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[With video] 3 ways to make your public consultation process a success

October 10, 2019

By Molly Smith

Public consultation should be considered an integral strategy for your project—and not just an item to check off a list

Too many people think of public consultation as a “checklist” item for their development project. You know, something to get through as quickly as possible to check it off the list and move on. But what happens, instead, when you make public consultation an integral strategy for your project’s success?

Don’t think of public consultation as tedious or unpleasant. Instead, recognize it as an opportunity for consultants to really understand what the future users of your site want and need, and for the public to understand the design process.

In the province of Ontario, the Planning Act requires public consultation for development applications. So, most municipalities opt to hold that mandated public meeting at planning committee or other sessions staffed by members of a municipal or city council. But is that really the most appropriate time?

In my experience with public consultation, my team and I have found that hosting meetings in different formats and targeting different audiences has provided us with really important information. It enables us to get down to real issues and ideas; we receive invaluable input on our designs.

Recognize it as an opportunity for consultants to really understand what the future users of your site want and need, and for the public to understand the design process.

Let me give you a recent example—the Booth Street Redevelopment project in Ottawa. In March 2019, my team and I completed this project with Canada Lands Company, a federal Crown corporation responsible for redeveloping former Government of Canada properties. Canada Lands Company retained us to prepare a master plan for an entire block in Ottawa occupied by seven industrial/office buildings. National Resources Canada once used these buildings for research and testing in mining and metallurgy, as well as the development of fuels, explosives, and economic minerals. We undertook this work in collaboration with ERA Architects, who completed the heritage assessment for the site. The master plan for the Booth Street site envisions a mixed-use space in the heart of Ottawa’s Preston/Carling neighborhood that creates a vibrant and engaging public realm, tying together heritage and contemporary buildings.

Molly Smith, third from right, discusses the Booth Street Redevelopment project with community members. 

I watch many projects—especially projects of this scale—frequently encounter roadblocks during the planning process and I’ve also seen projects receive negative feedback from the public, who often say that their opinions aren’t being heard. We avoided these issues, and I think it was because of Canada Lands’ leadership and our thorough and continuous public consultation process that we developed together.

The process for the Booth Street Redevelopment was so successful, that we not only had a unanimous approval of Canada Lands’ master plan’s Official Plan and Zoning By-law Amendment at planning committee and city council, but we also only had six comments from the public—and residents asked to be kept informed of future progress and developments. Also to note, the chair of planning committee commended our client on the process of the project and work with the public, noting that it’s a relative rarity to have no opposing comments on such a large urban redevelopment project.

With the positive reinforcement from city council, client, and the public, I’d like to share the three benefits I found from creating an engaging public consultation process.

1. Bring people in at the beginning to share ideas

Our first meeting was planned to set the tone of the public engagement process by allowing the public to share their ideas first, before ours. The key to starting on the right foot was hosting an information meeting with the public.

Information sessions don’t typically happen where we seek out the public’s ideas first, because the public’s ideas are viewed as an “extra.” We viewed these ideas as vital. At this first session, all we provided were aerial images of the site, sticky notes to write ideas for the site, and question and comment sheets. Initially I think this caught people off-guard. Too often, the community comes to one of these meetings ready to fight a preexisting plan or idea. But this was an opportunity for everyone to learn what the project was, who the client was, the client’s intent, and what the project was all about. It allowed people to feel engaged and valued.

The sticky notes residents wrote gave us insight into what the site needed and what the community wanted. These sticky-note ideas included everything from requests for a grocery store, retaining heritage buildings, commercial uses, a playground for kids, museums, affordable housing, and better architecture.

The ideas and feedback informed what we already knew about the site and where we wanted to take the consultations process. It became a collaborative process with the community.

A concept image for the Booth Street Redevelopment master plan, integrating the heritage buildings with new development and public realm.

2. Create transparency between consultants and public

We had a few different formats of public meetings—information sessions, public advisory committee (PAC) meetings, and open houses. All these meetings were designed to gather as much information from the public as possible and to share our work with them.

At each meeting, our team took the input from participants and integrated that into the design. We were able to show comments from the open houses or PAC meetings, and how they directly influenced the design. The public said they wanted Canada Lands to keep the smokestack—a utilitarian feature from the site’s previous industrial uses. Our team didn’t initially think to keep it.  But the public told us it was a defining icon of the site. So, thanks to that input, the smokestack has been integrated into the design and, at the final open house, people who participated in earlier sessions commented that we listened to them because they saw the smokestack in the plans and model.

This consultation work didn’t just help create a master plan; it helped the public understand the process as well. Development applications can be complicated, and they’re not always easy for members of the public to understand, so it’s not common to create a master plan with significant public input. By hosting so many meetings, we helped engage community members to better understand our work and why their input is so important to the team.

3. See it as a community building opportunity

Too often in large-scale urban redevelopment projects, public consultation doesn’t happen at the beginning of the project, but rather further along in the redevelopment process. But when you delay public consultation, you’re likely to see opposing public opinions emerge, or a general “us vs them” attitude. That’s not what community-building is about.

Throughout the master plan process for the Booth Street project, our team emphasized that we needed community input—early and often. By gathering and sharing new ideas and creating transparency, the community understood that this block respects their needs.

Stantec’s Molly Smith and ERA Architects’ Victoria Angel lead a walking tour of the Booth Street area for Jane’s Walk.

A plan approved by everyone

In the end, Booth Street was a huge success. I have been able to share the project and public consultation strategy through Jane’s Walks—citizen-led walking tours inspired by the principles of urbanist Jane Jacobs—and leading a walking tour for the Canadian Institute of Planning Conference. By assisting our client with execution of the public consultation strategy, we produced a plan that was unanimously approved by council and the public.

Public consultation offers an opportunity for meaningful, impactful community building. It provides the public and consultants the chance to share ideas and come up with a plan that respects both the community and the client’s goals. Keep these points in mind when you begin a redevelopment project. Having the community on your side is indispensable.

In collaboration with Canada Lands Company, the Booth Street Redevelopment project has won an Ottawa Urban Design Award in the Visions and Master Plans category.

  • Molly Smith

    As a landscape designer, Molly brings both planning and design experience from across North America. She’s passionate about creating innovative, thoughtful, creative spaces people can enjoy and call home.

    Contact Molly
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