Episode 138 – Brainstorming A City

Edmonton’s population is on track to hit 2 million people by 2040. We got curious about what might be next in our city’s urban planning. And it turns out, there could be quite a bit of inspiration from the Philippines.

On this episode, our correspondent, Emily Rendell-Watson, explores the idea of participatory urban planning. This concept empowers citizens to participate in the design of their city, so that people can achieve self-reliance, sustainable development and social justice.

This isn’t the first time we’ve covered the topic of urban planning. In  2021, Julian Faid joined us to produce the Trailhead Series: a history of urban planning in Edmonton. It was a 6-part series that explored how Edmonton came to be the city that it is. If you like to geek out on urban planning, like we do, check it out!

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The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation. And is a proud, affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Image for this episode was supplied.

Transcripts by Karli Drew.


[The Well Endowed Podcast theme music plays]

Andrew Paul [00:00:25] Hi everyone. Welcome to The Well Endowed Podcast. I’m Andrew Paul.

Lisa Pruden [00:00:28] And I’m Lisa...

Pruden. This podcast is brought to you by Edmonton Community Foundation. We are a proud affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Andrew [00:00:37] Edmonton is full of generous donors who have created endowment funds at ECF. These funds are carefully stewarded to generate money that supports charities in Edmonton and beyond.

Lisa [00:00:45] On this podcast, we share stories about how these funds help strengthen our community… because it’s good to be well endowed.

Andrew [00:00:51] On this episode, we explore the idea of participatory urban planning.

Lisa [00:00:55] Right. But before we look ahead, let’s take a moment to look back. In 2021, we posted a whole series on urban planning on our show.

Andrew [00:01:04] Julian Faid joined us to produce the Trailhead series, a history of urban planning in Edmonton. It was a six-part series that explored how Edmonton came to be the city that it is.

Lisa [00:01:13] As Edmonton’s population continues to grow… and fast, we got curious about what might be next. And it turns out there could be quite a bit of inspiration from the Philippines.

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]

Andrew [00:01:23] Our correspondent, Emily Rendell-Watson, sat down with Lucenia Ortiz to find out more about the concept of participatory urban planning and what Edmonton can learn from this approach.

Emily Rendell-Watson [00:01:34] Edmonton is growing towards 2 million people, and at the current growth rate, it’s expected that we’ll reach that number by 2040. The City of Edmonton has charted a path there, but I was curious and wanted to learn more about the best way to plan for doubling the amount of people who live here. So I talked to Lucenia Ortiz, an Edmontonian who is passionate about a concept called participatory planning. Before immigrating to Canada, Lucenia got her master’s in urban and regional planning in the Philippines and worked as a planner there. She’s also worked with the City of Edmonton in social development for 12 years.

You may recognize some of the projects that she’s contributed to, like the city’s strategic plan, development of multicultural facilities, and the Mayor’s task force for the elimination of poverty. Although Lucenia is now retired, she’s recently been consulting with the city on its immigration and settlement policy. That’s also an important consideration in planning for Edmonton’s future growth.

So let’s dig into participatory planning, beginning with what it is and how it works and hear about Lucenia’s experience applying this process in the Philippines.

Lucenia Ortiz [00:02:40] Well, it’s an approach for people-oriented development that emphasizes raising the quality of participation in local societies as a step towards achieving self-reliance, sustainable development, and social justice. So as you can see, it really started in many developing countries that are experiencing higher levels of poverty as well as inequitable access to resources and opportunities for their own development. So that this concept really became the planning mantra in the ‘70s in many of these developing countries, including the Philippines because of its persistent social problems such as poverty and resource limitations such as government funding for development.

[00:03:30] And you must remember, too, at the time, it was also the failure of the trickle down economic development theories and the emergence of a bottom up approach. So because of that, the national planning agency in the Philippines, called the National Economic and Development Authority, adopted participatory development and planning as the grounding concept for national, regional, and local planning. So one of the projects I was involved with was a USAID-funded project called Local Resource Management, which is an initiative to train provincial and local planning officers on participatory development processes and tools.

