Canadian urban issues are complex, yet rarely experienced in isolation. The challenges that different cities face are often shared and present opportunities to find common ground. In this occasional series, City of Edmonton planner Jason Syvixay, a former Winnipegger, and collaborators look at how different cities approach similar issues and develop their urban landscapes. Like neighbours on a street, good things happen when cities talk to one another.
"I don’t see my role advancing past the report-writing stage," he said.
I wondered why didn’t he see the benefits. His fear may have been rooted in a probable hesitation (both his own, and likely his workplace) in using new and emerging social media platforms that are generally untested for their ability to stir conversation, provoke ideas, and stimulate feedback.
At the City of Edmonton, many people contribute to a shared Twitter account — @PlanEdmonton — to "monitor social media comments relating to planning and urbanism in the City of Edmonton for the purposes of sparking creativity, excitement, conversation and ideas around planning in Edmonton, and to foster open and positive dialogue with Edmonton residents." The account, seemingly active at all hours of the day, operates with a code of conduct that is in alignment with the municipality’s social media guidelines — excluding posts that are personal, political or stance/option-centred.
With a following of nearly 14,000 Edmontonians and fellow city planners, design and architectural professionals and not-for-profit organizations from across the country, @PlanEdmonton is a source of information about city plans and policies, rezonings and development applications and a place of ideation where community ideas can be shared, photographed and reinforced.
The result: a perceived accessibility of the public to the city’s administration — connecting civic policies with the people who may be directly impacted.
As planning theorists Stephen Grabow and Allan Heskin assert, "The planner is active: a radical agent of change" who is not "a creature of divided loyalty, one who owes as much or more to the profession as to the people." This thinking recognizes the planner’s role in facilitating greater discussion, democracy and engagement.
Perhaps planners should work towards leveraging new communication tools to lead to a resurgence of city-building involvement, public engagement and critical debate around urban issues and political, economic and social processes.
I led a conversation among planning directors, theorists and consultants from across the country exploring the opportunities, shortcomings and pitfalls in using social media.
Lyla Peter, director of development and zoning services for the City of Edmonton, uses her personal Twitter account, @PeterPlansIt, to explore various topics and as a limitus test to gauge public support around city-planning projects.
Robert Summers, who leads the University of Alberta’s new School of Urban and Regional Planning as its associate director, is no stranger to negotiating his way in and around Edmonton’s local political scene, often using his Twitter pseudonym, @RJSCity, to influence online debates around urban issues involving transportation and infill or to provoke new ways of city thinking with images from far-away places and spaces.
Vancouver’s former chief planner and current global city planning and urbanism consultant Brent Toderian has a Twitter following in excess of 65,000, including mayors, media and many others. Through his account, @BrentToderian, Brent shares his candid views on cities and city-building, lessons from city-planning work across Canada and internationally, examples of exemplary urbanism from vibrant metropolises and links to policies and plans of interest. He’s definitely not shy about being provocative when the issue warrants it.
Ashley Salvador founded YEGarden Suites in 2014 to inform citizens on the benefits, challenges and regulations around backyard housing — otherwise known as garden suites in Edmonton. Through her personal Twitter account and @YEGardenSuites, Salvador has rallied communities around affordable housing, seniors housing and homeowner-led real estate investment by sharing infill resources, by expediently answering user questions online and promoting events and meetings.
Jason Thorne, head of the planning and economic development department at the City of Hamilton, has generated significant interest in his hometown through his Twitter presence, @JasonThorne_RPP. His posts are seen by thousands, and highlight the revitalization efforts that are injecting new life in Hamilton’s streets and communities.
Known for her work in guiding cities and governments through policy, zoning and physical planning reforms, Winnipeg’s Hazel Borys (@hborys) is CEO of PlaceMakers Inc. and uses Twitter to highlight the benefits of policies that support walkable, mixed-use, compact and resilient places. She regularly shares research around land use, form-based codes and sustainability — apropos for councillors, planners, city builders, residents and decision-makers.
Jane Purvis, a senior public engagement adviser for the City of Edmonton, helped steward the development of Edmonton’s Council Initiative on Public Engagement which sought, among other things, to consider the opportunities and pathways for public involvement in urban decision-making. Her account, @carillonjane, is a balancing act between the personal and professional, with authentic posts that seem to build meaningful relationships with her followers.
