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Blog of the week: christopherleo.com: Communication breakdown

Corydon Avenue amply illustrates the problems besieging city hall

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Corydon Avenue is in the eye of a political storm that's been raging for a long time. The Corydon-Osborne Neighbourhood Plan Facebook page starts on June 9, 2011. That's how long the seemingly endless and fruitless argument about the future of Corydon Avenue has been going on. Actually, it's been a lot longer than that. I found an aging city planning document entitled The Villages of Fort Rouge dated August 1998.

It's not surprising that Corydon Village is controversial.

Like Osborne Village, it contains a diverse mix of homes and street-level businesses. It offers relief from the bleakness of much of the rest of the city, where residences and commerce are kept strictly separate. When there's only one reason to go to a neighbourhood, it tends to be quiet, but it's also boring. When a neighbourhood attracts a variety of people at different times of the day, it's lively and interesting.

The colourful mix also makes it controversial because there are a lot of potential conflicts between commerce and residence. The people who live there probably chose the neighbourhood in part because they like the liveliness and the proximity of some of the businesses they patronize. At the same time, a street with foot traffic is a good place to invest in street-level business.

The growth of a neighbourhood that is attractive to both businesses and residents sets up a precarious balance: Too much business and the neighbourhood becomes too noisy and crowded for many of its residents; too many apartment towers and the street becomes less attractive to walkers and patio-sitters. In order to manage the growth of Corydon Village, Winnipeg's decision-makers have to do something they're really bad at: create a forum for the airing of conflicting interests and mediation of those interests, while ensuring the continued viability and attractiveness of the neighbourhood.

As it happens, I've done academic studies of urban development issues in a number of cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Portland, Ore., and more. In general, cities widely acknowledged to be attractive are also good at the kind of mediation of conflicting interests that Winnipeg is so bad at. The details of how public participation in urban development decision-making is done vary, but successful decision-making has at least two elements in common:

The first feature of participation-friendly development is intelligent planning, which requires the city to put its planners to work formulating a range of possible decision-making outcomes and producing publications that lay out these outcomes in a way that is understandable to non-specialists. For Corydon Village, planners could think through three scenarios for the neighbourhood's future:

1. Development-friendly, meaning the city adopts a permissive response to a wide range development proposals;

2. Development-hostile, meaning the city works to keep the neighbourhood substantially as it is;

3. Moderate, meaning the city allows some selective development of duplexes and high-rise residential towers, and some further growth of business, while ensuring that Corydon Avenue remains a pleasant place to walk or while away an hour on a patio.

That wouldn't be hard to do, but it would require city planning officials to devote some time to thinking the scenarios through and producing pamphlets, web pages, or brochures. Given that the city has, in recent years, cut its city planning staff to the bone, it's hardly surprising that the city's Corydon-Osborne Neighbourhood Plan web page offers nothing more than some generalities about drinking establishments and descriptions of the neighbourhood.

The second feature of participation-friendly development is openness to public input. Here the city also falls short. In terms of secretiveness and defensiveness toward the public, it appears to be trying to rival the Kremlin. In the case of most development decisions, its approach to public input is limited to "open houses" -- displays of decisions already made in a manner well-calculated to insult the public's intelligence.

It wouldn't be hard for the city to establish a workable and open decision-making process for Corydon Avenue, but it would require some modest resources and, more significantly, the eradication of some deeply-rooted bad habits.

 

Christopher Leo is a recently retired professor of city politics at the University of Winnipeg. He blogs at christopherleo.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2013 0

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