Emily [00:04:15] What does participatory planning prioritize, and what does that really mean on a day-to-day basis for people?

Lucenia [00:04:23] So remember, participatory planning actually has three key principles. One is just a holistic process. When there is a problem that is presented, it’s not just looked at as an economic problem or a social problem, but really looked at broader. What are social, economic, and political conditions that are actually impacting on this particular problem? And then it’s participatory because it actually creates structures and processes where people can actually be engaged in identifying the problem, analyzing it, and actually proposing solutions based on their lived experience and realities.

[00:05:05] And as a result of that, because it is participatory, there is, you know, an element of power sharing, which means that it’s not only local officials or planning staff who holds the power in terms of access to resources, who will make the decisions, but the people themselves, too. So when you think of these grounding principles, it then enables us to create processes that allow this principle to be exercised in practice.

[00:05:35] It is a long and persistent process ’cause we have to work with local leaders, we identify community members most impacted by the problem or the issue that we are trying to tackle. And then engage them, not just in defining what their problems are, but also in making sense of “Why does this problem happen?” And sometimes we can actually arrive at the root of it. And then to engage them in “What could be solutions that actually reflect the— your context and realities?” So it is a constant negotiation with those who influence decisions for actions and plans. So it’s building relationships with staff in the local government or the provincial government as well as with local politicians. So as you can see, it’s not a well laid out, technical planning process of problem analysis and doing research and all that, but it’s very dynamic.

[00:06:39] What this means for people on a day-to-day basis is they need to stay engaged throughout the planning process. And whether there’s ebbs and flows and up and down, they need to get their hopes and these aspirations guide them so that they can continue to be part of the planning process. The role of the planner really is a guide on the side and a sage on the stage. You facilitate, you enable so that people’s ideas and, actually, their talents and skills come out. You have the skills to access data, things that people need so that their decisions, whatever they do, is guided by evidence.

Emily [00:07:25] What you said about it being really dynamic and really involving… so many different people, how much more successful did you find that was when people truly felt heard and engaged and that what they were experiencing on the ground was being reflected in how decisions were made?

Lucenia [00:07:45] So first of all, from a people’s perspective, I mean, as you know, we work with social problems such as poorer access to health services. So they’re vulnerable, marginalized, disadvantaged in terms of their ability, you know, to access opportunities and resources. And one of the things that we do is… is to make sure that people are actively engaged in… in… in the process when it’s— inspire them when things are down and excite them when there seems to be possibilities in their experience.

I think the most important thing is for someone who’s feeling disadvantaged and marginalized to feel empowered that they can actually do something about their own situation is so important. I think to me, as a planner, having seen people who felt that they can actually do something, it’s a much more joyful outcome as a planner. But the other thing, too, around some of the successes is that communities have been able to influence decisions in their own local government and they also feel the collective sense that they are not the only one experiencing this problem, but they actually have… allies and comrades to be able to present solutions that actually speaks of their situation.

Emily [00:09:12] I would love to hear an example about one of the projects that you worked on an-and what that looked like.

Lucenia [00:09:19] At the time, there are many places in the Philippines that don’t have adequate water supply. Studies have shown that local water systems that’s run by the local government are fraught with problems. They’re not well maintained and, actually, it didn’t really help much in terms of increasing people’s access to water supply. So we got funding from AusAID, the Australian agency for international development. The funding was an infrastructure funding to build water systems and local municipalities within a region. Planning process, we adopted a participatory development, which means that if the municipality cannot operate the water system, then it has to be the people. Which means that they have to be organized into local water and sanitation systems to be able to operate, you know, a water system once it gets constructed. But we know that we can’t just build those water systems without engaging people living in the municipality.