This panel considered the tensions that social media platforms present for city planners. In their conversation, they point to Twitter as an opportunity to advance the values and visions for their cities, to share information and initiatives, and to remain up-to-date on the key issues and concerns of residents, councillors, reporters and community organizations.
● Purvis: Absolutely. I think giving a personality to bureaucrats is so important. Shining light on ideas and changes through a more personal lens is very effective.
● Peter: Most government staff are not allowed to openly express negative opinions. As such, staff have to negotiate how to frame their words (both in-person and online) and exercise some caution. On social media platforms, many civil servants will navigate this tension by referencing similar issues occurring in other cities, offering them as comparisons.
● Toderian: I believe chief planners should be influential champions for a better city. Twitter should be seen as an effective tool for that. Planners should invest the time to understand Twitter and learn how to use it well. You don’t need to engage with every tweet directed at you — and as a matter of fact, you definitely shouldn’t. At a minimum, planners should use Twitter as a powerful information source, and to know what their elected leaders are saying on it and the conversation occurring there — they can’t afford not to know that. But I believe not using it strategically as the chief planner is a missed opportunity to be a more effective champion and help change the city-making conversation.
● Thorne: I don’t think engaging online should be considered a mandatory job requirement for a chief planner or planning director, but it is a good practice. It helps a planner stay current on what the community is thinking, and it is a good tool for disseminating information. That said, a municipal planner has to be careful. You have to remember that social media is not the entire community. You have to balance social media with other forms of engagement, or else you run the risk of living in the bubble of the tweeters and posters. You also have to be ready to have a thick skin. Social media can be harsh. You will get blamed for things that have nothing to do with planning, or that are outside your control.
● Salvador: Modes of communication are evolving, and Canadians are demanding that civic bodies and institutions meet them online. It’s becoming increasingly clear that planners need to serve citizens on the platforms that matter to them. Misinformation runs rampant on social media, and it’s easy for users to be captivated by fear-based headlines related to urban issues. Planners should engage online as a credible and reliable source of information. They should dispel myths, quell fears, educate online audiences and help inform public debate. Engaging online humanizes the work planners are doing and brings urban issues to the wider public.
● Borys: It depends. Web-enabled communications tools are means to ends, not ends themselves. Social media communications for a municipality’s chief planner or planning director have to be integrated into broader communications strategies. Social media tends to accelerate the dialogue in the larger discussions that are happening. If great conversations are happening, they happen faster. If community dialogue is devolving into distrust and contention, that happens faster as well via social media. For cities that are experiencing trust issues, social media is rarely the way to solve these issues. Face-to-face encounters on a wide range of platforms are essential to create a working relationship between the city planning department and its constituency. Once that working relationship is well established, social media is a great tool for staying connected and sharing kernels of ideas. It is not a great tool for core relationship building.
● Summers: Yes, one of the most important factors of successful planning is communication. Communicating online can help planners to explain or inform the public about planning issues which is often important to counter misinformation. It also allows members of the public to share their input and for meaningful conversations to occur.
● Toderian: Too many planning departments are afraid of both mainstream and social media, sometimes because they don’t understand it and, often, because the overall culture of city hall is inherently risk- and controversy-averse. I’ve always believed that all types of media, including "earned media" or news stories, are critical to an informed public when it comes to better city-building, which supports better outcomes. City halls should be proactive and strategic when working with the media. That includes understanding their needs, being less managed and boring, and not being afraid!
● Salvador: With anti-intellectualism and post-truth sentiments on the rise, online users are increasingly dismissing facts and evidence-based planning decisions as opinions. If planners are unable to reply to comments, or explain the planning rationale behind projects, the comments section risks becoming filled with misinformation. This asymmetry of online debate serves to de-legitimize competent, skilled and passionate public servants who are committed to serving the public interest. Ultimately, it’s important for planners to engage with all online audiences, so that subsequent readers see thoughtful, high-quality responses in the comments sections coming from respected sources.
● Borys: Engagement with traditional and new media outlets is essential for city planners to share policy and bylaw direction with the general public, inviting people to make their voices heard in the variety of local opportunities available to them. However, city planners are rarely paid enough to be the political torch-bearers when it comes to challenging existing beliefs and notions on how cities should function and grow. The role of city planners should be to help politicians and community members weigh the costs of various urban choices and then become the most vocal champions for change.
