Ideas

Bridging The Gap Between The City And Its Citizens

There is a fundamental disconnect between how Public Works views the city and how residents view the city. To Public Works, the city is infrastructure, but to citizens, it's living space.

By Adrian Duyzer
Published June 05, 2011

Walkability has emerged as a key priority for Hamilton, but the way the city currently interacts with residents could make achieving it more difficult than it needs to be. What happened when the city's Public Works department set out to repair a small pedestrian bridge near my home illustrates some potential pitfalls.

This bridge connects the two sides of Pearl Street, allowing pedestrians to travel over the TH & B railway line near Locke. Originally built to accommodate vehicle traffic as well as pedestrians, this charming wood-surfaced bridge is a vital part of the neighbourhood.

The bridge is about eight metres wide. Two pathways, one on each side of the bridge, connect to the sidewalks along Pearl. The center of the bridge, where cars once travelled, is a large rectangular area where people used to sit on lawn chairs and trainspot.

When the bridge required repair a couple of years ago, Public Works replaced large sections of the pedestrian walkways on each side. At the same time, however, they cordoned off the large, central portion of the bridge with chain link fencing, presumably so they would no longer need to maintain it.

This once-charming bridge now has a penitentiary aesthetic. The cordoned-off middle section is now a convenient trash repository for litterers and a great place for weeds to flourish. Because it's secured with a six-foot-tall chain link fence, neighbourhood residents can't clean it up.

This small example illustrates a fundamental disconnect between how Public Works views the city and how residents view the city. To Public Works, the bridge was a functional piece of infrastructure, providing pedestrians a way to travel from A to B. To residents, the bridge is part of their living space.

When people need to purchase a new couch, obtaining a large L-shaped object with padded surfaces is not their primary goal. Instead, they seek something that is comfortable and attractive, that complements the other pieces of furniture they own already, and that fits with the aesthetic of their living room.

In the case of the Pearl Street bridge, had city staff spoken with residents in the area, the disconnect between their plans and what residents actually wanted would have become apparent.

On the other hand, it's unlikely that many residents would have attended a public information session about plans for something so minor. This brings up another important issue: the way the city consults with residents is fundamentally outdated.

At the Hamilton Economic Summit, Jill Stephens, Director of Strategic Planning and Rapid Transit, lamented the fact that the "same people" show up at every information session about LRT. That's because people are busy and have little time for often boring public information sessions or always boring 60-page planning documents.

Instead, the city should become a leader in online engagement by providing citizens with simple, streamlined, and entertaining ways to judge proposals and provide comments.

In the case of the Pearl Street bridge, imagine if the city had posted signs next to the bridge that advised residents of plans for the bridge and that featured a short, memorable address to a website where residents could provide suggestions, vote for suggestions they approved of, and provide commentary on the plans.

Taking this approach would represent a sea change in the way the city collects information from residents and the way it produces plans. Instead of dictating available options to residents, the city would act like a business that seeks to satisfy the wishes of its clients, and it would interact with citizens in a profoundly more modern, accessible way than it does now.

Direct, digital democracy is not a new concept, but it is frequently criticized on the grounds that citizens are not informed enough to make wise decisions about complex issues. But no one knows neighbourhood issues better than the people who live there.

For issues like walkability that are fundamentally local, living space issues, transforming the way the city and residents communicate is essential.

This essay was first published in the June, 2011 issue of Urbanicity.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz

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By Chain linked hamilton (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2011 at 23:35:59

Another example are the fences and left over ski hill junk near the waterfalls adjacent to the chedoke golf course stairs. Hand over our public parks maintenance and mgmtto the HCA

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted June 06, 2011 at 06:24:21

In the case of the Pearl Street bridge, had city staff spoken with residents in the area, the disconnect between their plans and what residents actually wanted would have become apparent.

Undoubtedly.

But the real discussion would probably be about why 'what the residents actually wanted' and what City staff still felt mandated to put into effect.

Not to say that every neighbourhood, every community...even every city's population automatically 'gets what it wants', but the example cited here...as well as tons of others that I'm sure RTH readers could come up with...illustrate that there's an even greater disconnect going on. Not just with City staff, but with elected officials.

