Where It All Starts

April 14, 2013

Etobicoke York Community Council.

You know, if we could ever convince enough people that involvement in matters of city planning, revenue generation or affordable housing was as important to them as their neighbour’s fence and available parking, fenceheightswe would have a very actively engaged citizenry.

It is amazing (and I use the word in all its non-pejorative meaning) the dedication residents display to matters that directly affect them. People want to be heard. They will put in great effort and care, and set aside personal fear of public speaking to step forward and have their say. It’s not always eloquent. Some of it is definitely self-serving. But it’s usually passionate and heartfelt.

Messy, messy, beautiful democracy at work.

Based on a geographic area of the city, the Etobicoke York Community Council’s responsibilities include making recommendations and decisions on local planning and development, as well as neighbourhood matters including traffic plans and parking regulations. Community Councils reports to City Council but they also have final decision-making power on certain items, such as fence by-law exemptions and appointments to local boards and Business Improvement Areas. 

Etobicoke York is one of four community councils, the others being North York, Scarborough and Toronto East York. micromanage1And while I wondered if fence exemptions were specific to Etobicoke York, apparently that’s not the case. (Click here and type in ‘Fence Exemptions’.) We are a city united in fence exemptions, amalgamated in hedgerow heights.

I won’t lie. There were times early on in the meeting when I wondered if, given the current council structure, councillors should really be adjudicating over many of the picayune matters that crop up at community councils. Bigger fish to fry and all that. Surely there must be a more productive way to sort out what seemed to be personal grievances.

But then, an item sprung up, after the fence exemptions had been dealt with, that made me reconsider my condescending thoughts.

On the face of it, another seemingly routine matter. Traffic light placement. Essentially, the city was replacing a pedestrian controlled crosswalk with traffic lights but the discussion evolved into whether simply moving the crosswalk 300 metres east would make more sense. This then precipitated a much bigger conversation about traffic flow and pedestrian patterns. Some of the nuts and bolts of urban planning.

Here was a local resident, getting actual face time with elected officials to express his views on how traffic should move in his neighbourhood. trafficplanThe politicians were able to see how rules, regulations and by-laws might be affecting residents, and to ensure some flexibility in the enforcement stemming from those rules, regulations and by-laws. City staff aren’t supposed to interpret or adaptively implement rules. At community council, councillors can. A face is put to a decision.

Of course, not all the business that comes up at community council meetings is of the micro-local kind. The three more suburban community councils are noted for their brevity in comparison to the Toronto East York Community Council which traditionally spends additional time on wider ranging issues like tall building development and bigger commercial matters (not to mention it is the most populous of the community councils). It’s not unusual for a councillor sitting on, say, the North York Community Council to wrap up business there and get downtown to City Hall to take in the remainder of the Toronto East York Community Council.

But on Tuesday, the downtown came westside as I’m sure nobody’s ever said before. civicengagementNot only did members of the EYCC fight to get their meeting done by lunch, most of them came back for a rare evening session where the 7 year planning process for the Mimico 20/20 development was having another public airing. Some 150 members of the public came out to hear and give 3+ hours of deputations about what was shaping up to be a major reformation of the Ward 6 lakefront neighbourhood.

This was the whole ball of wax. The Official Plan. A Secondary Plan. Revitalization. Intensification. Mobility. Affordability. The big daddy of fence extensions, you might say. The local councillor, Mark Grimes, seems genuine in his desire to try to give a more liveable shape to the wall of high rise condos moving west from the core along the water. But questions remain — big, city altering questions – how best to do that.

Remarkably, in the face of such substantive change, the general tone of the deputations was one of willing accommodation. civicengagement1Yes, there was a contingent of NIMBYism. Those who cherished the view of the lake from their front porch or who wanted to maintain the feel of a small town in the midst of the big city. One deputant brought forth a proposal to build everything on stilts to enable everyone easy access to the lake. But they were in the minority.

Most spoke eloquently, ardently and knowledgeably about the proposal. It wasn’t perfect to anyone in the room for sure. Yet, as an outsider, it seemed like progress toward an acceptable solution was happening. Members of the community council voted to defer a decision for a couple months in order to try and hammer out further solutions. There were no angry outbursts as the audience filed out of the room nearly 4 hours after the meeting started.

The democratic process in action. Community council as the burning gears of civic participation. Voting is just the beginning. Engagement puts meat on the bones. Maybe it all starts with fence exemptions.

fencebuilding

fence-buildingly submitted by Cityslikr