[00:10:26] So what we did is actually a year-round of community engagement. We hired community organizers to reach out and connect with community members in the municipality. And so, because the ultimate outcome is that we have a local and water sanitation association that will manage the water system that the Government of Australia is funding to construct. The usual process is that, you know, engineers in the municipality will do a survey and then they identify a site, and this is where it goes. Without asking local people, right? So what we did is that we had the engineers working with community members doing the survey together to identify sites where the water system could be constructed. Also, here’s the most wonderful part about it, it’s the design of the water system. So there’s a combination. It could be, if there is enough water sources. So, you know, pipe system would be kind of the gold star in water systems, but sometimes there’s not enough water sources.

[00:11:38] So we… we have what we call artisan wells or the pump system where you construct a well with a pump and people will go there to collect water. And, you know, the design of these artisan wells, of course they were made in Australia. So they were made for people who are six feet and above. [laughs] And the community said, “You know, who are the people who collect water? Women and children. So if you build these pumps too high, they won’t be able to reach it. So we have to work with Australian engineers to make sure that the design will actually fit the people who collect water, which are five foot and below.” As you can see, we’ve broken several rules in the traditional, conventional planning process. Having engineers work with community is not… [laughs] it’s not what you call the standard process when it comes to infrastructure.

[00:12:36] And so, at the same time that these are— the communities are involved in design, we are also organizing communities to train them that they will become not just leaders of the organization, but also as managers of the local water system. People are empowered that they can actually make decisions. It’s that— One of the municipalities who had an oppressive mayor for over, like, 30 years. Actually, in the next election, he was defeated. So to us, the concrete outcome we’ve been able to achieve, but also at the same time, because of this renewed capacity of people, that they actually have the power to make changes for themselves, that it also translates into other forms of participation such as political participation.

Emily [00:13:33] You know, instead of material resources, really using people and their knowledge as a resource, which I think is, you know, a really important approach. Now, you have the unique experience of having worked in planning in the Philippines and also in Canada, in Edmonton. So in your experience when you came to Edmonton and had had that experience in the Philippines and actually got into planning here, what was that like and how did planning look different in Edmonton, Alberta when you got into it?

Lucenia [00:14:07] So my first experience in planning, I was attending a newcomer, you know, settlement orientation program. So it’s a three-month program, and at the end of the program we get assigned to workplaces, you know, in the city. Because my background is planning, so I chose… is there any space available for some kind of volunteer work at the City of Edmonton? And so, my settlement worker actually found one at the time, this was in 1995, with the old parks and recreation. So at the time, the city had two very big departments, so parks and recreation was one of them. You know, they were very welcoming in terms of someone— and, you know, a planner wanting to have work experience in the planning field. So I was assigned with a team to support neighbourhood playground development. So they asked me, “How would you do building a playground in one of, you know, the neighbourhoods in the city?”

[00:15:08] So I took my participatory planning experience and designed a… a process where community members actually co-designed the playgrounds with the builders. So that was what I had proposed, but— well, you know, they appreciated it. They said, you know, they liked my design, but in the end, it was still the usual community consultation process where city staff would, you know, bring a group of people together from the neighbourhood and ask them, you know, how— what— how do they like the design and all that. And just took the inputs to the builder and built the playground. So it was still, you know— I mean, the community still were able to influence the kind of design that they liked, but it would have been nice if they actually co-designed it together with the builder or the architect, whoever was designing and building the playground. I thought that, you know, it was a missed opportunity for community members to actually have co-designed.

[00:16:14] So that was my very first experience. And many years later, when I was actually hired as a planner at the city, well it was in a social development section of the city… what I found is that you can see the separation of the physical land use, infrastructure, transportation planning, and social development planning. So they are in different departments. And then I… I also observed power and hierarchies.

