Thoughts on the intertubesWhen I first started blogging, a lot of the ideas that I proposed were influenced by what I read on sites like Urban Toronto and the Canadian Public Transportation Discussion Board. I don't know if the quality of discussion has changed or if I have changed, but I feel that those venues (and others like the official Facebook and Twitter pages for the transit establishments and newspaper article comments) have become filled with comments about how every endeavour to improve transit is an epic failure, a pork barrel project, or a general waste of time and money. Generally speaking, it's quite rare that a viable alternative emerges from this discourse.
As a planner in the digital economy, I'm left wondering what the effects on public consultation will be as it moves online onto these venues where unwavering opposition can drown out other opinions. If my perception of the quality of discourse is accurate, I fear that agencies will become less responsive to the public demands. We must create solutions to the problems we face as a society, but in the absense of constructive criticism, it is likely that the solution will not be implemented at all, or it will be implemented as proposed without changes. The result is no one being happy and everyone being mad at the planning process.
It would be unreasonable to expect that every proposed project will be welcomed with open arms. But, at the same time, it would be unreasonable to expect that unwavering opposition will get a project cancelled for good. The power plant proposed for Oakville appears to have been cancelled, but we still have to increase our generating capacity in some form. The eco fees were withdrawn from the point of sale, but we still have to pay to dispose of these dangerous chemicals through our taxes. In either case, public opposition has only shifted the perceived threat - not eliminated it.
So what do we do?
For planners, I think we need to speak more to the spinoff benefits of projects and where they fit in the grand plan. PRESTO, for example, offers no practical benefit for someone who uses the TTC exclusively and buys a Metropass every month. But for people who use multiple systems and want to see some sort of fare integration, a smart fare system is a pre-requisite and an invaluable tool. Subways to Vaughan and Richmond Hill offer no visible benefit, but the rationale is quite clear in the context of the planned communities at the terminus. These secondary benefits and long term planning goals need to be explained just as much as the short term benefits and goals. In short, planners need to be educators so that people aren't surprised when a controversial high-density development is proposed under the new official plan that the people applauded a year earlier.
For the general public, this post is not advocating that we accept whatever is proposed to us. We should advocating for changes that improve the project overall. But, we needs to realize that, in the debate between waiting to do a perfect job and doing what one can with the tools available, waiting might mean postponing the project indefinitely. Take Transit City for example - we could wait until the climate is right for a full subway on Sheppard and let traffic get worse, or we can proceed with the fully funded project that will still improve the situation. In my opinion, we need to act now instead of waiting for an uncertain future. Secondly, we need to recognize that not all projects will benefit us directly, but this is no reason to obstruct them. You might never plan to use a proposed transit line in your neighbourhood, but this is no reason to oppose the project. The transit line will probably increase your property values as it will make living where you are more desirable than similar neighbourhoods.
Someone once said that everyone thinks that they are an urban planner. While we wouldn't challenge a professional engineer's opinion and we tend to listen to our lawyer's advice, for some reason it's socially acceptable to tell an urban planner how to do his job. I suppose this is because planning affects our every day lives - where we live, where we work and how we travel between those two places. As such, public consultation is important and is directly related to the quality of the project in the end. Planners have to educate the public and guide the process, but the difference between a good project and a hated project is lies in how constructive or obstructionist citizens want to be.