I trekked over to Queensbury Centre this morning to join Paul Dechene for the second day of the National Infrastructure Summit. While Paul attended a workshop on Financing, I went to one on Citizen Engagement. We’ll have more on the Summit in our Feb. 10 issue, but here’s a few thoughts on my session.

Participants included Montreal Mayor Gérard Tremblay; Jonathan Levine, an University of Michigan Urban Planning professor; Jennifer Keesmatt, a partner in the Toronto urban planning and design firm Dialog; and Philippe Leclerc, Interactive Communications Manager at City of Regina.

In the two-hour workshop, they explored the role of public consultation when municipalities were involved in major initiatives. When should it be done, how should it be done, what were some of the pitfalls, what were some of the benefits, stuff like that.

Mayor Tremblay spoke first. He concentrated on the political advantages of consultation. At one end of the spectrum, he noted, there was the idea that politicians were elected to govern, and that if people didn’t like the direction a city was headed, they had an opportunity every four years to vote for change. As Montreal mayor, his approach was the polar opposite. He viewed consultation as an essential pillar of participatory democracy. Under his stewardship, a formal agency had been set up in Montreal to facilitate public consultation, an ombudsman’s position had been created to investigate public concerns, and a mechanism had been established for citizens to demand a referendum if they objected to something the city was planning to do. While this could seem like a recipe for gridlock, he said it was his experience that the guidelines that had been put in place to mandate community engagement inevitably led to compromises being hammered out that everyone could accept.

Johnathan Levine was a bit of a contrarian. In his talk he raised the spectre of NIMBYism run amuck. With virtually any civic project, the most vociferous objections are likely to come from people in the immediate vicinity — if only because the project introduces an element of change into their neighbourhood, and people are naturally wary of change. Those people have the greatest incentive to organize against a project. The benefits that a given project will deliver in a city, conversely, are likely to be more widespread. They’re there, but the likelihood of people organizing and campaigning to promote them are much less. Excessive reliance on public consultation, therefore, could potentially frustrate worthwhile planning initiatives.

Jennifer Keesmatt should be familiar to many Reginans. Since 2007 she’s been one of the driving forces behind the downtown revitalization process. With her Office for Urbanism colleagues, she devised and implemented an exhaustive series of stakeholder consultations, workshops and townhall meetings to gather input on the future of downtown Regina. Like Mayor Tremblay, she regarded consultation as fundamental to democracy. To make it work, though, it was important to ask the right questions, to devote time and resources to understanding the complexities of planning issues, and to empower and inform people so they can participate meaningfully in the process. To thwart the type of NIMBYism Levine spoke of, she advised establishing clear and transparent policies at the city level so that parochial interests aren’t able to derail initiatives (like sustainability) that have been identified as being in the broader public interest.

The final speaker, Philippe Leclerc, spoke about new technological tools that exist for cities to communicate with citizens and gather feedback. Facebook and Twitter are two obvious examples. If you’re talking about complex planning issues, they necessarily have their limitations. But they are another way for cities to promote citizen engagement.

One final thought from me. The workshop wasn’t called Taxpayer Engagement. Or Customer Engagement. Those two terms are tropes that are often thrown around these days by generally conservative minded politicians and pundits who want to see the role of government in society reduced. If we regard ourselves as “customers” of city services, it tends to promote a sense of self-centred entitlement (ie. the customer is always right). Similarly, “taxpayer” focuses too much on the cost of government without acknowledging the many benefits we derive from public services. Yes, the challenges of functioning as a “citizen” in a modern democracy are many and great. But so too are the rewards.