The Practical Radical

Open Letter to Vancouver City Council

July 15, 2010
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RE: A call for Improved Participation of the Public in City Planning and Governance

July 14, 2010

Dear Mayor and Council,

I am writing this letter to you in regards to the recent incident in council involving residents from the West End. Many of us have to come realize that this incident was not solely an issue of foul language, but an issue of respect and the rights of the electorate to be heard and their opinions taken into consideration. From my experience this is not a new issue, but one that has been present in the City of Vancouver for many years.

I called in to Bill Good’s show on CKNW regarding the issue of public participation in planning processes and Frances Bula stated:

“It isn’t working and it hasn’t been working for a long time. I have covered council for 15 years … and out of that time 99 of 100 decisions council goes ahead and does what was planned at the beginning even though hundreds of people sometimes show up. It is not a good process.”

I agree with this statement. In my 20 years working as a senior manager with a local NGO (the Environmental Youth Alliance), I worked on a range of planning processes from the South East False Creek development (mid 90s), to RTD’s planning and building of the Skytrain line (in this case our work to specifically try and save the (previously) largest green space in East Vancouver, the Grandview Cut). In many cases the processes we were involved in were drawn out, with little access to timely and important information. To be fair, there have been some examples of participatory processes and programs that have worked, yet by-in-large, as Frances says, these processes have been less than satisfactory.

With the advance of participatory technologies, especially spatial technologies, it is no longer acceptable to limit consultations to presentations at council, design charrettes and community events.

I would propose that we should learn from this incident, and that council take quick and decisive action to bring about meaningful public participation in city planning and governance. I would suggest the following actions:

  1. Build upon and expand the “Open Data, Open Standards and Open Source” process. Though it is important to make city data more accessible, it is as well important to  increase the capacity of the community so that they can use this data to better participate in planning processes. This can be done in a cost-effective way through training, education and awareness raising.
  2. Build upon and learn from the work the city has historically done. I know from my own experience that programs such as Sustainable Cities Mapped! A Youth Community Mapping Toolkit for Vancouver is a good example of community engagement in planning. I know there are many more that can inform council.
  3. Continue to explore new examples of how cities are engaging their citizens in planning. There are many excellent examples of cities doing this such as San Francisco’s DataSF.org, healthycity.org and openstreetmaps.
  4. Put in place policies, procedures and resources which will assure that urban planning will become more participatory.

In conclusion, though this incident clearly has had a negative impact on the perception of the openness of city council, it is important that council move quickly to demonstrate that this is not the case. This can be done through the city recommitting to open governance especially in the area of planning, combined with a concrete plan and set of actions which demonstrates how this will happen.

Thank you for your time.

Doug Ragan, MM, PhD (candidate)
College of Architecture and Planning
Community Development Specialist
University of Colorado

Email: ddragan@istar.ca
phone: 6044184440
website: www.pradical.org

Pradical Blog posts on Participatory Planning

High touch/Low Tech – On the Front line with Map Kibera
Nairobi Reflections

Participatory Planning Resources

Brazil Youth Atlas (EYA/SCARP)
Bridging the Digital Divide (World Urban Forum V)
Capable Cities in British Columbia- Key Informant ReportCreative Tools
Civic Engagement of Young People
Immigrant and Youth refugee guide (EYA)
Peers Asset Mapping Guide (EYA/PEERS)
Finding Home (EYA/Worldview Strategies)
Mapped! A Youth Community Mapping Toolkit for Vancouver
UMAP (University of Colorado)
UN-HABITAT Asset Mapping Toolkit (draft)
Youmap (City of Vancouver)


Fight, Flight or Unite – What’s the strategy?

June 27, 2010
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Lots of issues around violence and when to use it have come to the fore for me in the past few days – the Afghan war and the G8 riots being the most media prominent. Yet, its my current favorite TV show Boston Legal which describes it best.

There was a great episode where one of the lawyers got into an altercation with a bruiser at a bar. Said lawyer taunted said bruiser, who punched him. View the video to see one way our of this situation.

As you can see his solution was unique – but it brings up the question for me of when do you fight, when do you flee (and maybe fight another day) and when do you bring in help.

In a more metaphorical way, this scenario is often revisited in one’s career when you are faced with a serious conflict (say getting fired or majorly jerked around) and the aforementioned three choices. Though at first blush, going on the offensive may feel like the right thing, upon sleeping on it the answer often seems to be to walk away. The long-term strategy often becomes bringing in others to help you.

I follow the idiom that revenge is best served cold.*  It is more important to determine my immediate interests and needs than it is to go for the throat. But, then again, sometimes it sure would be nice …

* this phrase is alternatively attributed to Klingon Khaless the unforgettable; a quote by Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderios de LaClos (1741-1803) in his book Les Liasons Dangereuses; or as old Mafiosi saying from Sicily.


Humor in Dark and Digital Times – A Video Mashup

June 9, 2010
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Dark or black humor has always been fascinating to me – finding something funny in dismal times clearly shows how resilient humanity can be.

My introduction to black humor was Monty Python, and more specifically the movie the Holy Grail. Two of my favorites are Black Knight and Bring out Your Dead.

With the digital age and youtube we now don’t have to wait for geniuses such as Python to write and produce videos and get them to TV, the movies or VHS. Now with little production time and no cost, videos reflect what is happening now, and can have direct and immediate impact.

One example of this real-time dark humor is in regards to the spill in the gulf. A great video was done by John Clarke and Brian Dawe of the 7.30 Report (Australia) which skewers the duplicity of BP.

On a different (musical) note demonstrating the use of humor in dark times, is a music video done by the Best Party from Reykjavik, Iceland to Tina Turners song “Simply the Best”.

The Best Party is like the Rhino Party and other spoof parties who are created as a protest to the traditional parties in the political system – this party was created due to the massive lack of confidence in government after the country went bankrupt. What is ironic is that in this case the Best Party,  whose comedian leader campaigned on clean politics, free towels in city swimming pools and a polar bear for the zoo, took over 30 percent of the vote and won six seats on the 15-seat city council. Humor in dark times trumps.

Dark humor is an effective tool, and yet in the end Python gets it right.


Digital Access for All: Broadband for the People … really

June 4, 2010
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When there is an increase in broadband speed in the North America, we can download more episodes of our favorite TV show (mine is 30 rock); when broadband speed increases in Africa, millions more people get online through mobile technologies.

Whole “development” leaps are being taken on the African continent – mind numbing and corrupt bureaucracy is in one click being overcome with government services going online; banking is being revolutionized with mobile “MPESA” banking;  “urban wilderness”, the unplanned settlements or slums, or being mapped for the first time. And I can go on – read my article on Bridging the Digital Divide.

Just saw this great article and video done by Declan McCormack on the impact of mobile phones and the internet in east Africa that i thought nails it in regards to what is going on. Enjoy.

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