A few months ago I stumbled upon a tweet from an Australian design firm extolling the virtues of an initiative they call “Holding Public Office.” In essence, once a month, they find a fabulous public space and take the people and the equipment of their firm into the light of day for inspiration, to expose the world to their design process, and to enliven the work they do every day. They shape and define the public realm by connecting with the people and the places that matter to their professional practice. I was inspired by this interactive way to plan a city by engaging people directly as they go about their daily activities.
Around the same time, in consultations with my Division on our Strategic Plan (to be released this fall), I heard again and again from planners* around the table about the need to plan differently, to enliven engagement, and to find ways to make planning practice more accessible to the residents of this city.
Now, to set the context, in the City Planning Division we hold over 350 public meetings a year – and many more workshops – engaging thousands of residents. Our challenge, however, is that many of these interactions are in response to a development application and as such the conversations are reactionary, and specific. We also consult more broadly, such as in Feeling Congested?, in our Avenue studies or in our Employment Lands or Condo consultations. But in terms of getting out and just talking about the work that we do everyday, how the planning process works, and asking for input more generally, there are gaps. Your planners at the City of Toronto identified this, and wanted to do something about it.
So as an outcome of the Strategic Plan consultations, and even before the plan was drafted, I proposed a series of Quick Hits for my Division to engage, to the extent that there was interest to move these ideas forward using sheer will, and from the side of a desk, recognizing that there where few other resources to make these ideas real.
It’s amazing what a few committed people can do to make something from nothing but a good idea.
Six staff put their hands in the air to create and spearhead Planners in Public Spaces. Giulio Cescato volunteered to be the project lead, outlining an action plan to turn the kernel of my idea into something much more within a few short months. He proposed and implemented a Divisional twitter handle (@CityPlanTO), and worked with his team to develop a multitude of locations, programs and partnerships to bring the idea to life (including snazzy invites to alert Councillors to key dates).
The result is Planners in Public Spaces (PiPs) a month-long initiative that will see pop-up City Planning information booths at various events and locations across the city. The public will be invited to learn what Toronto City Planners do, develop a greater understanding of planning issues, ask questions, and find out how they can get involved. For details visit Planners in Public Spaces
PiPs recognizes the very public nature of the work that we do, and therefore the need and desire of planners to continually find new ways to work collaboratively with the communities they serve. Clearly, the public service has a role to play in facilitating a conversation about good planning outcomes and the analysis and methodologies that underpin professional planning practice.
PiPs is about inviting more voices into planning practice, by providing opportunities for one-on-one conversations with the very people who have dedicated their professional life to playing a seminal role in providing reasoned, sound advice to City council.
A shout out to the amazing team that mobilized PiPs. Thank you to:
Project Lead: Giulio Cescato
Logistics and Launch Event Lead: David Hunter
North District Leads: Vanessa Covello, Doug Stiles
East District Lead: Carly Bowman
West District Lead: Jack Krubnik
South District Leads: Sarah Henstock, Heather Inglis-Baron
Graphics & Visualization Leads: Anu Saini and Carolyn Humphreys
* by “planners” I mean to refer to all of the planners within the City Planning Division, a term which I use broadly here to include community, policy, heritage and transportation planners, as well as urban design staff and site plan technicians)