Saturday, November 10, 2012

Listen In: Report

Listen In is a community engagement process inaugurated by the UNA October 2012.  The objective of Listen In is to expand and develop upon the UNA’s community engagement and public accountability in the area of emergent and longstanding issues of resident concerns.  UNA Directors and Staff were invited to participate as listeners and observers.  Community volunteers moderated and facilitated the workshop.  Community residents provided comments, direction, and input.  

The rationale for Listen In arises out of the UNA’s role in the delivery of services, such as community centre programs and community services cards, with reasonable effectiveness.  The UNA is more than just a service provider. The UNA acts as the clearinghouse for the engagement and voice of a diverse group of residents who have selected the University Town as their home.  Listen In thus provides a direct, public, and transparent mechanism to build upon and to enhance the UNA’s democratic reach and practice. 

Listen In used the device of a discussion circle (in which each participant's voice is respected and dialogue -not debate- is prioritized) to solicit community comment.  Each participant had an opportunity to speak, without debate or argument.  Comments were recorded in two ways: by a volunteer (Maria Harris, Metro Electoral Area A Director) on flip chart paper that was then put up in clear view of all in the room, and by UNA Director Charles Menzies using a recording device that captured audio and his own handwritten notes.  Both outputs were subsequently placed online so that all participants and interested members of the public could view the meeting proceedings unedited (see

The first Listen In session was held October 30, 2012.  The primary topic put to community members was:  “what are your thoughts on development, housing, and our public spaces?”  Participants were asked to address this larger issue in three rounds address the following three sub-questions: (1) what works? (2) What needs improvement? (3) What more can we do? The facilitator had the meeting identify the priority items under question 2 (what needs improvement) and from there the participants identified a set of action items related to the 3rd question, what needs improvement.

Attached to this report are copies of the flip charts and Menzies’ notes.  This information is submitted to the board for your information. A more detailed discussion and set of recommendations on taking action based upon the community consultation will be held in the next Governance Standing Committee meeting (November 27, 2012).

Summary of key points from Oct. 30th Listen In

What works?

The general theme of comments under this heading was that our community is a beautiful and exciting place to live.  The advantages of having the forest to one side, the ocean on another, and a world-class university and yet a third side made this a desirable and wonderful place to live and to raise one’s family.  There is a diversity of people –ages, cultures, occupations- that contributes to the vitality of the residential neighbourhoods.  The type of housing, with a generally groundfloor entry orientation, and the mass of pedestrian friendly walk ways further adds to the positive, safe, and enjoyable feel of the UNA areas.

What needs improvement?

Under this category the volunteer note taker recorded each participants idea.  Then the facilitator asked audience members to select their top three priority concerns.  The full list of ‘needs improvements’ can be found in the attached pdf notes.  For the purposes of this report I have highlighted the top three items.
1.     Towers – density and massing concerns
2.     Resident rights – need to be consistent with other urban areas
3.     Consultative process for planning – needs improvements
These areas of improvement are all matters that the UNA has no direct control over.  Our best avenue to address these areas that need improvement is to be more proactive in our advocacy on behalf of neighbourhhod residents.

What more can be done- action items.

Three general categories of action items were identified.
1.     Communications –improve communications between UNA and members; between resident and UBC; between residents and our neighbours.
2.     Advocacy – work to include residents in decision making related to planning; focus on improving UBC response to residents; lobby provincial government; educate residents to become more involved in the UNA
3.     Action – conduct comprehensive social and environmental assessment of cumulative impact of housing development; UBC/UNA joint study of the public realm (what is working/what could be improved); working group on integrating new immigrant residents into wider community.

Of these three categories improved communications was the most frequently mentioned.  Suggestions included:
·      having the secretary of the UNA write a monthly column in the Campus Resident
·      ‘Ramp up the Dialogue’ – make direct contact and have regular meeting with the BoG, C&CP, surrounding residents, UBC students (commuter and residential)
·      develop more and improved mechanisms for communicating with new residents
·      try again to improve overall resident participation in the UNA

The advocacy group of action items is the mostly likely to lead to long terms solutions but also those most likely to result in controversy.  For example, significant support was expressed for a moratorium on further development until the full environmental, social, and economic impacts on all residents in the University area (students, UEL, Point grey, and UNA) was determined.  Another strongly supported suggestion was to lobby for the establishment of a real municipality west of Blanca.

The three main Action category items – a social and environmental impact assessment of the planned density ramp up and a joint UBC/UNA study of the adequacy of the public realm are two things that could be identified as doable in the medium term.  Given UBC’s public support of sustainability conducting a social and environmental impact assessment is something that one could assume there would be wide spread support and encouragement for from within the UBC administration, student advocacy groups, and neighbouring residential communities.  The same could be said for a study of the public realm. 


Overall I am pleased with how this event worked out and believe that we have a model that is worth repeating.  Holding such meetings provide community members with an avenue to share concerns and positive feedback.  Too often people in our society face defensive officials unwilling to listen.  We, staff and directors present, showed those community members who came out that we could listen without acting defensive. I have had the opportunity over the course of my professional career as a researcher to see many community meetings erupt into disarray as local government officials attempted to control the outcome.  However, in the few times that I have seen local officials listen and record far more positive outcomes followed.   Our Listen In series has the potential to set a new higher standard for community-based democratic practice.

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