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Co-creating Change at the Neighbourhood Level

Co-creating Change at the Neighbourhood Level

Posted by: Mark Holmgren / March 16, 2020

Recently, Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada published the results of a survey gauging Canadians’ attitudes toward the economy, their perceived degree of power and influence over their own lives, and the roles that cooperatives might play in improving conditions for Canadians.

According to David Coletto, who wrote about the study on the Abacus Data site:

“The feeling of vulnerability, powerlessness, or not being sufficiently in control over one’s life forms the basis for much of the anxiety in society today. More than half of Canadians (58%) don’t feel in control over their lives, and younger Canadians are more likely to feel this way.”

 

Concerns related to this feeling include:

  • housing affordability, 
  • income & inequality, 
  • having influence on government policy, 
  • polarization in society, 
  • immigration policy, and
  • precarious work


Such concerns are common among the residents and business owners in the neighbourhoods in which the CDC works.

While this survey focused on the attitudes of individual Canadians, neighbourhoods tend to view these concerns as collectives, not only as individuals. There is typically a clear understanding of the connection between neighborhood development and the individual aspirations of its people.

Often, in the context of community engagement and community development, neighbourhoods (especially urban core neighbourhoods) are the subjects of initiatives and policy decisions, rather than contributors who influence actions and systems.

The problems that exist in these neighbourhoods are typically addressed through government and charitable programs, which tend to employ stove-piped, top-down strategies. However, intractable problems like poverty, indecent work, homelessness, affordable housing, and drug trafficking occur in neighbourhoods. I suggest that solutions to such problems must be co-created with neighbourhoods, not handed to them.

When addressing intractable problems, efforts that ignore community or give insufficient attention to the process of engaging stakeholders may not (and indeed, often do not) consider neighbourhoods as formative participants in solution-building or in the revitalization and development of the neighbourhood.

Neighbourhood development requires the participation and the resources of local government in particular. The City of Edmonton’s Revitalization program, active in roughly a dozen neighbourhoods, is one such example of City commitment. 

There are good things that have happened and that will happen because of this program. That said, decisions concerning how much funding to be made available to each Revite neighbourhood are made by the local government (which has endowed each of the neighbourhoods with the same funding budget). Each neighbourhood gets the same amount of money which may not be the best way to allocate funds to neighbourhoods at different stages of their revitalization work.

As well, this funding is envisioned to have a hard-stop, meaning that at some point in the future, the City’s dedicated staff and the funding will disappear. I can’t say for certain, but I imagine that the rationale for leaving a neighbourhood is about two things: first, limited money to invest in neighbourhoods, and second, the belief that at some point communities can absorb the loss of support and carry on all by themselves.

I suggest that such a mindset is actually contrary to how community development works. The support and funding required must change over time, but must not simply disappear. One can also argue that the financial commitment to neighbourhood development should increase. Though I recognize that money is limited, what is done with money is always a choice. 

I contend that neighbourhood development deserves to be a higher priority than it currently is.

One example of such a change in priority is the City’s commitment to building substantially more permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless. Choices were made to pursue this activity, and funds were allocated. 

As a long-time advocate for housing for the homeless, I am thankful for this work, BUT [there always seems to be a “but”], building more permanent supportive housing is not neighbourhood development.

In fact, city plans to build more of this housing is often resisted by neighbourhoods because of perceived economic, social, or safety impacts. This type of thinking leads to a type of NIMBY-ism that that governments and developers need to overcome. Community engagement about such development often becomes a process of persuasion more than a process of co-creation.

I support the City’s position and policy that permanent supportive housing and affordable housing should be equitably spread across the city. I also agree with the position that having a safe and affordable place to live is a human right. But I believe that such a policy should translate into practices that work inclusively to address the rights, expectations, and aspirations of all involved.

Stephen Covey famously said that “change happens at the speed of trust.” The impressions gleaned from the Cooperatives and Mutuals survey suggest that those surveyed have low levels of trust toward the current economic system and toward the lack of benefits for average people when businesses make money.

