After a rich and robust dialogue at ULI’s Fireside Chat with Mayor Tory last week that focused primarily on planning issues such as midrise development and embracing innovation in our city building, the Mayor was asked for a closing comment. Mayor Tory chose to shift the conversation significantly, by commenting on the importance of fairness. Acknowledging recent data released by the United Way that exposes the widening gap between the rich and the poor in Toronto, Mayor Tory exhorted everyone in the room to recognize the significance of the challenge before us, and the need to prioritize ensuring all Torontonians have the opportunity to thrive.
Broadening participation in our city building processes underpins creating an equitable city, too. In a recent poll undertaken by Ipsos Reid, we learned that of the thousands upon thousands who have participated in our city planning processes over the years, participants have been primarily white, over 55 and home owners. Anyone who knows a thing or two about Toronto knows that our city is mostly foreign born and non-white, and the fastest growing demographic in some parts of the city – like our downtown core, which is driving our condo boom – is under 35. In addition, nearly 40% of Torontonians are renters.
So some of our most critical processes that are necessary to shape municipal policy in a democracy are lacking essential voices and perspectives. The policy we develop in City Planning manages and directs growth – having implications for where tax dollars are spent, and how growth is accommodated moving forward.
For this reason, and in response to our mandate in the Official Plan to “create a city for all,” we are broadening participation in City Planning with the goal of making Toronto the most engaged city in North America – at least where planning is concerned. For example, we are beginning to see social media as an essential tool – for communicating engagement opportunities with the public, but also for engaging people who might not otherwise feel comfortable (or able, due to physical, financial, family or work constraints) participating in a community meeting. So we’re focusing on using social media better. As part of our extensive Eglinton Connects study, for example, 25% of participants heard of the opportunity to participate through social media. We’ve also been working with the City Manager’s Office to pilot IdeaSpaceTO, which is essentially a social media tool that facilitates a high quality online discussion between residents and the City. We’re also expanding the use of alternative forms of media to help shed some light on our most important projects. That’s why, as part of our Relief Line planning process, we launched an introductory video to answer some of the big questions in an easily accessible format. Expect more such videos in the future.
But we also know that online tools cannot entirely replace in-person engagement. We understand that it is important to bring real voices from the broad demographics that make up our city into the room for some of the detailed debates and conversations that inevitably shape our work. For this reason, we are currently working on creating two new advisory bodies that will work with us to ensure a wide cross-section of voices are heard in our planning processes. These are:
City Planning Advisory Panel
The new proposed changes to the Planning Act will require that all municipalities in Ontario have one of these, but we’ve actually been thinking about this since we launched Growing Conversations a year ago. I don’t want to jump the gun by giving away too much here, but expect a panel of randomly selected residents from across the city, representing each of the four Community Council Districts, and operating on a two-year term cycle. These residents will advise us on everything from development applications to policy development, as well as acting as animators within their own communities to increase engagement generally.
City Planning Youth Advisory Panel
One of the key recommendations coming out of our Youth Engagement Strategy process is the development of a City Planning Youth Advisory Panel. This will be a panel of 10-15 youth, ages 18-30, that will function in a similar way to the larger City Planning Advisory Panel, by providing input into our processes from a youth perspective, and helping to increase youth engagement in our planning processes overall.
Our objective is to have both of these entities up and running as pilots by the end of the year. We are currently creating a protocol with clear parameters around the role and purpose of these panels.
Once the panels are in place, they will provide feedback on the policy recommendations that City Planning makes, before key items are at City Council. This feedback, input and perspective will assist us in better ensuring that our recommendations are reflective of the incredible diversity in this city.
And our city building will be better for it.
For more information on Growing Conversations, visit www.toronto.ca/growingconversations.