So the urban planning department is regarded as the more… I guess, powerful, important. They have more resources, they have more influence in… many decisions that the city does that has to do with, you know, developing the city. And the social development section is a poor cousin, really. We don’t have that many staff. We don’t have that much resources. When in reality, the social development section is supposed to be the people’s department. The very reason why a city government exists? To serve its residents, the people.

[00:17:23] And in all my years working with the city and I was involved in many, you know, community engagement work, I still feel that it’s still one-way consultation. So, you know, you invite people in a discussion and you present. Here’s the new program, the policy, here’s an issue, here’s a proposal, and they get to comment on it. But those who participated in the discussion never knew what ever happened to that because I was one of the staff who had facilitated these discussions and we never gave them a report on, “Oh, by the way, this is what you told us. Here it is, it’s documented, and this is what we’re going to do with it.”

Emily [00:18:08] Where Edmonton is at now, obviously there’s a city plan in place. You know, when you look at its approach to planning and how that’s evolved versus your experience in the Philippines, there’s obviously a lot of impact in terms of how inclusive urban spaces are planned out. What does that mean for newcomers and people who… are in Edmonton for the first time? What does that mean for them?

Lucenia [00:18:35] In the planning school where I graduated, right, in the Philippines, we are oriented towards integrated planning concepts and approaches. Even if we take, you know, separate courses on land use planning and social development planning, it is very clear that when we are in these courses, that it’s always guided by what we call integrated urban planning concepts, which is directly connected, whether you’re doing land use or infrastructure or transportation, that the planning process is connected to the socioeconomic conditions in whichever local or regional context you’re doing the planning with. So that has always been my observation, and of course we are all schooled, at that time, on participatory development and planning. And, you know, for many newcomers, really, we tend to think of them as economic contributors to Canada because, like, 70% of immigrants who come here are actually evaluated by their education and work experience and the economic skills that they’re actually going to bring— which to a certain extent, of course it makes sense.

[00:19:52] But truly, and I say this for all newcomers, tho-those who come here through the skilled workers program, those who were admitted to join their families, or those who were admitted here as refugees who have fled their home country, is to think of them as whole persons. This is what we miss when we welcome newcomers because we always think of them, “Oh, they’re going to contribute to the economic goals wherever they are in their city or municipality.” But they come here as whole beings, not just people who can work, but they have goals and aspirations. They have other talents, they have other skills, they have social capital, cultural capital, they have resistance capital, their ability to actually advocate for issues that matter to them. They are here as whole persons, not just workers. And if municipalities cannot see that, then they’re losing a lot in terms of being able to harness and maximize the true wealth that many newcomers bring to our cities.

Emily [00:21:03] The idea of what this means for people at the community level, particularly newcomers, is something I wanted to hear more about. So I reached out to Yvonne Chiu. She’s co-chair of the city’s State of Immigration and Settlement Report Committee, and one of the founding members of the Multicultural Health Brokers Co-op. I began by asking her what participatory planning means to her, given the work she does with communities in Edmonton.

Yvonne Chiu [00:21:28] Participatory planning is really fundamentally important. It’s really about, um, members of, for example, a population who often are not very fully understood, actively engage in making decisions that impact them. So to me, participatory planning is so much about the true social inclusion of newcomers and ethnocultural community members. We have a chance, all of us, to create three kinds of social relationship or social capital.

The first kind is bonding, which means that within the ethnocultural community, uh, each community member has a chance to be associated with others and really look at issues that impact, you know, members of the community and together look for solutions, right? And really learn from each other. That’s called bonding. And that naturally happens a lot in Edmonton and other places where there are, you know, a high number of, uh, newcomers.

[00:22:22] The second kind of social relationship that’s very important is bridging. And that could be at the neighbourhood level, right? Oftentimes, we don’t have the opportunity to bring diverse neighbours together to really talk about issues that impact them every day, such as safety or healthy living, you know, um, the opportunity to have joyful interaction in the neighbourhood. And so with that, it’s so important that we have individuals who are facilitators. It could be the community league, you know, engage this. But often it would require someone who speaks different languages to help bring people together, to have real conversations about what’s happening in the neighbourhood that impacts everyone, hey, and what can be solutions across the cultural divide or linguistic divide. And so, there should be a certain form of participatory processes, right?

