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SpeakUp now or forever hold your piece

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It would be overly generous to suggest the city's SpeakUp Winnipeg initiative has gained much in the way of momentum since its inception, well-meaning though the efforts of its organizers may be. But that's not to say the idea is without merit.

Launched back in April with a daylong "Mayor's Symposium on Sustainability," a snazzy interactive website and as much fanfare as local media outlets would give it (not all that much), the ongoing public consultation process will last a full year. The goal is to gather feedback about the future of our city from as many Winnipeggers as possible in advance of the creation of a new, long-term planning document called OurWinnipeg, which will be used to help set priorities and guide decision-making at City Hall for the next 25 years.

OurWinnipeg will replace the city's current planning document, the aptly titled Plan Winnipeg, which was adopted by council in 1993 and which was also supposed to help set priorities and guide decision-making at city hall until 2020, except for the fact that nobody at city hall seemed to pay it much attention. At least, not when there were rapid-transit plans to quash, sprawling suburban communities to develop or big-box retail developments to fast-track.

But I digress.

I wasn't able to attend April's symposium, but I heard it was packed (some estimates put attendance at 250) and that a lot of interesting ideas were introduced by those succinct enough to distill their vision of a sustainable city into a 30-second presentation -- the maximum time allotted to each speaker -- and committed enough to get up early on a Saturday morning in order to be there for the rather ungodly 8 a.m. start time.

I did, however, participate in SpeakUp Winnipeg's second public event -- the four-day "city-building charrette" which took place at the art gallery in late June. I attended an afternoon visioning workshop in which 60 of us discussed what we liked and didn't like about a series of photos taken at various Winnipeg locations before voting on 80 individual slides using little electronic devices. All in all, it was a fairly cool experience.

Things have slowed down somewhat for the summer, although an eight-member mobile team dubbed the SpeakUp Squad is apparently roaming the streets until the end of August. Recruited through the University of Manitoba's city planning program, the team will be showing up at major events and venues around Winnipeg, asking citizens about "what's working, what isn't, what has to change, and how we should get started making these changes."

No word on whether or not team members are being paid for their efforts, so let's all try to be nice if we run into them.

That said, the easiest way to join SpeakUp Winnipeg probably is to leave a comment online at www.speakupwinnipeg.com, the aforementioned interactive website.

Since its debut, I've been monitoring both its content -- diverse, frequently informative, occasionally amusing -- and the rate at which people are participating -- surprisingly low, given that it's tailor-made for anonymous bitching about the city's faults, which you'd think would bring out the haters in droves.

Of course, it could be that Winnipeggers who care about sustainable city planning have simply grown weary of speaking up only to be ignored when the rubber hits the road; certainly, myriad examples of this exist.

It makes no sense, however, to squander the opportunity presenting itself to us now just because we've been burnt in the past. We owe it to ourselves and our city to make our opinions known -- even if allowing ourselves to believe that this time, things will be different might seem painfully naive (or perhaps slightly masochistic) to the cynics who have given up hope.

SpeakUp Winnipeg may prove to be yet another exercise in futility. But then again, rapid transit managed to rise from the dead following a renewed groundswell of public pressure and is finally becoming a reality.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Marlo Campbell writes for Uptown Magazine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2009 A10

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