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Feb.6 meeting follow-up post #2

2. Social engineering at Dufferin Grove Park

There are building projects all over the city, and design firms are busy, busy. Many of the projects involve holding “community consultation” meetings before construction gets going. So design firms are often hybrids, doing both design and meetings with residents. One example is the Toronto-based Urban Strategies “global design and planning consultancy,” which has been shaping open-house information meetings with residents around the Wallace-Emerson rec centre as well as doing high-level planning for the developments there. Now they’re doing the same for the tall towers at the Dufferin Mall.

For the Dufferin Grove “Northwest Corner Revitalization Project,” though, the city asked a specialist firm called Lura Consulting to run the show. Lura’s website says that their staff know how to use “integrated behavioural change principles and social marketing techniques in community planning processes.” On their behavior-change web page they say “Encouraging behaviour change and creating a culture of positive change for a desired behaviour is vital for the successful implementation of many strategies.’’

The leader of the Lura team at Dufferin Grove is Liz McHardy. Her website bio says she’s a “strategic systems-thinker [who] uses appreciative inquiry methods to establish integrity and trust in process participants,” and that she’s a trainer in “guided learning.”

In other words, Lura was hired to help Parks and Rec do the social engineering that this project needs, to get going. Last year, city council approved an open service contract with Lura. The firm can be deployed wherever they’re needed for Parks and Rec projects up to a cost of $200,000 a year. So the Lura specialists can be used for difficult project locations. And Dufferin Grove is certainly a difficult location. The first reaction from most park users when they found out in 2016 that a construction project was in the works was “what’s wrong with the rink and clubhouse it as it is? Don’t change anything!” It happens, though, that even before Lura got the open service contract in 2018, the firm already had a contract for Dufferin Grove. So in November 2016, Lura went to work.

Engineers need tools, and these were brought out gradually.

On November 24, 2016, City Councillor Ana Bailao held an introductory public meeting and introduced Lura Consultants as the people in charge of the meeting. All the meeting participants were seated at separate round tables. This was the first engineering tool. There was a good supply of pens, both coloured and black, and paper, coloured and white, in the middle of each table – an invitation to work: the second tool.

“Do nothing” was one of the three options presented. But right after Lura's opening remarks, the city Capital Projects staff introduced the idea that actually there were a few things that couldn’t be postponed. The kitchen in the clubhouse needs to be updated to meet the codes of today. There are also accessibility concerns that need to be addressed.

City staff invoking unspecified code violations was the third tool.

The Lura staff resumed after the city staff’s intervention: while we’re at it, why not do a whole makeover to make a good thing even better? There is as yet no fixed budget, or even a ballpark one, for the project, but could the participants just take a few minutes and write down what they might like to see if there was some extra money? So everybody went to work with the coloured pens and papers at their tables.

At the end of the meeting, names were collected for people willing to be consulted further, and then goodnight.

The next step was for Lura to put together an official volunteer group to consider what might be done. This was called a “Community Resource Group” – CRG – the fourth tool. It had the heightened cachet of being curated. People who had signed the volunteer list were invited to apply for membership. They were told that a CRG “is comprised of 12-15 members, representing a balance of interests including: Park and clubhouse users; Local residents; Community and resident organizations; Local businesses and institutions; and Local professionals with skills/training/experience in park design, park planning, or landscape architecture.” But actually, of the people who filled out the applications, Lura accepted everybody. (A partner at Urban Strategies, Ben Hoff, became a volunteer member, filling one of the “local professionals” spots.)

At two CRG meetings that followed, one in February and another in May of 2017, Lura still had no budget information to share. The CRG members, despite being respectfully treated and told that their opinions were vital to the project, were also told that they would not be allowed to read the consultants’ reports commissioned for the project by city staff. Nor would they be allowed to participate in the interviews to decide the architecture company that the city would be hiring to design whatever changes were coming.

There were grumblings, and a few people dropped out. This was not working.

So the project team called a time-out, for half a year. My next post will be about what happened when the time-out was done.

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