In my first three months as the executive director of the Edmonton Community Development Company, I estimate I have had over 100 meetings, most of them being one to one conversations or small group discussions about the communities in which people live and/or work. We talked about community aspirations, community pain, and the plethora of ideas people and groups have and are working on to strengthen communities, in particular the people who reside in them.
I believe that change begins with conversation and that we must have conversations with others who see possibilities others don’t and who view challenges through a diversity of lenses. One of my major goals has been – and will continue to be – understanding others, understanding what drives them, why they see the solutions they see, and also understanding our differences, and yes, our disparate perspectives on community change. Understanding one another may not always lead to agreement, but I daresay agreement is nigh impossible if we do not understand one another.
I also believe, based on my experience, understanding our differences is the only way we can resolve them. It’s not easy, is it? After all, don’t we come across others whose ideas rankle us, who advocate for actions we believe are misguided or just plain wrong? The challenge is how to hold up our difference and then work with them in order to find ways for us to move forward together. Roger Martin, who wrote the Opposable Mind, talks about how effective leaders are able to hold opposing ideas simultaneously in their minds and then work with them to foster new or better ideas and courses of action. His research indicates the importance of Integrative Thinking as a key approach to not settling on decisions that are the result of either-or choices. I infer that either-or choices are what create and sustain divisiveness and cause encampments based on rigid ideology.
I work in an environment steeped in history about, and memories of, community development – or in the context of my work, community economic development – that were driven by narrow self-interest or an inflexible devotion to a particular focus that did not gel with others. In the Boyle-McCauley neighborhood, we see how development has impacted area residents. These neighborhoods are where an inordinate percentage of housing stock is social housing, special needs housing, and shelters. The impacts of a high number of human service institutions also being located in these neighbourhoods are significant. Not only do residents experience the symptoms of homelessness (drugs, needles, drunkenness, human waste, vandalism, etc.), the high incidence of these realities deter others from developing businesses or market housing or from otherwise investing in urban core neighborhoods.
I have met with and talked with many residents of urban core neighbourhoods and I have not heard anyone suggest that services to the homeless or to others who are living in poverty should not exist. What I do hear is that residents want balance. They want Edmonton as a whole to share the responsibility of addressing social problems. They do not feel they should have to take on the lion’s share of hosting solutions to these problems. I think that’s fair. It is not about Nimbyism and frankly it is not about moving residents to a culture of Yimbyism (i.e. Yes in my back yard!). Nimbyism is typically a pejorative term that those wanting to do development assign to their opposition. It becomes a broad brush stroke used to paint those who disagree with development as unreasonable, self-serving if not selfish. It fosters a stereotype that avoids the underlying issues that I suggest are worthy of address. Is there not rationale at times for those who do not want a development in their back yard?
And Yimbyism. Here is the risk: that this term reflects a movement to persuade residents to say “yes” to development that they do not want. I recall attending a workshop put on by a group with community engagement expertise. They were promoting how to get residents to say “yes” to development. Without going into all the content, it felt to me like the workshop was more about persuasion, if not manipulation, when community engagement should be about seeking common ground. I realize purists will say this is the purpose of Yimbyism; however, my warning is that all of this could become nothing more than two ideas in opposition to each other that focus more on getting to what “I” want than to what “we should do together.”
Development should be a community strategy, not just the strategy of entrepreneurs. In the context of my work, development in a community should not be what I think it should be. I see my role to be one that is centered on understanding what community wants and what community wants is not just about aspirations, it is also about addressing the pains that community residents are experiencing. What I have been hearing from all those I am meeting and talking to has reinforced my belief that communities require and deserve strategic development in their areas of town.
Here are some examples of what I mean:
Many, if not most, urban core neighbourhoods are lacking in anchor institutions or businesses like mainstream grocery stores, financial institutions. child care, and so on. Many of their main streets suffer from boarded up or dilapidated store fronts or empty lots. In areas of town where lower-income people live are where pawn shops, pay-day lending businesses, and other businesses abound that deliver costly services or products (e.g. mini-marts) to people who face daily financial struggles. Sometimes there are bars along the main street in which drugs are sold and other crimes occur. What residents are telling me is that want help in re-developing empty store fronts, help with building on empty lots, and help with getting rid of unwanted gathering places where crimes take place. They want the development we undertake to be strategic, to address problem properties and reinvent those spaces into developments that not only reflect community interests and aspiration but that result in creating more possibilities for future development.
Food security is a common theme I am hearing about. Residents do not want to live in food deserts. They want more choice than the unhealthy foods offered by mini-marts at expensive prices. They want opportunities to grow food and to see in their neighborhoods the social, health, and economic impacts of a farmer’s market or opportunities to create local enterprises that contribute to enhanced food security. They want to see more jobs in their neighborhoods and more housing that attracts new residents to their part of town.
Residents are telling me they want us to be strategic about what properties we purchase and redevelop. They want us to redevelop boarded up homes or repurpose a dwelling that takes advantage of its tenants. They want development that adds to the possibility of young people or people of modest means to actually be able to own a home.
The Edmonton Community Development Company was not created just to do development. It exists to be a strategic developer that does its best to act on community needs and interests. Residents don’t want us to come into their neighborhood to sell them our solutions. They want us to work with them to foster development that enriches their lives as a community. And that is exactly what we are committed to doing.
Yeah, I know. We won’t please everyone. There will be limits to what we can pull off, but we are going to try. I promise.