● Toderian: I have to say, you can tell a lot about a city hall from their media and social media rules. Are they risk-averse? Afraid of controversy, even though many of the important moves that cities badly need to make will be initially controversial and are badly in need of a better conversation? Do they muzzle their expert advisers? Or are planning departments so concerned about sounding "professional" that they end up being technical, boring and unpersuasive?
● Salvador: I’m in a unique position because I run a non-profit planning advocacy organization. I’m not subject to the same constraints a planner working for a municipality would be. For example, I feel comfortable speaking freely across platforms and welcome any opportunity to speak publicly about our projects or related projects that the city is working on. In recognition that city planners and planning projects are not always given the attention or praise they deserve, we strive to be vocal in our support of administration and council when it’s appropriate. Too often, city planners are seen as "the enemy" in public discourse. This is evident on social media, where plans are openly attacked and criticized. If planners are unable respond with background information, or offer planning rationale, this can distort public perception as readers take in a one-sided conversation.
● Purvis: City of Edmonton does media training for anyone that might be talking to the media. It’s very good. I’ve only spoken to the media once but I felt very supported in doing so. I think it’s good for the public to have the project manager or someone other than a communications person speaking about projects.
● Borys: Transparent communications practices and transparent city planning practices do not happen overnight. The path toward an open and inclusive set of communications standards are essential to bring in the broadest set of voices. This multifaceted public input makes for the most resilient places. Perhaps we do not experience this today in Winnipeg’s city-planning arena, but it’s a worthy goal to strive toward. The bold cities who have taken this step have enjoyed significant paybacks to people, planet and profit in building local resilience. It all starts with openly sharing ideas.
● Summers: I think all planners should be given media training and be encouraged to engage with media.
● Peter: I have found that social media allows ideas and concepts to spread further and faster, enabling people to look into other cities, see their successes and failures, and demand more.
● Toderian: If you can distinguish credible information, I’ve seen Twitter be a powerful tool for citizen advocates and the general public to better understand, and better argue for smarter city-building. The real time, one-stop-shop aspect of Twitter and the power it has to provide public access to conversations and information that used to be only available in professional city-building circles, and often special circles at that, is significant.
● Salvador: Social media allows us to engage with diverse demographics who might otherwise not be reached by traditional forms of engagement. It’s very common to hear citizens express interest in attending a public hearing or engagement session, only to be disappointed when they discover the day and time doesn’t work with their schedule. Sitting through a four-hour hearing with a fussy baby or having to miss work to attend an engagement session is not a fair burden to place on citizens. More often than not, the people missing out are mothers, young people and working families, leading to a demographic misrepresentation at traditional forums for engagement. This is really a question of equity. Without flexible, online alternatives, we miss important voices for city-building. Social media can help reduce barriers to engagement to ensure that broad perspectives are taken into account.
● Thorne: I think the biggest advantage of engaging through social media is that it lets you engage in the moment. Traditional public engagement relies too much on formal events around specific topics at specific points in time. Usually what those topics will be, and when that engagement will happen, is determined by the decision-makers and city officials. But city planning is always happening. It’s the collective impact of millions of individual decisions and actions that are happening every day. Social media is more responsive to that reality. It lets you continually discuss what’s happening in your city and share best practices from other cities.
● Purvis: The City of Edmonton leverages social media to spread information in recognition that the media landscape has changed. It’s going to where the people are, but in virtual form... I’d say its primary value is sharing information, not necessarily getting into dialogue. It also can help municipalities get the temperature of super-engaged people on various urban issues.
● Borys: Social media serves as both a one-to-many and one-to-one communications tool. However, it is one tool in a much larger toolbox, and cannot be expected to fully engage the community on its own without in-person exchanges, as well. All social media is not created equal for use in city planning. Facebook is a harder platform to mediate in places with loud divides in public opinion, while Twitter is somewhat more diverse in its exchange of ideas.
● Summers: Social media, if managed well, is a great venue for engaging citizens because of its accessibility. People can engage at home and at any time of day. Attending a public-engagement session requires that you are free from other responsibilities (work, looking after kids, etc.) at the exact time of the meeting and that you have the mobility to get to and from the meeting. Nearly anyone is able to engage online. So, that is a huge benefit. It also allows for conversations to happen between people who have never met in person, so that is a benefit.
● Toderian: Almost every planning department needs to significantly change "business as usual" in how the public is engaged. More creativity, more fun, more human and persuasive, memorable language, better tools and techniques, less controversy-aversion and more risk-taking, and a lot more going to where the people are instead of expecting the people to come to you. It often starts with a better culture and less fear. Make it easy and interesting for everyone to participate, not just the usual suspects.
