On 24 May, the City of Kingston Planning Department and the consultant the City has engaged, Dialog, hosted a public consultation about visions for the Old Industrial Area and the Inner Harbour. It was a solid turnout, perhaps 60 people. Dialog’s principal, Antonio Gomez-Palacio, has a good record asserting the importance of public transit and meaningful public engagement; he started the firm Dialog with Jennifer Keesmat, now the Toronto chief planner, who is known for her outspoken support for mid-rise development and a walkable city. So on the face of it they look like a promising choice for this consultation. However, there were a few mis-steps, one being that after we sat quietly through a pretty long slideshow, Gomez-Palacio said something to the effect of “we are eager for your feedback, and this ends the meeting.” It didn’t, quite, because it turned out lots of people did stay and had quite a lot of chance to talk with consultants and staff around large maps and other posters — but in the light of past experiences Kingston residents have had with non-consultative consultations, the statement was a bit jarring.
People were invited to put sticky notes on maps, and they did, like this:
They were also invited to put red or green dots on posters which had images of features one might imagine for the “North King’s Town” area — features such as community gardens, hotels, schools, and so on. Much one-on-one or small cluster discussion took place between residents and between residents and staff or consultants. I met some people I had not met before and enjoyed talking with them.
The problem was, it wasn’t and isn’t yet clear how those post-it-sized ideas will be documented, digested, and compared. A sticky-note by its nature makes every idea sound simplistic and dogmatic. The dot-sized stickers are worse: some of us didn’t realize that the red dots were supposed to mean “no” and the green dots “yes” and merrily just used the colour of dot at the top of the pile. This format is quite infantilizing, more or less asking us to stick up our hand when our favourite ice cream is called. In the consultation summary posted online, ideas were simply listed, with no sense of which were most often or most forcefully articulated, or how they related to one another. For example, the summary reports that there were “a range of comments about the Wellington Street Extension.” And yet, to my ears at least, that range may have consisted of 2 people in favour, and 30 against. And in fact, we were not encouraged to discuss the topic (sound familiar?) — despite the fact that City staff were instructed to do this planning process specifically to consult on the WSE.
Is this “inclusive” sort of reporting, making sure to nod to outliers, actually accurate? Is it productive? If we have to choose between ideas, we should surely do it by some combination of considering which ideas are held by the most people, and which ideas are best supported by evidence. And that evidence must be gathered according to current best practices, not old-school traffic management assumptions. Will Dialog and its consultant partners help Kingston up its game in terms of quality and transparent evidence? Will it include facts about how much Kingston has to reduce greenhouse gases to meet national targets? Will it help Kingston improve the ways it fosters productive and democratic participation by residents?
Such questions are why it is so important for people to come to the next meeting on this secondary plan, Monday June 20, THIS Monday that is, at 630 at the Portuguese Cultural Centre (the old bus station) at 959 Division Street. We were told that at this meeting Dialog will present some beginning ideas for the visioning arising from what they have heard so far.
There is also opportunity for public input on Wednesday night at Fluhrer Park and on Saturday in Skeleton Park, but we are told that consultants will not be present at these events. If you actually want to hear from and talk with those who will be formulating the outcome of this process, come on Monday! We might have expected one of the consultation meetings to take place in the Inner Harbour/Swamp Ward area — Mulberry School? St. Pat’s? Calvary Church? — but that is not planned. So, come on Monday!
Remember: this process could have a huge effect on the downtown core of Kingston and the places we live, work, and play. That effect could be good, or it could be bad. Let’s dialog with Dialog so they can come up with the kinds of change and preservation that are best for those who live here.
Did I remember to say come on Monday :)?
— Laura Murray