February 22, 2016

Item from Ian: Who speaks for those who don't speak?

A comment on James’s post Who Speaks for those who are not already here the other day led Ian to think about a related issue: who speaks for those who don’t speak?

Commenter ‘Bob’ made this statement: “I don’t have much sympathy if young people of any colour who live in my neighbourhood can’t be bothered to show up for planning and development open houses. Maybe they should put aside the craft beer for a night if they care at all for their ‘hoods. If they don’t care or can’t be bothered, well they’ll get the city they deserve.” As a young(er) person, who faces a multitude of pressures on my time (and I’m certainly more involved than most), I take issue with this sentiment – especially as it is one you hear voiced quite frequently (… I don’t mean to pick on Bob necessarily, but it’s a good point to try and unpack).

Why should people have to speak to be represented? Everyone has a right to just and fair representation whether they specifically demand it or not. Case in point: babies have rights but can’t verbalize them, neither can the infirm. Is there some magic moment at which point you lose your voice if you don’t make it heard?

Whether we intend to or not, we create ‘clubs’ which exclude people and viewpoints, and without going out of ‘our’ way to include others and their views, we are poorer for it.

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On CBC radio this morning, I was hearing about a great sounding event sponsored by Google called XX-UX  … which to me even is only vaguely decipherable … but it is an event to get more women (XX) involved in the User Experience (UX) field (Wikipedia).

(There are a huge number of parallels between UX and Architecture and Planning … I shudder to think how much more brainpower is going into the design of the apps we use than the form and feel and function of the spaces we live in, and seriously wonder if I should do UX in my next life!)

Why should we care who we hear? Using Bob’s line of thinking, maybe the women are off having beer instead of being engineers? (ok, this is a cheap shot, sorry Bob) Seriously though, why is it detrimental when a large segment of the population is not represented?

From the CBC interview:

Stephen Quinn asked “What do women bring to UX design that men don’t?”

Amy Ngai, a UX Designer for AxiumZen, the company hosting the XX-UX event, replied “Its not so much what we bring that men don’t, but we are 50% of the population… and UX design requires you to look at users, it requires you to be empathetic with the people you are designing for, and if I have the experience to understand these people then I can design better for them.”

The more diversity of viewpoints you have, the better you can understand and create and design. You can’t consider a design to be as good as it could be unless you have a broad pool of ideas – this is the classic ‘the next Einstein or Mozart might be living in Africa , but unless they have opportunity, and/or we care to look, we’ll never know’ situation.

If diversity is important in design, and also in looking for Einstein 2.0, should it not also be important in designing buildings, cities, and countries? If only a small part of the population is represented in decision making, if certain areas of the city exclude large parts of the population (or simply don’t include large parts, or those who simply feel excluded, or non-included), how can we consider that society is healthy?

If we care about equity in one area of society, we must also elsewhere … There are examples of inequity almost anyplace one might look … Why are some of these given a pass as being normal, and unavoidable, and just a cost of doing business. (Comments that suggest simply that the solution to affordability is giving up on Vancouver and moving to Hedley or Hope fall in this category)

Whose voices are we missing?

Gordon posted a great piece some time ago about the invisibility of getting older  … well there was a great example of this this morning about an 82 year old in North Vancouver, Fran Flann, who had to check into a homeless shelter after she was discharged from hospital, and her apartment was being de-bedbugged, and as she has only a small pension, she couldn’t afford to pay for a hotel and wait to go home.

The root cause of this, like so much in Vancouver, is that housing costs have outpaced all else, and even with cap on rental increase, it is still above and beyond the rate of inflation, whereas Fran’s pension is indexed to inflation. Where exactly is she to go? Are we to expect that people like Fran have to be in the news to be helped, or is this just something we should just think to do? (or maybe Fran was too busy having craft beer to raise a stink about it for a week until the news picked up the story … again, sorry Bob)

Finally, whose voice will we never get to hear?

Apparently, the one who will never be born … “Many young women in B.C. are delaying having children because of the province’s high cost of living”… so not only are there the potential public health issues associated with having children later in life, and of course if one continues to delay, eventually you don’t have kids.

“A generation ago, it wasn’t uncommon for parents – typically women – to be able to manage to have years at home with a new child. Now families are scrambling to have even a year.” [Maybe this is why Fran has a low pension? … which brings up another discussion about whether being a parent is a ‘job’ … and also whether there should be a minimum income … etc…]

Finally, why don’t we hear some voices even when they put down the craft beer (sorry Bob) and show up for a meeting? http://www.citylab.com/navigator/2016/02/community-meeting-etiquette/463434/

“The old-fashioned town meeting might be the most democratic thing we do as a society, with its free flow of ideas, indiscriminate of class, race, and sex.”

Except when it’s not. Some residents’ voices are drowned out, facilitators and resident “experts” pull rank or refuse to listen to each other, and discussions devolve into shouting matches. Then, a meeting feels more like Jerry Springer than an exchange of ideas. When meetings go bad, it’s a deterrent to people getting involved in community processes, and ultimately a slight to civic engagement.”

