Even as city staff congratulates the approximate 10,400 residents who have participated in the ReThink London process, several councillors are wondering if their colleagues are listening.
During the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee meeting on Monday (Aug. 26), members unanimously received the latest update from staff on the ReThink London process. ReThink is seeking public input on the modernization of London’s official plan.
Back in April, the city’s planning department began to roll out eight discussion papers to frame the next component of ReThink’s public engagement process. Those papers included: A Prosperous City; Connecting the Region; Compact City; Transportation; Greener City of London; Culture and Diversity; Neighbourhoods; and Wise Planning.
During Monday’s meeting, Gregg Barrett, the city’s manager of land use planning policy, delivered a brief update to the committee on the findings of those very discussion papers. As those papers generated approximately 400 responses, Barrett said it is clear London residents have remained engaged by ReThink.
“Overall, there has been a great deal of public confirmation of those strategic directions,” Barrett said. “To be this far into it and still be eliciting this much public interest has been very heartening for all of us.”
The report highlighted numerous points, summed up by Barrett’s assertion that people are consistently revealing to staff details of the “the type of city people want to live in.”
The question for some on the committee, however, was weather the message being sent by the public is being heard around the council horseshoe.
Ward 13 Councillor Judy Bryant said the ReThink process is drawing international recognition, but appears to be somewhat ignored when it comes to decisions council makes around planning issues.
“We have a lot of information, maybe 10,400 people, and yet what we do at council doesn’t reflect what we hear from ReThink,” Bryant said. “It is critical to me as to where council stands on ReThink. Are we listening? Probably not. We don’t listen to staff. This is my concern. What the staff say very often reflect what our community is asking us.”
Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher supported Bryant despite the fact he said her questioning of whether council was listening could be perceived by some as an insult. However, because of “some of the decision we make around the horseshoe,” Usher said he is bothered that council feels it can sometimes “go its separate way” on issues brought forward by ReThink.
Bryant and Usher, along with several speakers during the meeting, thanked planning staff, including John Fleming, managing director of planning, for the work that has gone into the ReThink process.
For his part, however, Fleming was quick to push that praise to the whole ReThink team, but also added “it is the whole community that has come forward and has to be thanked.”
Very few other communities, Fleming said, have come forward in the way London residents have since ReThink first began. From this point, Fleming said, focus will shift to preparation of a draft official plan. That draft will then go back to the public so they can have another say on where the process is headed.
When it comes to explaining who the public is, Fleming was quick to explain what that word means to him.
“The public, when I am referring to that label, I am talking about a very inclusive group,” Fleming said. “I am talking about the development community. I am talking about the consulting industry. I am talking about residential neighbourhoods, I am talking about institutional groups, agencies, it is the city outside of these walls.”
Mayor Joe Fontana agreed with Fleming, calling it an “extraordinary” process that has engaged people in a very meaningful way. However, the mayor said it is “a fact of life” that the average person does not “stay up late thinking about what that Official Plan says until it affects them personally."
Fontana said he believes council is listening to the public and that he wants to ensure more input is sought out from London residents. Fleming said the entire draft plan will be brought forward for people to examine, not in a “statutory” way, but rather in an “innovative” fashion.
Ward 3 Councillor Joe Swan added what he called “a note of caution” to the discussions. Saying he worries ReThink is “promising something that may not be deliverable,” Swan said there has to be a way of balancing conflicts that arise between choices.
“If you look at the statistics, basically 80 to 90 percent of people want everything. And the reality is that is why our jobs are sometimes pretty tough,” Swan said. “Sometimes you can’t have everything and you have to make decisions and choices that set priorities that are practical, they are affordable and are achievable.”