This also suggests a distrust of others in general, particularly toward political leaders. This is likely because people feel powerless to participate in problem resolution or in developing future plans meant to benefit them.

Ideas

1. If neighbourhoods are to co-create (if not lead) their own development, then governments and funders need to better support capacity-building in neighbourhoods. They must also foster leadership, identify how neighbourhoods could contribute to larger city goals, and identify methods to aid neighbourhood-led development (such as creating housing or investing co-ops, creating jobs, increasing local economic activities, and supporting place-making activities).

2. Funding systems tend not to be set up to support community development initiatives, but funding should be viewed with respect to the work required to grow and sustain neighbourhoods. As a neighbourhood progresses, its funding requirements will change, and those funding systems should adapt, not be held to a deadline. Businesses always need more investment to grow and to be successful. It is no different for neighbourhoods.

3. Recent collaborative work with City administration on the impact of derelict properties and slum housing on neighbourhoods is an example of a new way to address a significant problem. Aggressive compliance efforts have begun to address (if not close down) slum housing, and development partners are at the table working  on a redevelopment strategy for these parcels of land. Communities participated in identifying compliance strategies, and neighbourhoods will have a voice on what is developed on these sites after the existing structures are demolished.

More efforts are needed to ensure that neighbourhoods are appropriately involved in addressing this significant problem, which exists both for the tenants of slum housing (who are basically victims of nefarious landlords) and for their neighbours.

4. Developing a set of shared development principles for the city and for its neighbourhoods might benefit everyone. For example, one principle that makes sense to me is that the economy should work for the majority, not for a small minority. Perhaps that principle should be a touchstone for neighbourhood development.

5. While one can argue that neighbourhoods should accommodate non-market housing in its many forms, one can also argue that the development of such housing should be considered within the context of the impact of such housing (including how they impact neighbourhood aspirations). It is not enough to say that housing is a human right.

6. We know that some neighbourhoods have more power and influence than others. While I would be happy to be wrong, I doubt that well-off neighbourhoods will ever hold the same percentage of non-market housing as do neighbourhoods like McCauley.

Non-market housing typically requires lower-cost land than market housing (and, of course, lower rents). Urban core neighbourhoods have traditionally been seen as offering the best economics for such development because land is cheaper, more institutional services exist in close proximity, and people with power and influence tend to live in other neighbourhoods. This is an economic challenge, to be sure: The cheaper the land and the cost of services, the more units of housing can be built.

That said, there is a tipping point where the percentage of permanent supportive housing, seniors’ housing, and other forms of social or non-market housing make it very difficult to grow a local economy. The lack of expendable income in urban core neighbourhoods that have high percentages of non-market housing is one reason why conventional businesses are reluctant to locate in these neighbourhoods.

7. Re-thinking how to go about “developing” neighbourhoods (and how to support development) is well-aligned with city goals such as:

  • increasing public transportation,
  • encouraging the use of alternative forms of transportation (e.g. bicycles),
  • promoting “buy-local” strategies, and
  • having a walkable city.

If we see some neighbourhoods as the primary locations for non-market housing (and do not include economic development as a major goal), then these neighbourhoods may not be a priority in terms of public transportation or walkability or buying local.

8. Funding is not all that is needed. Responsive, easily-accessible systems that can respond or act quickly are also needed. Helping neighbourhoods acquire the capacity to deploy alternative methods of funding a project (like investment co-ops) is one way to do this. Helping neighbourhoods create cooperatives that increase the number of local businesses or local jobs are worth exploring.

* * *

Making positive change requires trust, shared exploration, and decision-making if the goal is to produce optimal benefits equitably and in ways that are relevant to particular neighbourhoods. The CDC is committed to undertaking capital development projects that neighbourhoods actually want. We look to take leadership from residents (like we did with The Piazza project) and to work as a backbone agency to bring their aspirations to fruition.

We know that the solutions we act on require partnerships and new ways of thinking and doing. We are committed to creating such partnerships. All of us can do better and accomplish more together, but this work requires change at the local government level, change in how funders perceive an investment in positive change, and at the core of it all, better community engagement.

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