Participatory Canada: How can everyday people make extraordinary change?

On June 22, 2021, The Canadian Urban Institute, in partnership with Participatory Canada and its partners hosted an extended edition of CityTalk Canada to explore creative solutions to our greatest urban challenges and share lessons learned in North End, Halifax, N.S., Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Montreal, QC and Regent Park, Toronto, ON.

5 Key
Takeaways

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

“If the system isn’t working, we build our own” 

Aimee Gasparettoprogram director of Every One Every Day in Halifax, compares social infrastructure to an ecosystem. A healthy social ecosystem is an interconnected network of spaces and relationships that work to leverage resources throughout an entire community. The key to the vitality of this ecosystem is interconnectedness. But this does not always spontaneously happen. The Participatory City platform is an adaptive approach to increasing access to community resources through broad participation, fostering the cross-cultural and cross-demographic connections that serve to strengthen community bonds.

Three cities, three custom strategies, three hyper local approaches

Keren Tang, national coordinator for Participatory City Canada, summarized the universal themes and lessons learned from the teams in Halifax, Montreal and Toronto which can be categorized in three areas: 

  • Baseline social disconnection 
  • The importance of broad programs over targeted services 
  • The effectiveness of a diversity in programs  

While the basic foundational ingredients are similar, the methods through which each team prototyped their engagement strategies were adapted with hyper locality in mind. A community newspaper in one city was highly effective at drawing in participation while the same method fell flat in another. Hybridization, experimentation, and community co-creation were essential to custom tailor strategies for the most participatory impact.

Increasing entry points is the key to improving accessibility

Top-down targeted social services and programs identify specific demographics based on need. Pam Glode-Desrochers, executive director of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax, calls this the silo approach.” These programs operate in isolation and do not allow for real cross-cultural connections. Denise Soueidan-O’Leary, senior program manager for the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, oversaw the delivery of twelve different project workshops in Regent Park which brought people together based on interest, not need. By bringing diverse groups together, Denise observed neighbours connecting, kids playing together and residents offering each other jobs.

We need social infrastructure that allows everybody to plug-in 

According to Tessy Britton, CEO of Participatory City Foundation, social infrastructure should be a priority the same way hard infrastructure is considered a priority in the development of our cities. Government has a role to play in the funding of social infrastructure, but so far Denise laments the “drip drop” funding typical of one-year proposals. Larger up-front funding, with less conditions attached, are essential to getting these broad participatory programs up and running. Conditional grants often rely on quantitative, measurable outcomes. But increased social connectivity can manifest in ways not captured by numbers. Grassroots organizations fostering cross-community connections require significant funding and free reign to build the necessary social infrastructure that allows people to thrive in their neighbourhoods. 

Weaving it all together 

Maude Lapointe, coordinator at Solon Collectif in Montreal, says, “the whole goal of this was really to just build connections, build networks, create a more resilient and sustainable community.” Keren puts forward the idea of “compound outcomes,” as a way of working towards this goal. Social outcomes are tied to economic outcomes and vice versa. Local actions ultimately have tremendous impacts on the greater economy. Sustainable practices at the local level, if widely adopted, can shift the economy to a more circular and sustainable model. This interconnectedness calls for comprehensive systems level strategies to maximize the well being of all peoples. Improved civic landscapes, more diverse programs and increased access to services will have positive ripples throughout our cities. 

Resources

Participatory Canada – Y1 Social Research & Development Report  https://www.participatorycanada.ca/y1report 

Participatory Canada – Canada Participatif  https://www.participatorycanada.ca –  https://www.canadaparticipatif.ca 

Participatory Canada – Tools to Act  http://www.participatorycity.org/tools-to-act  

Canada Participatif – Voir le nouveau rapport du Canada Participatif  https://www.canadaparticipatif.ca/a1rapportfinal 

Medium Post from Aimee in Halifax  https://agasparetto.medium.com/insights-from-the-ground-on-developing-a-platform-approach-to-inclusive-participation-and-9ee0fa1994de 

Tessy Britton’s Medium Page  https://tessybritton.medium.com/ 

CSI’s Reflection  https://socialinnovation.org/news/2021/05/14/how-were-helping-build-community-wealth-in-regent-park 

Every One Every Day Kjipuktuk-Halifax https://socialinnovation.org/news/2021/05/14/how-were-helping-build-community-wealth-in-regent-park 

Every One Every Day TO  https://socialinnovation.org/offering/everyoneeverydayto 

Solon Collectif – Notre voisinage page  http://solon-collectif.org/notre-voisinage/ 

Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre  https://mymnfc.com/ 

Tomorrow Today Streets  https://www.weareeveryone.org/tomorrowtoday