But they're not the only 'villains' here; we've been complicit in all this by the fact that we've ceded (abrogated?) power to 'those who govern us'. And until we acknowledge this flaw in the formula...and accept responsibility for changing it...then we're going to continue to get these awful goose eggs on our foreheads from where we're constantly hitting them against the 'wall'.

We need a new definition of the idea of 'governance', and everything the notion connotes.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-06-06 06:26:14

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2011 at 09:55:51

Until the mid-80s, the Pearl Street span was the middle of three historic pedestrian bridges in a 400m stretch of Hunter/Canada (the others being at Poulette and Ray). The Pearl bridge was the only one retained, despite substantial fire damage that had left it closed to vehicular traffic from 1956 onward.

From March 2009's elegantly titled Hamilton Bridges Master Plan Class Environmental Assessment Poulette Street/Pearl Street/Ray Street Pedestrian Crossings of CP Rail Corridor Project File Report:

"The cost of adding a new pedestrian bridge at Ray Street cannot be justified because it would result in only a nominal reduction in pedestrian travel time (approximately 3 minutes) and would essentially be redundant with the Pearl Street and Queen Street crossings."

"The cost of a new pedestrian rail crossing at Poulette Street ($450,000-$500,000 capital
cost plus long term maintenance costs) also cannot be justified based on the marginal
benefits that it would provide (i.e., reducing travel times by approximately 3 minutes;
small catchment area) and the fact that there is not a strong travel distance justification
for the bridge (residents are within approximately 200 m of either Dundurn Street or
Locke Street)."

And consider us fortunate: The city had at one point considered demolishing all three bridges:

"The previously cited acceptable walking distance to a crossing of the CP Rail corridor
(i.e., within 400 m of Locke Street or Queen Street) would still be applicable to the study
area if the Pearl Street crossing did not exist. Applying such a criterion, there is not a
strong justification for replacing the Pearl Street crossing in the event that it is removed
for safety purposes."

A single two-hour PIC regarding the bridges' remediation was was held on the evening of Mar 31, 2008 at Melrose United. The were also community prompts via a survey connected to Councillor McHattie’s newsletter. In response, there were 19 PIC comments and 46 post-PIC comments in all, and those surveyed opted overwhelmingly for Pearl, with Poulette a close second and Ray a distant and dismal third.

By the time of the PIC, of course, Pearl was the natural favourite, as it was the only surviving bridge -- Poulette being 20+ years gone and the Ray bridge having been dismantled 14 months earlier.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted June 06, 2011 at 10:16:31 in reply to Comment 64619

And consider us fortunate: The city had at one point considered demolishing all three bridges

Yes, I know they considered demolishing all of them, and I'm happy one of them was retained. I'm especially grateful to Cllr. McHattie for his efforts to ensure the Pearl Street bridge was kept.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not furious or otherwise very upset that the chain link fencing went up. I simply think that the way the bridge was repaired is illustrative of a disconnect between Public Works and neighbourhood residents.

Comment edited by administrator adrian on 2011-06-06 10:16:45

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 06, 2011 at 10:20:38

"The cost of adding a new pedestrian bridge at Ray Street cannot be justified because it would result in only a nominal reduction in pedestrian travel time (approximately 3 minutes)

Boy, this is a nice nugget of info to keep handy for the next time one of these same staff reports explains why Main or King can't be converted to two way because of the few extra minutes it will add to a drivers commute time across town.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted June 06, 2011 at 13:08:32 in reply to Comment 64621

Jason, you've forgotten one critical factor here: Driver travel time <> pedestrian travel time.

It's some kind of weird "dog years" ratio that only city staff are aware of.

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By RonMiller (registered) - website | Posted June 06, 2011 at 11:20:17

Maybe the city should hire community consultants, or residents voting for a volunteer committee to interact with the city.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 06, 2011 at 12:50:41 in reply to Comment 64626

How would you choose? From what I've seen, self-selected commentary usually produces a few normal community members and a lot of noisy folks who have the time to be perpetually enraged and monopolize the debate.

