Last September, City Planning sent out 12,000 letters to random households across Toronto. Each letter contained a personal invitation to participate in an exciting experiment aimed at diversifying the voices that contribute to Toronto’s planning process, so that it is more reflective of the most multicultural city in the world. The experiment, now approaching its first anniversary, is called the Toronto Planning Review Panel, and it is an engagement success story that I’m proud to say is a first, not just for Toronto, but for the whole world.
The process we used for selecting Panelists – called a Civic Lottery – is itself quite innovative, but it is not the innovation I am talking about here. Our innovation was to take the Civic Lottery – until now applied only to discrete processes lasting no more than a few months – and use it to establish an advisory committee with a two-year mandate to provide feedback on a variety of planning-related issues and projects.
At first, we weren’t sure what to expect. Would people be willing to commit to the 18 days over two years we were asking for? Would we be able to achieve the demographic diversity we were aiming for? What would the quality of the Panelists’ feedback be?
The first pleasant surprise was this: 503 people volunteered to be on the Panel, which equals a slightly more than four percent response rate. If that doesn’t seem terribly high to you, it is actually quite consistent with what our consultants, MASS LBP, have seen in other Civic Lotteries. It is also remarkable when you think about it another way: 1 in 20 Torontonians demonstrated their willingness to commit 18 Saturdays to serve their city, not to mention the many more people who, despite being unable to make the full commitment, checked a box indicating they wanted to be kept informed on the workings of the Panel and on any future opportunities to participate.
Those 503 volunteers were then sorted based on some simple demographic data they provided to us when returning their invitations – where in the city they lived; their sex and age group; whether they identified as a visible minority or Aboriginal; and whether they owned or rented their home. The final 28 Panelists where then selected at random by a computer program so that the group’s demographic profile matched that of the city as a whole as much as possible. The final Panel includes seven members for each Council District (North, South, East & West) with an equal number of male and female, as well as visible minority and white members. There are eight members between the ages of 18 and 29 (two per District, as recommended in our Youth Engagement Strategy), seven between the ages of 30-44, eight between the ages of 45-64 and five who are older than 65. Two Panelists also identify as Aboriginal. Finally, 13 Panelists were renters and 15 were owners of their homes at the time of selection.
Next, Panelists were put through a rigorous training program, consisting of four full Saturdays over two months. The program included modules on the inner workings of Toronto’s municipal government; demographic and economic trends; the Ontario planning framework and Toronto’s Official Plan; urban design; parks; transportation; the environment; and major initiatives of the City Planning Division. Over the course of those four days, Panelists also worked in small groups to draft their Guiding Document, which includes a series of principals and priorities to guide their term, as well as a Terms of Reference.
By the end of the four days of training, we knew we were onto something. Presenters who visited the Panel were consistently impressed: panelists were curious and eager to learn about Toronto and its planning process. Despite the hard work required, the energy in the room was upbeat and positive.
So we moved on to the next step, hopeful.
On January 23rd of this year, at its first official feedback session, the Panel was presented with City Planning’s draft Townhouse and Low-Rise Apartment Guidelines. You can download the summary of feedback provided by the Panel that day here. It’s important to note that these Guidelines were already in a draft form, so the Panel was providing feedback intended to refine a document that had already been shaped by stakeholder consultation. Nevertheless, my staff were very pleased by the Panel’s feedback. Diana Birchall, Program Manager, Urban Design, who is leading the development of the Guidelines, was impressed by the Panel’s sophisticated approach to dissecting the document. Their discussions were positive and constructive, focusing largely on the accessibility of the document to the lay person. The Panel also encouraged staff to put a greater emphasis on strategies for improving the safety, sustainability and family-friendliness of developments. As a result of this and other input, the Guidelines were significantly simplified and shortened; a new section was added that describes the characteristics of townhouse and low-rise apartment types, as well as desirable conditions and considerations for each; a new reference was made encouraging the use of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design principals and additional guidelines regarding sustainability and children friendly environments were added .
After the session, staff confided in me that they had never experienced a public consultation quite like it. It was clear that the Panelists were participating beyond their self-interest, thinking broadly about how their friends, neighbours and all Torontonians might be affected by the Guidelines, and how their lives might be improved by them.
Since then, the Panel has met two more times, and dealt with issues that include our TOcore and Growing UP studies, as well some interdivisional and extra-divisional projects such as Complete Streets and the Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan. In that time a few challenges have presented themselves.
We’ve struggled occasionally with crafting the right questions to be posed to the Panel. It has also been difficult, especially when projects are already pretty far along, to strike the right balance between providing enough detailed information to the Panel so that they can have a constructive conversation, and overwhelming members with more information than they can process (some of our work can get pretty technical!). This, we think, will become less of a problem over time, as the Panel is exposed to more projects earlier in their timelines, allowing Panelists to become familiar with them in a more natural progression.
Our consultants, MASS LBP, have remained deeply involved in the project to provide us with advice and guidance as we continue to refine the Panel. Their expertise has been invaluable – they really are an exceptional team of people – and they’re a big part of the success we’ve experienced so far.
The Planning Review Panel continues to be an experiment aimed at generating more meaningful feedback that is truly representative of the diversity of perspectives, experiences and interests that make our city the rich, interesting place that it is.
If we want to create a city for all, we need to find ways to ensure as many voices as possible are shaping our urban planning. To give you an example of the problem that we are trying to solve, at a recent meeting to discuss an LRT project on a Saturday morning this spring, my staff noted that of the 50 or so participants, few appeared to be under 70 years old, and almost all were white homeowners (and few of them were, in fact, transit users). These voices have a place in the process, but they should not be the only voices shaping our planning projects. The risk is that they often are.
The demographics of the area in question on this Saturday morning are not much different from the rest of the city: over 50% are not white, and almost 50% are renters, as opposed to home owners.
All voices are needed to shape our planning outcomes – or we will build a city that only serves some, not all. Diverse perspectives lead to outcomes – and infrastructure investments – that serve a diversity of interests. And this is why the Planning Review Panel – which truly reflects the demographic mix of the city – is such a necessary, worthwhile experiment.