I was going to weigh in on the negative responses to James’s Leslie Van Duser’s interview yesterday, specifically to her desire to take away the ‘NIMBY chair’ (seemingly agreeing with CityLab’s Meeting etiquette, but MB had it covered:

“I agree that NIMBYs should never be offered to chair a table, but let them occupy a seat and express their opinions. And it is extremely important to have several tables working independently on one topic, then to bring them together at the end by a neutral chair.

Enter political courage where all points of view are duly considered, then a decision is made without fearing the consequences. Politicos who base their lives on getting re-elected all the time need to get another life.”

So Bob, there are plenty of reasons why people might or might not choose to put down their beer (this is the last time, I swear) and go attend a meeting, but whether or not they do, we should be able to hear them.

JB: Although a thorough description of some of the big problems with the public consultation process, we are still left with the same question: How to we include underprivileged perspectives in the urban planning and design process?

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  1. I have been to several public consultations, including one for an OCP, that were useless. At round tables usually one person took up the entire time talking about their point of view. The staff wasn’t able to stop them and everybody else wasted an evening. Open houses aren’t much better because often there are either too many people to ask questions or you get to talk to a consultant who doesn’t seem to know much. Or the answers are not really answers, only designed to justify the plan. I was impressed with one large town hall-style meeting done by the City of North Vancouver for their OCP. But generally online public consultation seems a more efficient way to provide input. I think much more can be done to improve online consultations, which could increase participation. For example, for comprehensive plans people should be able to pick the topics they are interested in instead of having to wade through a long survey on all topics.

  2. I’ll reply, despite the cheap shots. Just for kicks, go down to Olympic Village one evening or along Main Street and check out all the young(ish) people quaffing their craft beer, they seem to have found time out from all those 2nd and 3rd jobs to imbibe. Then ask them how many have gone to a development or rezoning hearing. Or even voted in the last civic election.

    1. Post

      I’m going to reply only with a deliberately misquoted Carl Sagan:
      ‘The evidence of presence is not the presence of evidence’
      Glad you replied Bob. And when it comes to voting, I agree if you don’t show up (so long as there are sufficient alternatives if you cant show up, such that the barrier to voting becomes a VERY low one) you don’t really get to complain at the result. This though I think is different for a host of reasons … And an important discussion to have.
      I made the comment to a colleague yesterday, that as a designer you have to know both who your client is, and who will be the ‘real’ client (the user) because often the two are very different. Unless you can design for both, the design won’t work for someone. The tendency might be to design for the person paying you, but there’s plenty of examples of this creating antisocial spaces which work for no-one … Cities (well, everything really) must be designed for the quiet and the loud, the silent and the deafening, the absent (yet) and the ever-present (who won’t always be).
      … Ok, now where’s that beer, it’s happy hour somewhere, right? 😉

    2. I think an evening socializing (with beer or without) is better spent than going to public consultations, for the reasons described above.
      There is no reason why much of the consultation couldn’t be done online, with a forum to ask questions (and everybody can see questions & answers) and well designed surveys.

    3. Bob, many of those sipping suds after their 2nd or 3rd shift are contract planners and designers recovering from the public meetings.

  3. This is a very nicely done post, but there is yet another question lurking underneath: are these meetings a good thing in the first place? I’ve been to many, and I’ve stayed away from many. I think the one at which I began to seriously question their value is where one of my fellow local residents announced that he wished there had been a process of voting for who was allowed to move into the neighbourhood and who wasn’t, because he would have rejected us (those who ventured to disagree with him). The issue is, I think, that elected officials have duties, and one of them is to hire people who have jobs, to serve that nebulous yet overriding concept of the public interest. And that public interest will not necessarily line up with the opinion of any person in the room.
    In the end, I see my role as citizen as being to provide information to elected officials and staff. Not to change the minds of my fellow citizens who – living in another spot – will have different information, nor to kowtow to them.
    And as long as officials get necessary information from the hipsters, or glean what they know by virtue of being one of them, it doesn’t matter whether it’s done at a meeting or not, I mean, who wants to donate their time and get insulted for it? The meetings are really just bully pulpits in disguise.
    As for response TO decisions that are made with all that information, that is where citizens have (a) civil liberties, (b) the courts, and (c) the ballot box.
    Let’s use those, rather than trying to make community meetings serve all the functions of those tenets of democratic citizenship.

    1. Post

      I think there is a place for meetings, but like others have suggested, there need to be alternatives also … just like in elections you can vote early or absentee …
      I think there also needs to be some kind of response that feedback has been considered, right now, the only way to assume that you’re being heard is to talk with shouts, or talk with $$ …
      Some kind of response that says ‘we heard your NIMBY response, and here’s why we’re not taking it … we heard your developer desire for a 42FSR, here’s why we don’t think thats a good idea’ … this kind of post-mortem is often demanded after the fact, why not just create it ahead of time?

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