Elections at this small a level are also fraught with difficulties as it's hard to connect to people on such a local scale - look how our provincial/federal/municipal elections have almost drowned the coverage of the local candidates down to nothing.

There is no easy answer.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted June 06, 2011 at 15:05:16 in reply to Comment 64633

Pxtl: Great points...but I have to say that from my vantage point, you're referencing elements of shorcomings, etc within the current paradigm.

I'm not a 'revolutionary'. Far from it. But it seems to me that if you have a design for something that constantly needs some kind of 'accommodation' or 'rejigging', then maybe you need to rethink what you've been seeing as assumables.

Your first point has to do less with the downside of having hyper-involved citizens...when really, it's about a greater level of engagement.

And the second? Well, the 'game' has been co-opted by this partisan, 'politics-as-a-sport' framing of provincial and federal governance. (Can they be redeemed? Maybe.) Which is why I'm more focused on local affairs and what can be accomplished. Besides, the ripple-effect in situations such as this can be mind-boggling.

This is an area in which I fervently feel RTH should be at the forefront.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 06, 2011 at 15:04:24

Direct, digital democracy is not a new concept, but it is frequently criticized on the grounds that citizens are not informed enough to make wise decisions about complex issues. But no one knows neighbourhood issues better than the people who live there.

Thank you. So true, but so un-acknowledged. The city's approach always seems to be adversarial - treating "the public" as hostile, apathetic, ignorant and disruptive. This, of course, becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy as "the public" tends to notice, then respond with hostility, disruption and apathy. It's a classic story of an organization seeking to achieve "success" by means of cutting off any information flow that might signal failure.

The point of public consultations is not to put the public at ease with new plans. It's to gather as much relevant informations possible so as to create the best plans in the first place.

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By rscheffler (anonymous) | Posted June 11, 2011 at 19:59:45 in reply to Comment 64643

My impression is that city staff and the consultants hired by the city view themselves as the trained, expert, professional authorities on such specific matters, while community members are the untrained (unwashed) masses providing opinion based on subjective views. While community opinion may be documented, retained and possibly considered, decisions seem to frequently default to expert recommendations in the face of conflicting information - i.e. community vs. expert recommendations.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 06, 2011 at 16:02:10 in reply to Comment 64643

It's a classic story of an organization seeking to achieve "success" by means of cutting off any information flow that might signal failure.

Indeed, that seems to be a running theme:

Live and don't learn, that's us

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted June 06, 2011 at 15:07:31 in reply to Comment 64643

The point of public consultations is not to put the public at ease with new plans. It's to gather as much relevant informations possible so as to create the best plans in the first place.

A great...and mostly unappreciated and unacknowledged...place to start.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted June 06, 2011 at 16:54:30

Great article, Adrian. I loved that old Pearl Street bridge when I lived in that area. It was one of the little things that made an area so unique. Of course, that general area of our city is not lacking of those features.

I think we engaged citizens well or gave them the tools to be engaged where the Pan Am Process was concerend. By we I mean RTH and folks like Joey Colemen being the leaders, but The Spec and others got onboard when they realized it was something they had to either finally do or do better.

There are so many public meetings that I would love to attend but as you put it, time is of the essence. Ustream and the likes, go a long way in making it easier and quite a few times I had the Livestrem going on my second monitor. Doesn't help me much in my travels but podcasts could possibly help that - at least getting caught up with particular proceedings.

I was thinking about how to combine the ideas that float around the Cats forum on this site, and on the Save Ivor Wynne site as one common place where citizens and fans can trhow around their ideas. Somewhere that opens it up for all of Canada or North America for that matter, to chime in with their ideas, concerns, what worked for them and what didn't. One singular outlet.

Perhaps an RTH article that is always updated, where the comment section is the live idea-stream and those ideas are periodically placed into the text of the main piece/article that summarizes all the issues and the many ideas that have surfaced. Maybe just point form in the article body with a hyperlink to the context of the comment to avoide duplication/a lot of extra work.

One or two editors/citizen editors could be in charge of monitoring/updating it, with perhaps weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly updates depending on how active the planning is around any particular issue - we don't just have to be talking the stadium here.

