How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?
I’ve been working in the field for over 5 years. I studied urban planning at the Masters level at McGill University in Montréal where I was instantly drawn to human-scale and participatory urban planning processes aimed to increase the appropriation of space by the user. I spent four years at Acertys, which specializes in community relations and public participation (now Hill + Knowlton). Currently, I’m a project manager at the Institut du Nouveau Monde, an organization whose mandate is to increase citizen participation in democratic life.
While working with Acertys, I had the chance to present (in collaboration with Ipsos Public Affairs) at the 2015 IAP2 North American Conference in Portland, on why Millennials are seem to be MIA (“Missing In Action”) from P2. We discussed research results regarding Millennials from different backgrounds to explore what young people consider to be P2, what factors influence their involvement, and how to better adapt our processes to hear young voices. I learned a great deal from the experience and have applied some of those key ideas in my own work. For example, if you want in-person consultation, go where the millennials are and blend with their busy lives; you have to empower them to be leaders in the P2 process by making information and expertise available and creating room for authentic, open dialogue.
The Institut du Nouveau Monde is recognized as a leader in youth engagement and debate on political and social issues. I’m looking forward to exploring new approaches to bring Millennials into the P2 processes.
What turned you on to P2 in the first place?
A lot of things. I have always been interested in seeing people become active in their communities and take ownership of their own neighbourhoods. Whether it’s developing a local walkability plan, looking at new ideas on urban agriculture or re-imagining the area around a Metro station, seeing citizens take part in those changes makes a city come alive.
I did my undergraduate studies in the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University, and I had the opportunity through my courses and projects to work with organizations that value community mobilization and social change. That opened my eyes to the idea of dialogue between citizens and officials; between experts and the users of a space.
One of the first P2 related projects I got to work on was a proposal for a project called “The Greening of MacKay”. This would have seen part of a street that runs through the Concordia campus turned into a green space for use by students during the summer. I did door-to-door consultation and interviews with local merchants and residents to see what the people involved felt about the proposal.
Did the plan go ahead?
Not entirely, but there have been initiatives to make the street more pedestrian-friendly – green spaces and vegetable planter boxes have been introduced where people can just sit and “be”. So seasonal “pedestrianization” didn’t happen, but the people had their say, and who knows what the future holds for that space?
Did the idea of “users as experts” seem new at the time?
My studies at the McGill School of Urban Planning served to legitimize the “user as expert” idea. It’s a very hands-on school and uses the city of Montréal as an urban laboratory, so we had many field-work projects in the city. One of my teachers, Lisa Bornstein, a pro-P2 mentor made sure that user-expert dialogue was a critical component of any urban planning process during our studio field work.
In the past decade, rapid development of social media and other technologies is also providing opportunities for citizens to take part in a whole new way. I think the expectation of the community to be meaningfully involved in decisions and projects that affect them has never been higher.
Have you had any “big wins”?
Just before I left Acertys, I carried out a mandate within the framework of a Programme Particulier d’Urbanisme (PPU – Specific Urban Redevelopment Project) for the Assomption neighbourhood in Montreal. We organized the preliminary consultation process entitled “Dessine-moi un quartier” – “Draw me a Neighbourhood” for which set up “drop-in” kiosks in busy places such as the Metro Station, local schools, and pedestrian areas. We used iPads to survey people on their ideas for the development they’d like to see.
We heard different ideas regarding public space, pedestrian and bike paths, the scale of new buildings, neighbourhood amenities, and employment.
There was a lot of potential for conflict around proposals for densification between long time property-owners and new investors. However when we ran two stakeholder design workshops, we were pleasantly surprised to see people having very constructive conversations. We underestimated the power of getting together face-to-face in a hands-on consultation process.
Right now, the process is in the hands of the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (Montréal Public Consultation Office). There was a public opinion session earlier this month and a report should be coming out in April.
I also had a personal “big win” with an exciting opportunity a couple of years ago teaching a Master’s level class at McGill – the same program I had been in. McGill’s Planning school offers various principles and practices courses taught by professionals in the field, and a few of us at Acertys were invited to teach a class on stakeholder engagement, public participation and conflict mediation. We guided students in exploring some methods, techniques, and tools that are used in P2 process design and implementation.
It was interesting to see students whose shoes I was in a couple of years before, to walk them through hands-on practical course work, and to witness the growing importance of P2 in the academic world of Urban Planning.
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …
I would say that the P2 field is one that can always be innovative. Like any profession, you can fall into old habits by “copy-pasting” a process that worked one time. P2 has to be approached case-by-case, always with fresh eyes and an open mind. It’s important to always adapt the process to different situations and audiences and to make the process accessible. An accessible process means not just physically but also open and adapted to those who have different ways of learning and different interests. Also, P2 should be fun!
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