporate dialogue on shared values, especially regarding social equity and justice, into planning processes.
- Ensure that sufficient time is allowed to build relationships and trust, and to enable residents to inform themselves before a Council decision.
- Host network of multilingual volunteers willing to translate invitations /notices for neighbourhood groups and help with distribution to multicultural groups.
- Re-frame sustainability to reflect social values relevant at the grassroots level.
We heard that neighbourhoods want to strengthen their organizational capacity. This is not something the City can do for the neighbourhoods, but the City can listen to and support grassroots efforts in this direction.