Bump up the article often so it's fresh in everyone's mind and isn't lost down the list or off the list of recent articles.

I have done this to an extent on my site but I am not sure a WordPress blog is the best place to manage this kind of data? Should the ideas come flowing in, I am also not sure one person can really handle making sure all ideas are read and brought forth.

As I said in my piece, perhaps if we can test the waters on these ideas of citizen engagement on a large scale project like this one, people will see what a difference their voice, attendance, and involvement can make and we can also learn a great deal about how engaging others and being engaged ourselves and how even the slightest amount of our time can make a difference.

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By Rufus (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2011 at 17:34:52

Love the initiative. So how do we make it happen? We're in a catch 22 because our ideas on how to make citizen engagement work better have to go through today's not-better way of doing citizen engagement.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted June 08, 2011 at 06:09:27 in reply to Comment 64686

So how do we make it happen? We're in a catch 22 because our ideas on how to make citizen engagement work better have to go through today's not-better way of doing citizen engagement.

I've just dealt with this notion in an editorial. I don't try to present any possibilities or suggestions (not because I don't have any, I began addressing the possibilities last year, but because looking at solutions wasn't the impetus of my piece), but here's something I firmly believe:

We live in a world of instant information. Of updates and of Tweets and social-networking dissemination of 'news'. Now, while some of the 'events' that better citizen engagement produces would be handled by the above, the real 'change' wouldn't. Over time, yes. But because we've become so inculcated with this 'instant gratification' ideology, subtle changes aren't valued. In fact, they're often scorned, or at the least, diminished.

People have no patience. (Or faith.)

Rather than trying to answer the question 'How do we make it happen?', I'm going to ask two questions, understanding that this is an article unto itself.

1) Describe how things currently look regarding citizen engagement. 2) How would you prefer they look?

Yeah, the second part is much harder because, to paraphrase Taco Bell, 'When you're stuck inside the bun, it's hard to have a healthy perspective.'

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-06-08 06:16:52

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 08, 2011 at 12:22:40 in reply to Comment 64699

1) Describe how things currently look regarding citizen engagement.

People are really, really cynical. And not for bad reasons. People don't just "forget" when things go wrong. Every time they're lied to, used, or ignored by governments, media, corporations, religions, political movements etc - people are a little less likely to trust in the future.

2) How would you prefer they look?

People need places they can voice their views. For these venues to be trusted, they need to be independent. Public consultations are run by the city, for the city, and always around an agenda set by the city. Much of the same could be said for various public meetings held by parties, the media or local businesses. People don't want to be "supporters" for somebody else's agenda - they want to be active agents in their own.

Whatever organizations are set up to represent people need to actually do so. Being run by a small cabal of well-connected friends (like so many community and political organizations and "neighbourhood associations") can only get you so far and usually ends up alienating a lot of people before long. Popular engagement needs to be a barometer of success. Blaming "people" for the failures of our organizations is only a recipe for more failure.

The best model would be a network or federation. No one organization is going to be able to represent "everybody" without leaving some feeling left out. People need to be able to group together based on various kinds of affinity - geographic, trade, 'identity' etc, and these groups need a fair degree of autonomy if they're going to be able to actually connect with these communities. A wider federation could provide opportunities for delegates to meet and discuss broader issues, co-ordinate plans and mediate disputes. But again, only so far as it's actually responsible to the people involved and not the other way around.

Look at Spain right now for a good example of a popular movement talking about these ideas - and one that's spreading.

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted June 09, 2011 at 12:07:29

Thanks for the article on one my favourite themes. To the many good points above, I would add in response to this suggestion by Adrian:

In the case of the Pearl Street bridge, imagine if the city had posted signs next to the bridge that advised residents of plans for the > bridge and that featured a short, memorable address to a website where residents could provide suggestions, vote for suggestions they approved of, and provide commentary on the plans.

While that approach would work for many RTH readers and younger persons in general, engagement has to take into consideration multiple ways of reaching people who otherwise might be excluded. Many people, especially at the older end of the spectrum, are not so Internet savvy and would prefer to use the phone or meet in person to express their views.

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