Citizen engagement front and centre of new initiatives

What is your vision for your community in the next 20 years?

The City of Calgary recently asked this question to a group of nearly 40 Dover residents; the general consensus was a community that is safe, quiet and fun for kids.

Based on this feedback, City representatives will return to the southeast community later this month to present a list of small-scale improvement projects that can be completed within a year. Community members will get to prioritize the projects.

Dover is one of 14 communities selected for the new This is My Community initiative, which the City says is just one example of the different ways it is trying to foster greater civic engagement.

“We’re going to where people are to have conversations,” said Lara Tierney, engage team lead with the City of Calgary.

“We really think about who we need to have the conversation with, what we want to know from them and what decisions are going to be impacted by that. Once we know that, we start to think about what is the best way to achieve it.”

For example, City representatives went to Shaw Millennium Park in August to ask park users and other citizens if the public skate park should continue to be open 24 hours a day or align with other parks in the city, which are open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.

They also collected online feedback and reviewed police crime statistics before deciding to keep the skate park open 24 hours a day.

The City defines engagement as “purposeful dialogue… to influence decision making,” and has a policy that directs consistent public engagement opportunities that go beyond open houses.

Calgarian Kiran Somanchi (pictured, third from right) volunteers with the City’s Public Art Board and was a member of Bow to Bluff, a citizen-led group that received City funding to gather public input on ways to improve the corridor along the Sunnyside LRT line from the Bow River to McHugh Bluff in the northwest.

The 32-year-old engineer knows many people aren’t willing or able to invest as much time as he does, but believes every citizen has the right to help shape the future of Calgary.

“I think the key is you need to let people give feedback whenever works for them,” he said. “You need to allow people to be engaged without having to take time out of their busy schedules.”

He suggests sounding boards – a public bulletin board that people can quickly add their opinions to as they walk by – and mobile-friendly online interaction.

Tierney says the City has seen an increase in online feedback; however, it’s difficult to gauge if broader engagement practices are resulting in an overall increase in citizen participation.

She believes Calgarians are much more motivated to speak up when they’re passionate about a project – regardless of how the city is collecting input.

For example, the City held more than 100 public engagement opportunities around the downtown cycle track network, which attracted droves of Calgarians. Yet the development still took some people by surprise.

“I still get emails from people, business owners along the cycle track, who say they had no idea this was coming,” says Tom Babin, an avid cyclist, author and journalist with the Calgary Herald.

Babin believes the toughest part of fostering civic engagement, is reaching people who are not already engaged.

“The City is probably doing a better job than they ever have, but they’re not reaching everyone,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is but to keep trying.”

Visit calgary.ca/engage to find upcoming public engagement events.