CREDIT: Richard White; Calgary Herald
In my March column on the role community associations play in shaping our city, I promised to follow up with a piece about how not all community associations are created equally. To do this, I chatted with Brian Pincott, former Calgary city councillor.
Pincott served as councillor for Ward 11 from October 2007 to October 2017. During that 10-year period, he worked with 19 community associations on a variety of contentious issues including the River Park/Sandy Beach/Britannia Slopes redevelopment, the southwest ring road and the southwest BRT, as well as smaller projects such as parks and playground improvements.
Q: What are the challenges facing community associations in Calgary today?
A: The biggest challenge is the unrealistic expectation placed on community associations by the city to do community programming, building maintenance, comment on development issues and fundraise. In addition, community members expect community associations to fight for their community and often their individual personal interests. Residents often forget the board and committee members are volunteers. A second challenge is the uncertainty of their role as a community association. They often make comments on a new development or policy not specifically related to the project or planning issues. The result: their comments are not taken into consideration, which then causes some citizens to say “why bother?” and creates a cynicism towards the city.
Q: What are the challenges facing city council and administration in working with community associations?
A: The key challenge councillors and administration face is to ascertain whether or not the community association’s comments and positions truly represent the entire community. Do the 10 people on the association’s board really understand and represent the 7,000 (more or less) people in the community, given they are often elected by a mere handful of people who show up at the AGM? While they are called community associations, sometimes they represent the opinion of fewer than 50 people! A second challenge is determining the competency and knowledge brought to the table by volunteers. While in some cases, the individuals are very professional and informed with a view to the “common good”; in other cases, the individuals are only interested in their personal agenda and special interests.
Because of all the uncertainty as to who is actually at the table with you, who they represent and how they form their opinions, it is impossible to treat all community associations equally. This is where the councillor’s knowledge and relationship with each community association is critical in providing clarity at council meetings.
Q: What are your thoughts on Calgary’s “community engagement” process?
A: Community engagement is a bit of a punching bag for everyone.
If a small group of people want to disrupt it, they will and they can. It doesn’t matter how good it is. We see that in project after project, the southwest BRT being the latest.
Over my 10 years on council I feel we tried everything when it came to engagement and there were always a few people who said “they weren’t engaged.”
The redevelopment of Britannia Slopes/Sandy Beach/River Park is a great example.
This regional park was identified as needing a lot of work. So, the parks department identified the stakeholders, i.e. community associations, dog walkers and environmental groups and asked them to appoint people to a steering committee. Over the course of a year, this group identified problems within the park and came up with solutions. They reported back to the groups and a couple of open houses were held. When the final plan was then presented at an open house, all hell broke loose. People loved the park just the way it was and were upset any changes were being considered. Then a huge letter writing campaign to council ensued which resulted in more consultation at a cost of another $250,000.
This time, we used every tool available: online, in person, town halls, flyers and newsletters – the works. In the end, 2,000 people participated in the engagement. When it came to council, very few people came to speak and many said the engagement process was the model for the future! Those who were unhappy with the plan had participated, so while they didn’t get what they wanted, they at least understood the compromises made to accommodate all users. It was approved unanimously by council.
Being it was a $6 million project, it took a couple of years to get the funding. When construction started, “all hell broke loose” again. People were outraged they hadn’t been consulted, they knew nothing about it.
Same thing with the southwest BRT. We had nine open houses over five years, newspaper stories, community newsletters, updates from the councillor, yet people said they didn’t know about it. I think the underlying issue is the people who demand more consultation are not actually interested in engagement.
They are interested in killing the project by any means necessary. The noise and vitriol they produce drives away those who wish to learn more and want to truly participate.
Unfortunately, there is a loud minority in every community, individuals who are generally not positive people and they hinder engagement for everyone.
Q: What has been your most positive experience working with a community association?
A: I love Haysboro! Their community association is working to build a community for everyone. When Haysboro came into Ward 11 in 2010 after some boundary changes, the community association was mostly “fighting City Hall!” They were opposed to any changes in their community. But, over a couple of years, board members retired and new people came onto the board who were truly interested in understanding community needs and finding ways to engage neighbours with each other.
The community association looked for ideas to achieve exactly that. So, they had parades and other events, built community gardens, natural parks and promoted cycling – all with the goal of building community pride.
They worked to understand where the community came from and where it could be going in the context of a growing and changing city. They studied things like the Municipal Development Plan so they could direct the change, rather than fight it. They have been successful on every front. The community is welcoming more families who are more active and want more participation in the community. And developers are willing to come and talk to them about vision and how they can be a part of it. Today, the Haysboro community association is advocating for increased pedestrian and cycling connectivity, more transit – and sustainability embedded into everything. They are doing all this for their kids, and their kids’ kids.
They truly are an inspiration!
Q: How does role of Calgary’s community association differ from that of other Canadian cities?
A: Calgary has more community associations than anywhere else in Canada and our system is a foreign idea to many who move here. Calgary gives more responsibility to community associations than most other cities. We expect them to comment on development permits, maintain their buildings, do community needs assessments and business plans. All this with little financial support from the city. It is a lot to place on volunteers.
Q: What advice for Calgarians or community associations when it comes to the role of citizens in reshaping their communities for the 21st century?
A: Think about how you build community. Neighbourhood change is inevitable. I like to remind people downtown Calgary and the Beltline used to be mostly single-family residential communities. Think about how to make things better for people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds in the community.
Build on the community’s existing assets and embrace opportunities to try new things.
Look at what other communities are doing around the world.
If there are things you would like to add to your community, then find a way to do so.
Communities can’t thrive without leadership, open mindedness and honest communication.
You need to foster your leadership, honesty and communication – they don’t just magically happen.
Q: What other thoughts would you like to share regarding community associations?
A: The membership of a community association board or planning committee can change in a matter of months, which can then significantly change their position on development. Just look at the recent upheaval in Lakeview where the community association radically moved from a thoughtful participatory process to one of building walls. It is shocking; good people are resigning.
The direction and position a community association takes on an issue often depends on who shows up to the meeting as communities are made up of people with a diversity of ideas on what is “good” for their community. Consequently, a community’s position can change dramatically from one meeting to the next.
LAST WORD Indeed, the diametrically opposed ideas of Calgarians on what makes a good city/community is what makes it challenging for the city of Calgary’s administration and council to make the tough decisions needed to redevelop our city for the future.