[00:23:15] The last kind of social capital is actually between diverse citizens and public institutions. It could be, for example, the municipal government. That kind of social capital is called linking. And for that kind of participatory process to happen, it really requires the city, for example, or other public institutions to develop very genuine ways to engage, you know, diverse citizens, particularly at times of, perhaps, uh, developing a policy or, uh, introducing a program to really look at how to co-design that kind of participatory processes. So real input is drawn from diverse Edmontonians towards items that have major decisions made about them, right? So these three different types of social relationships really require intentional participatory planning and facilitation.

Emily [00:24:11] That was Yvonne Chiu. And I wanna emphasize her points about a true participatory process bridging languages and cultures as well as ensuring that it’s accessible to anyone who wants to participate.

Okay, back to Lucenia.

Looking forward, can you give us an idea of where we’re headed now and why it’s so important that we get this right in terms of a city and at the neighbourhood level, what that really means for people?

Lucenia [00:24:38] The city truly has moved and advanced forward with the new city plan that was approved. Three years ago now, the city plan had adopted a most important principle, which is equity. The plan also underscored that people engagement is… is one of the anchoring pieces of the plan. But you know, I mean, a strategic plan is strategic and broad. It doesn’t provide you with, you know, actions truly on the ground. It is a progressive start to adopt equity as one of your key values in a city plan is very important. What I’d like to see more in terms of how the plan is implemented, and this is particularly important for newcomers because I have always said, where is the final destination of any newcomer who comes to… to Canada? Well, truly, it’s in neighbourhoods where they will call home, where they will play, learn, and connect with people. And if those neighbourhoods aren’t welcoming, the spaces in the neighbourhoods aren’t there for people to come together and connect, then this feeling of belonging and inclusion may not… may not happen.

[00:25:59] So what I really wanted hopefully to see in the implementation of the actions in the city plan that truly speaks about equity and inclusion is that, you know, to start with neighbourhoods. What are some— how do we design spaces in neighbourhoods that actually encourage people to go out and connect? How can we make our neighbourhoods safe so that someone wearing a hijab or someone with a different colour other than white can actually feel that it is safe to walk in these neighbourhoods? And so, I think these are some of the questions that I wanted to ask. And the second is— really is, how are people and people from many diversities can actually be en-engaged in developing and initiating actions that are part of the plan? It isn’t very clear how communities not just be consulted, but actually be engaged and be part of the solution-seeking efforts for… you know, for any issues.

[00:27:08] So these are some of the things that I really— I mean, to achieve true equity starts with the process of actually sharing power with those who don’t have power. Well, we are now, Canada, and I think it also cascades down to city— you know, municipal demographics, that we are now close to 25% foreign-born population or immigrants are close to 25% of the total population of cities and municipalities. And that is expected to grow because IRCC is actually increasing levels of immigration in the next 3-4 years. In the next 10 years that we might actually have a population— 30% of them would be immigrants. You know, all cities, not just the City of Edmonton needs to prepare for this. Hopefully that the work that we’re doing, updating the immigration and settlement policy for the City of Edmonton, would include those demographic projections when they begin to develop and design programs and services as well as opportunities for Edmontonians with diverse backgrounds to participate in public decision-making.

Emily [00:28:27] So you’ve heard Lucenia talk about the city plan, and if you aren’t familiar, our city plan was approved at the end of 2020. It combines a municipal development plan and transportation master plan, plus it includes strategic direction in environmental planning, social planning, and economic development.

Here’s Michael Strong, Principal Planner with the City of Edmonton, to share more about the goals of the city plan and how it will be implemented.

