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Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon

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Now that we are a couple months removed from the public presentations and consultation process for the redevelopment of Lebreton Flats I am anxious to see what recommendations will be made to the National Capital Commission (NCC) Board of Directors by the evaluation committee.

Their recommendation along with a summary of the public input that was compiled for the committee will be made public sometime this spring.

As we await their recommendation, I can’t help but wonder what influence our input will have on the committee’s decision, if any at all. I am optimistic that the more than 7,900 people who submitted comments will feel as if they were a valued part of the process through some correlation between the summary and the selected design. However, the public engagement process has left me with some reservations.

The magnitude of the Lebreton redevelopment demanded more than a few public presentations and two weeks to provide comments through an online questionnaire. While we likely won’t see another project of its size or prominence in the near future it does call into question whether the current public engagement strategies are adequate. I would argue that they aren’t.

To date Ottawa has championed the online questionnaire for gathering feedback from citizens. As mentioned, for the Lebreton redevelopment this tool was employed in conjunction with the question period of the public presentations.

Similarly, although it may be a distant memory to some now, the City undertook the Liveable Ottawa 2031 project two years ago which also consisted of an online questionnaire.  The perspective gained from this exercise was supposed to play a role in influencing public policy in Ottawa which would be reflected in the amendments to the Official Plan, Transportation Master Plan, Infrastructure Master Plan, Cycling Plan, and Pedestrian Plan.

Yet some of the Liveable Ottawa questions were too ambiguous and were left open to interpretation as previously noted by yowLAB and the Ottawa Citizen. Additionally, it is still unclear to me how the information gathered was put to use.

I think we all appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback but without an understanding of how it will be put to use, the incentive to continue participating diminishes.

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While the National Capital Commission was pleased to announce the success of their public consultation with nearly 8,000 responses to the questionnaire on the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats, we are left asking to what end? How will the content of those questionnaires be compiled? Who will see the results? How will public feedback be used, if at all, and at what stage of the decision making process?

Following the close of the online feedback, the NCC chief executive Mark Kristmanson exclaimed:

The high level of civic engagement and serious debate on the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats will help guide this historic project to a successful conclusion.

Yet many, myself included, were disappointed because the public consultation lacked precisely that; opportunity for meaningful engagement and serious debate.

Despite a few leaks, no details were shared about either proposal until the public presentations on January 26 and 27 at the Canadian War Museum. Neither the formal presentations, that were more marketing than informative, or the Q&A session were sufficient for facilitating serious debate.

With only two weeks to participate in the only official form of public feedback, the extremely limited format of the online questionnaire contributed little more than a flood of knee-jerk reactions and poll of individual opinions. Engagement and debate require an opportunity to interact.

The number of questionnaire responses shows sincere public interest. The NCC should be excited. Sadly we have not been given a platform to actively engage in prioritizing goals or guiding principles to construct the groundwork for a responsible and meaningful development.

On the “ladder of citizen participation”—a tool devised in the 1960s by Sherry Arnstein for classifying participation—the LeBreton Flats process sadly falls at best in the “tokenism” category of placation, consultation, and informing. There is no partnership or citizen power.

Especially in the light of the history of the Flats as emblematic of the kind of authoritative control of the highly criticized and problematic mid-century approach to urban planning, we have to wonder whether our present day process is realistically any more sensitive or sensible.

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