Community Building

Last Saturday I spent the morning at an event led by my Member of Parliament. It was a meeting of the East End Sustainability Network.

My MP is very good at this sort of community involvement session: he holds two or three a month, on topics as diverse as elder care, Canada’s negotiations with the European Union for a free trade agreement, housing policy, and many others. He also invites the provincial MPP and city councillors that represent the area — and often the ones from the riding next to us as well. The idea is community education, discussion and connection-building, not “whose jurisdiction is this” or “what party are you from”.

(In forty years as a citizen of voting age, I have never before seen this kind of behaviour from an elected representative, but it’s a standard I’m going to insist upon in future!)

Since this was meant to be a working session, the traditional U-shaped table greeted us, and each person was asked to introduce themselves briefly. I had sat near the top of the “U” on the speaker’s left, and it turned out I was third-last to provide an introduction. Up until that point, everyone had been there on behalf of a community group — people interested in the environment, in local power generation, in transit, in food distribution, in urban farming and community gardening, in community housing, just to name a few.

So it comes to me, and I say “I’m Bruce Stewart, and I’m an unaffiliated interested citizen.” This created a positive stir.

The reason I’m talking about this is to point out a dichotomy that exists in community building. To get something done, you need organisation. To keep something open, you need to keep attracting people who thus far aren’t affiliated to you.

What’s really critical, in fact, is to engage with people who don’t have time to be part of your organisation, but want to know more, or take part, in an unofficial way. This could be because they have other organisational commitments of their own (I, for instance, am working with Transition Toronto on the upcoming Energy Descent Action Plan event, but that’s a city-wide thing and I’m just a volunteer, not an official, there anyway). When someone introduces themselves as being “from” an organisation, there’s an expectation set that they’re in some official capacity, and not being like that (even if you are volunteering time, energy or resources) should allow you to keep your involvement quiet.

The work we did was to take maps of the area and mark on them every community facility — and every place that could be used for some new ones — that we could recall. We were broken into multiple small groups to do this.

Why the duplication, both of the groups, and of the information (much of it is readily available from other sources, both the organisations represented in the room and public websites)? I think because each group would have its own “bent”, both individually and as a small group — and that the “opportunities” would therefore differ.

Our group, for instance, noted the possibility for solar power generation along the rail line that slices through the community: for safety reasons (and old sidings that have been removed as factories were closed) there is a broad corridor of land fenced off protecting the three-track main. There is room (and clear sight lines on this east-west corridor to the south on both sides of the track) for panels to be erected and serviced using the track access roads. That, in turn, could provide power to the homes on either side of the line, allowing their rooftops to have solar hot water heating instead.

Our group also noted that some sites would require choices. There is a Liquor Control Board of Ontario retail outlet — basically, a large single storey box store — opposite where we held the meeting. The roof could be used for electrical generation — or urban farming — or simply as a “green roof” to add much needed oxygen along a busy street. We didn’t try to choose, we simply noted that a publicly-owned facility (the LCBO is owned by the provincial government) would be easier to “put to work”, but the conflicting choices would have to be resolved before undertaking the arduous task of getting the civil servants involved to think outside their boxes and say “yes”.

We also noted where construction opportunities lay. This took us far outside the kind of groups around the table, but we’d had brought to our attention how one pocket neighbourhood was a “safe for children to play outside” zone because the streets dead ended. There was a vibrant discussion about whether consciously restricting residential area streets from through traffic through one-way mazes, cross-street planters (making dual dead ends), etc. made sense — or whether, Jane Jacobs’ style, the street grid able to handle many different patterns was really the key. But we noted that the old high streets in the community were suffering, and pointed out sites — again, a number currently in public ownership — that could be developed to add a mix of workplaces, retail and homes to those high streets and thus deepen the community as a place again. We also noted what we thought should be limits on this, after a short discussion of places people had been that they particularly felt worked well as mixed-use communities.

(Much of the thinking in Vancouver’s “Green City” initiative follows this kind of thinking.)

The work to make any of this happen will ultimately come from the organisations who were represented, of course: that’s their purpose. The coming together, though, is a key part of building the community as a whole (and drawing in people like me, who aren’t affiliated).

You know you’re getting somewhere when people insist the momentum matters more than their personal lives … this meeting ended with an insistence that we meet during the summer, rather than do the usual thing and wait for the fall. Our MP has already organised the next get together, in July.

Out of such simple things, communities build.

(There is something in this — beyond “votes next time” — for him, too. He’s an opposition MP, and in a majority government situation [what we have now] there’s not much an opposition MP can do to get policy enacted. But next time he hopes that at the very least we’ll have another minority. These sessions, for him, are part of thinking through what policies should be put forward when the time comes, so that time isn’t wasted after the election sorting out what to do — and the involvement of the other two levels of government is to avoid the jurisdictional issues by having issues come up and let each hear what they need to decide what to do. As I said, smart thinking.)


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