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Photo: Vancouverish

People are not voting in civic elections; staring at their cell phones to avoid smiling and greeting each other; retreating to their homes and the internet instead of engaging in city life.

Civic disengagement and anti-social behaviour affect cities around the world, yet few actually come together with a strategy to deal with the issue. Vancouver may be the first.

In January 2013, the City of Vancouver set up an Engaged City Task Force - a select group of people chosen to develop a strategy that would address citizen engagement in response to low voter turnout, as well as a study released by the Vancouver Foundation that found that many citizens, particularly younger adults and people living in condos, feel less connected to their community. 

According to the Task Force, while other cities have already explored some of the same issues that Vancouver has tackled, such as environmental sustainability and affordable housing, almost none have focused on engagement as a formal policy development area. 

 
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Photo: Jason Payne, Vancouver Sun

Over the past year, the Task Force met directly with residents through meetings, world cafés, small gatherings, kitchen table discussions, and dialogues. They also held events throughout the city, hosted a design jam and set up an online forum to accept ideas.

Last month, they released their final report with 19 recommendations on how Vancouver can improve citizen engagement with local issues and six “Recommended Ideas” to help citizens better connect with each other. Here is a sampling of the final report recommendations and ideas:

Establish Citizen Academies: The City would work with other partners, such as colleges and non-profit organizations, to create “City Hall 101” presentations on basic City processes like planning or rezoning

Engage Local Artists in the Electoral and Other Civic Process: to create new ideas that promote civic discourse and elections. This could include a rethink of posters and signage leading up to elections and civic events, and design contests that stimulate new ways to get people informed about the civic election. Music, film, creative writing, and theatre could be used to celebrate the election period while also providing voting information.

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Photo: West End Mural

Create a Public Space Action Association*: the Public Space Action Association would consist of City staff, experts in public space and urban  design, artists, designers, media-makers, and inspired citizens.It’s goal would be ” to accelerate the creation of fresh kinds of public spaces that include services, objects, interactions, and experiences created specifically to encourage engagement between neighbours and residents.”  *Side note: I found this suggestion a bit odd, since we already have a very successful Vancouver Public Space Network - consisting of hundreds of volunteers who advocate for public space and create dynamic public space interventions throughout the city.

Rethink Condos for Social Inclusion: establish a community organization to work with local property developers, managers, and strata councils to develop a condo toolkit that helps residents to determine their building’s assets and identify opportunities to promote social inclusion, such as shared bike repair or cooking spaces and “livable” stairwells to promote interaction. 

Pilot a Neighbourhood Liaison Position: The City would undertake a pilot project in up to three neighbourhoods (where there is a disproportionate number of newcomers or residents who do not speak English as a first language) to support the creation of a  neighbourhood liaison position. The role of the liaison would be to: reach out to those who have not been engaged but would be interested in learning more; explain local issues to newer residents; facilitate discussion; and assist residents in communicating feedback to City Hall.

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Use Food to Bring People Together: In addition to supporting neighbourhood block parties in the summer, the task force recommended a “Winter Potluck Weekend” where on one weekend during the winter, the city could encourage residents to hold a potluck dinners. In a neighbourhood block, the potluck could be at one person’s house, or in a high-rise the dinner could be arranged in a common room. 

Just say “Hello” campaign:  Inspired by community-led initiatives such as Say Hi Vancouver, Be My Amigo, and the Hello Pledge, public gathering places like Neighbourhood Houses, community centres, and libraries could support a social marketing campaign around “Just Say Hello,” focusing on areas such as rental apartments or condominiums where people are more likely to feel isolated.

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Photo: Say Hi Vancouver

Community Bulletin Boards: promote the creation of more small, simple boards where neighbours post local notices like babysitting services, dog walking, and event information. An online toolkit with plans and a description of how to build and install a bulletin board would make it easier for neighbours to share information, especially in areas with a concentration of rental apartments or condos.

Conversation Tables: According to the Task Force, “Conversation tables have already sprung up around Vancouver, in restaurants that host long-table nights that seat strangers together to share a meal. Similarly, formal and informal groups coordinate outdoor potlucks where people meet by sharing food. Supporting these kinds of opportunities, through collaboration with the Business Improvement Associations and others, creates space for conversation and community dialogue.”

Pilot the use of Community Reference Panels:  the City should appoint Community Reference Panels - non-compulsory, randomly selected public juries who participate in consultation processes to provide policy advice to the public and elected officials. This form of citizen engagement prevents groups from dominating consultations and intimidating others with alternative views.

Overall, I think these are great recommendations that, if implemented, could contribute to bringing more people into important conversations with government and each other about local issues. However, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the city playing “nanny” to citizens - like telling them to say “hi” to strangers and making them sit together in restaurants. National Post reporter, Tristan Hopper raised a a solid point in a recent article about city efforts to make citizens friendlier:

"In their quest to slay the perceived “chill” common to so many urban areas, these campaigns may be fighting a doomed battle to inject small town values into places that do not want them. Cities are — and always have been — institutions who thrive on the quiet agreement of strangers to keep to themselves. For in the close quarters and hubbub of a Canadian metropolis, often the most welcoming environment is the one in which there are no welcomes at all."

As I have written in several previous blog posts about connection and friendliness in the city, it is a personal choice to engage and be friendly with each other. In this respect, I believe that you get what you give, and have to respect that some people just don’t want to talk to strangers (and well, that is their problem, not yours).

The City’s responsibility is to provide great public spaces that enable spontaneous interactions. I hope that the Task Force’s suggestions that the City do more in this regard - whether it is by providing community bulletin boards, supporting block parties or promoting social inclusion in condos  - help bring people together.  But, the real work in creating connected, engaged communities is up to us as individuals.

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Photo:  Paul Krueger