An unusual king tide of regional, city and neighbourhood planning efforts is hitting the Lower Mainland this fall, leading to concerns about “consultation fatigue,” as residents are inundated with requests to attend meetings, fill out surveys, offer opinions or speak at city council.
The wave of intense planning and consultation has been exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, according to planners and consultation specialists, because local governments were briefly unable to get public input on significant moves. Public consultations often take place as part of the planning processes for public works, private developments and master plans.
Now, the public-consultation phases of several major projects are all hitting at once. Those include a Metro Vancouver 2050 plan that looks at how to accommodate one million more residents in the region, a TransLink 2050 plan that foresees 300 kilometres of new rapid transit, a city of Vancouver plan also focused on accommodating new residents and businesses, and a building plan for the city’s Broadway corridor.
Vancouver is also at work on a new vision for the city’s historic South False Creek community, a new policy for encouraging construction of rental housing and a master plan for the Jericho lands, which are being developed by the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-waututh First Nations.
Although there is some evidence that project-addled Vancouverites were starting to ignore entreaties to provide feedback on all these plans, policies and visions, officials say new outreach strategies are helping convince people to weigh in.
“When COVID first showed up, most organizations delayed engagement and were trying to figure out how online would work. And then, people are tired. They’re asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’” said Susanna Haas Lyons, a public-engagement expert who has seen public participation levels in projects drop to what she calls “the lowest I’ve ever seen.”
Vancouver city councillor Michael Wiebe said people in the area he knows best – the strip of land along Broadway that includes Mount Pleasant, Fairview and Kitsilano, the epicentre of numerous plans – are especially stressed about everything they’re being asked to weigh in on.
It’s frustrating for some of them, he added, because some plans seem so general and abstract that it’s hard for an average person to tell what’s really coming or when anything will happen.
“They’ve been going to meetings and meetings and waiting to see where the shoe is going to drop,” Mr. Weibe said.
Other plans are so detailed and seem so predetermined that they’ve sent some residents into what he describes as a frenzy of anxiety.
But not all projects are hurting for participation. Spokespeople for Metro Vancouver and TransLink said both organizations are are still getting high numbers of responses to their draft plans.
Early in the pandemic, Metro Vancouver was concerned about consultation fatigue and slowed down its outreach briefly. “We found that pivoting to more online formats actually increased attendance and engagement at events,” said Heather McNell, the general manager of planning for the regional district.
At the city of Vancouver, the story was similar. “With COVID, it took us a few months to pivot. But we’re learning a lot,” said Susan Haid, the city’s deputy director in charge of long-term planning.
One technique that has been helpful in boosting public engagement, local officials say, is using more photos and videos in presentations, to help people visualize changes. The shift to virtual meetings has also been helpful, they say. Now, not everyone who wants to participate in a three-hour evening planning session needs to leave home.
The city’s recent presentation on the Jericho Lands development, for example, brought out 225 people to a real-world meeting. But another 450 people have watched a video recording of the presentation online.
And staff say some residents are even asking for more consultation.
“The numbers and engagement are definitely different post-COVID. But a piece we’ve been hearing is the desire for more consultation on everything,” Ms. Haid said.
The requests are coming in part from groups that are alarmed about what they see as an uncomfortable level of change in Vancouver. But there have also been calls for more consultation from groups that like that change and want more of a say in it, including young people, people interested in climate-change efforts and renters.
Public participation tends to increase as people see more specifics about a plan. Planners on Vancouver’s Broadway-corridor project said they expect to see a big wave of public comment when a detailed version of the plan is released next week.
But one independent planning expert questioned whether all this consultation is what’s really needed right now.
“Is it the time to be doing even more engagement?” wondered Tegan Smith, principal of Channel Consulting. “I don’t think we’re putting our energy in the right direction.”
The region is facing a massive housing crisis that should be dealt with immediately, she said, rather than after years of planning processes.
“The best investment we could do is a massive decluttering of all the policies that exist already,” she said.
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