Public Participation in City Planning issues has been a topic of concern for many years but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, 2020 forced the City of Toronto, including City Planning into virtual engagement.
Since June, 2020, the Committee of Adjustment has held over 230 virtual public hearings and over 250 community meetings on development applications and studies were also hosted virtually (as of Aug, 2021).
On April 7, 2021, City Council directed Planning to review virtual planning consultation meetings, in consultation with members of the public and report back to the Planning and Housing Committee in the second quarter of 2021 with recommendations for improvement including:
- guidelines and practices to ensure that virtual community consultation meetings are consistent and effective;
- strategies to improve opportunities for members of the public to participate in virtual community consultation meetings;
- best practices related to virtual consultation in other jurisdictions;
- opportunities to improve accessibility for members of the public and, in particular, members of the public participating by phone;
- opportunities to enhance and expand details and images contained in the public meeting notices which are mailed out to the community;
- opportunities to enhance signage which is placed on development sites, including images, plans and other drawings, by either the City or the applicant as requested by the City;
- the feasibility of a “print-to-mail on demand” option for physical supporting materials such as slide presentations which may not be available for residents without computer access; and h. options to share the responsibility of consultation supports with applicants.
FoNTRA spoke to their submission confirming their concern that virtual consultations have resulted in an overall reduced ability of residents to have meaningful participation in the planning process. A conscious and sustained effort to design and implement processes (perhaps a “mixed model”) is required to overcome the inherent barriers to participation raised by the virtual environment.
On June 28, the Planning and Housing Committee, based on a letter from Councillor Mike Layton on Broadening Access to Our City Planning Processes, recommended that City Council request the City Clerk and the Chief Planner to report back on actions which could be taken to address systemic barriers to accessing the public engagement process, including but not limited to:
- providing translated notification of planning applications and community meetings, through both on-site signage and by mailed notices, in languages other than English in neighbourhoods that meet a minimum threshold of households who speak a language other than English at home;
- continuing to provide virtual community meetings, in addition to in-person meetings, once Covid-19 pandemic restrictions are lifted;
- providing electronic notifications to interested parties via email for public community meetings and decision notices;
- ensuring that meeting materials, including presentations and reports, are available digitally in advance of community meetings;
- improving translation services available at public community meetings by providing interpreters, as required;
- standardizing the requirement for requiring the applicants to provide refreshments at in person public community meetings;
- requiring, if requested, the applicants to provide childcare services at in person public community meetings; and h. requiring, if requested, the applicants to provide professional facilitators at community consultation meetings that are anticipated to be contentious
On July 14, 2021 City Council adopted the recommendation, requesting that the City Clerk and the Chief Planner and Executive Director, City Planning report back to the Planning and Housing Committee on actions which could be taken to address systemic barriers to accessing the public engagement process.
City Planning released a Report for Action on ‘Effective Public Participation in City Planning Processes and Community Engagement – Update’ on Sep 7, 2021 for presentation at the Sep 21, 2021 Planning and Housing Committee meeting.
The Planning and Housing Committee approved the Report for Action with amendments on Sep 21, 2021 directing:
- The Chief Planner and Executive Director to collaborate with the City Clerk and City Manager’s Office on improvements to engagement and equity-focused engagement.
- The Chief Planner and Executive Director to conduct public consultations on its virtual and equity-focused engagement methods by gathering participant feedback in upcoming planning studies, development applications, and Committee of Adjustment hearings.
FoNTRA spoke to their Sept. 20, 2021 letter expressing residents’ concerns regarding the virtual consultation process. Looking ahead to the day when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, in person meetings should remain the core element of Planning’s community consultation process. While there is a role for supplementary virtual meetings they should not be viewed as a substitute for local in-person public meetings. It is not clear how to improve engagement and equity-focused engagement for Committee of Adjustment hearings as it is a tribunal with its own rules and regulations. The report presents a summary of current processes and some of the challenges but it does not present the results of public consultation on the current process, or a plan for improvement. It was recommended that City Planning arrange focused consultations with residents’ associations and other groups.