Michael Strong [00:28:51] Through the city plan, what we’re trying to do is invite people to become more involved in their community. We want them to feel a greater sense of belonging. One of the things that we heard from Edmontonians was a strong desire to have a sense of belonging. And this makes sense because when we think, uh, about Edmonton as it continues to grow from 1 million to 2 million, 70% of the people that will help us get to 2 million will be from other parts of Canada, other parts of the world. And so, it’s really important that the city that we’re designing for, the city that we’re welcoming, uh, others to be a part of and help shape that they can put down those roots. They feel included, they feel welcomed, and they feel like they can participate in the planning process as well.

[00:29:35] The city plan is just the start. It’s really our roadmap to help guide the choices we need to make, uh, to become a healthier, more urban, climate-resilient city of 2 million where people feel, uh, supported and our region continues to be prosperous. I think changing how we move and design and grow will take time. Um, the city plan is just one of those pieces and there’s gonna be, uh, much more work required. There’s a number of city projects that are underway right now to help implement the city plan. The city’s undertaking district planning. It’s totally updating its zoning bylaw right now, it’s looking at how we create a… a better integrated mass transit network, uh, an-and doing that planning to help us shift how we move, uh, through the city other than [laughs] “buy a car.”

[00:30:22] We need to think about how we’re growing. And I think in order to implement the city plan, we need to hear from as many different Edmontonians as possible to help us understand the implications of our decisions, to help us respond to those new challenges. Because it’s gonna take time to figure these things out… and it’s gonna take a lot, uh, more effort across the city, across the corporation to implement the city plan. And we hope that Edmontonians will continue to support the plan, our long-term vision for our city, and also have the patience to help us work through things that we’re figuring out for the first time or how we can work better. I think that’s really key.

Emily [00:31:01] That was Michael Strong, Principal Planner with the City of Edmonton.

Thanks to Lucenia Ortiz for sharing her insight and experience in participatory planning from the Philippines as well as exploring how this can help us build a more inclusive city.

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]

As Edmonton grows towards 2 million people, it will have to continue to shift and modernize how it plans. We hope that we’ve given you some food for thought from our conversation and how we might be able to look to other places for ideas of how to build a better city for all of us.

Andrew [00:31:31] A big thanks to Emily Rendell-Watson for bringing us this story. And thank you to Lucenia Ortiz, Yvonne Chiu, and Michael Strong for sharing their time and expertise with us.

Lisa [00:31:43] Head on over to our show notes to find links to our Trailhead series and hear the history of urban planning in Edmonton… and to find resources related to the topic.

Andrew [00:31:52] We’ll also have links to more stories with ECF’s Well Endowed Web Show and to the latest on our blog, along with more information for upcoming granting deadlines and funding opportunities.

[The Well Endowed Podcast music plays in background of outro]

Lisa [00:32:00] That brings us to the end of the show. Thanks for sharing your time with us.

Andrew [00:32:04] Yes, thank you. And if you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends.

Lisa [00:32:08] If you have time, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Sharing the show and leaving reviews are the best ways to help new listeners find us.

Andrew [00:32:15] You can also connect with us on Facebook where you can share your thoughts and see some pictures from the show.

Lisa [00:32:19] Thanks again for tuning in. We’ve been your hosts, Lisa Pruden—

Andrew [00:32:23] And Andrew Paul.

Lisa and Andrew [00:32:24] Until next time!

Andrew [00:32:27] The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation.

Lisa [00:32:32] And is an affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Andrew [00:32:36] This episode was edited by Lisa Pruden.

Lisa [00:32:38] You can visit our website at TheWellEndowedPodcast.com.

Andrew [00:32:41] Subscribe to us on iTunes—

Lisa [00:32:42] And follow us on Twitter at @theECF.

Andrew [00:32:46] Our theme music is by Octavo Productions.

Lisa [00:32:48] And as always, don’t forget to visit Edmonton Community Foundation at ecfoundation.org.

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