● Thorne: One of the most powerful aspects of social media is that it is global. Social media lets you see what cities all over the world are doing, in real time. Sometimes these are inspiring examples of what your city could try. Sometimes they are cautionary tales of what your city should avoid. I’ve "borrowed" lots of ideas from what I’ve seen in other cities... I hope other planners in other cities have borrowed some ideas from Hamilton, as well.
● Borys: Urban acupuncture, rolling meetings, pop-up talk-spots and urban lounges are just a few ways city planning is morphing into a social innovation lab. City planners daily draw from diverse perspectives, co-create solutions, and take on a systems approach to problem-solving. They help the community use design thinking married up to community development to tell their own stories and make their own places, inviting participants who will use the design to be part of its creation process. They are asking people to help set the table, instead of inviting them to dinner that’s already been set. These collaborative methods deliver more durable solutions to social innovation. And for way more resilient places.... The social innovation part recognizes the swarm mentality, acknowledging that none of us are as smart as all of us.
● Peter: Off the top of my head, I’ve seen Twitter advance conversations around parklets, segregated bike lanes, incorporating whimsy into our city-building projects (e.g. slides, swings, chairs), reframing how we speak about projects; and that we need to build our city for everyone, not just those who hold positions of power, wealth and influence.
● Toderian: We live in a big world full of clever, creative ideas, and Twitter is a key tool for keeping up. Many of the best practising city-builders in the world share new and old ideas freely on Twitter. I’m constantly using it to stay ahead of new and best practices, and just as importantly, I’m constantly looking for better and more persuasive ways to explain things or make cases.
● Salvador: In our early days, we received a lot of feedback on the regulatory barriers that were preventing homeowners from building garden suites (these barriers have since been removed). Today, we receive more creative ideas, such as homeowners wanting to open small-scale retail uses in their laneways, turning them into pedestrian-oriented space. We also love learning from engaged planners and academics from around the world on macro-level topics related to land use, car-dependence or climate resilience. It can be useful to draw upon these large-scale visionary ideas in our efforts to achieve local planning objectives. Many of the policy changes we push for as an organization stem from the feedback we have received online.
● Thorne: I think the biggest advantage of engaging through social media is that it lets you engage "in the moment." Traditional public engagement relies too much on formal events around specific topics, at specific points in time. Usually what those topics will be, and when that engagement will happen, is determined by the decision-makers and city officials. But city planning is always happening. It’s the collective impact of millions of individual decisions and actions that are happening every day. Social media is more responsive to that reality. It lets you continually discuss what’s happening in your city and share best practices from other cities.
● Borys: We receive ideas from our online community every day for our work across Canada, the U.S. and around the world. How that plays out and what that looks like is completely unique to the locality and the most important conversations at hand. Sometimes it is as simple as a plea for a crosswalk at a particularly dangerous intersection. Sometimes it is as complex as an expression of support for changing policy or land use direction to support livability. Sometimes it is another host offering their time to help convene community. Ideas shared both in-person and online are the skin and bones of the kind of social capital that is a core component of placemaking. This process is as old and as essential as sharing stories around a campfire. Certainly we Canadians have plenty of experience around campfires, now we just need to morph that experience over to community engagement.
Since the City of Winnipeg’s planning department is spatially tucked away behind the Hotel Fort Garry and its online presence is quite minimal, it comes as no surprise that the excellent work of Winnipeg’s city planners has gone unnoticed.
As new technologies continue to emerge online — offering opportunities to promote the values of city building, to engage a wide variety of audiences, and to deliver information about municipal projects — cities should encourage their city planners to modernize their ways of communication. More opportunities to communicate could nurture more informed and engaged residents, and potentially improve city-building discussions and support informed decision-making.
What will Winnipeg’s planning department’s first Twitter post be?
Here’s an idea — all within Twitter’s 280-character count: "Hello Winnipeg! We’re your planning department, and we want you to be part of our city-building efforts. If you didn’t know already, we create policies, regulations and guidelines that support the development of healthy and resilient places. Want to learn more? Get in touch!"
Jason Syvixay is an award-winning urban planner and public relations professional currently completing his PhD in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta. He has worked as the managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a planner with HTFC Planning & Design, and more recently, has joined the City of Edmonton to lead and support the implementation of its Infill Roadmap.