Green Decisions: A Community Process

by Stephanie Doerksen, Intern Architect for VIA Architecture

I recently attended the Resilient Cities Conference in Vancouver, co-hosted by Gaining Ground and Smart Growth BC. In the afternoon of the first day, I attended a workshop session about community-based decision making processes for sustainable communities.

One of the panelists was Peter McLeod of MASS LBP, a Toronto based consulting firm specializing in proactive community research and consultation. He framed his talk with two questions which, although referring more generally to local governmental policy decisions, are extremely relevant to the type of urban planning and design decisions that VIA faces with on many of our projects.

The two questions were:
1.    How do we (local governments, planners, community groups) make the right decision regarding any particular issue relating to sustainability?
2.    How do we balance democratic processes with the need for quick action on environmental issues?

In order to answer these questions, we have to understand why the decision making process is difficult and what we generally do wrong.

We don't ask the right questions

In order to give citizens the right to meaningfully engage in the decision making process, they must have the opportunity to provide input, and this can only happen if the question is correctly framed.

The example given by McLeod came from a community in France in which residents were asked whether they would accept the construction of a nuclear waste dump in their neighbourhood. When the respondents understood that their community relied on nuclear power for its energy, over 50% responded that they would accept it. However, when residents were asked if they would put up with a nuclear waste dump in the community in return for a sum of money, the number of respondents who were willing to do so dropped drastically.

What this reveals is that generally citizens are willing to make sacrifices, or accept a decision that they see as being a civic duty or somehow beneficial to their community, but they are much less willing to accept something they see as being imposed on them, even if there is personal compensation involved.

We don’t have the right mechanisms

According to McLeod, standard analytical methods don’t bring solutions in the context of decision-making around sustainability. This is because there is no right decision when it comes to environmental issues. There are always trade-offs that have to be made. Rather than making the right decision, our goal is to make the best decision. This is a crucial shift in thinking, and one that needs to be conveyed to the participants of any collaborative decision-making process.

Because of the complexity of sustainability, the standard open house format of public consultation doesn’t work. Instead, we need to design a public learning process that engages the public imagination and provides residents with all the tools and knowledge they need to guide the process of building their community. Although this sounds more laborious and lengthy than the typical methodology, it would do us good to keep in mind that quality of the decision making process will reflect the quality of the decision.

We don't provide the evidence

In order to allow citizens to engage meaningfully in the decision-making process, we must provide them with real information that measures what is truly important. Traditional cost-benefit analyses tend to miss out on key aspects of environmental issues. They do not account for many of the repercussions of the proposed solutions, such as the impact on the health of residents, or the relative value of alternative solutions.

Despite their inappropriateness, we persist in using these types of analyses to provide a basis for decision-making. If we expect citizens to make the best decision for their community, we need to structure our analyses of the issues around the values of that community and to measure the factors that we want to be the basis for the decision.

In addition to providing the correct evidence around the issue itself, we need to provide participants with evidence that their engagement in the decision-making process is real. Public consultation should result directly in a policy decision, and this should be very clear throughout the process, so that participants have a sense of their responsibility towards their community.

In summary, there are certain key ways in which we need to rethink our standard methodology for collaborative decision making, to suit the particular needs of complex environmental issues.

We need to frame the question in a way that gives people the agency to participate in community building and, in doing so, we mustn’t underestimate the ability of citizens to make hard decisions or see beyond their immediate personal interest.

We need to develop analytical methods that measure the truly important aspects of the issues. We need to provide this information in the form of a community learning process, and this process needs to result in a concrete outcome, in the form of a policy decision, a community plan or some other directly measurable result.

Although these strategies, as they were presented by McLeod, were aimed at the municipal government level, as architects and planners we are often engaged in decision-making around issues of sustainability and community building. From time to time we engage directly in community consultation, but even if this is not the case, many of these collaborative decision-making strategies are invaluable to us, as we try to guide our clients in making difficult solutions on complex issues. We are often involved in integrating the input of a variety of consultants and disciplines, and working in a collaborative setting to make the best decision.

Image Sources: Conference Banner, Peter McLeod, Nuclear Waste