Outside consultants are fine but locals are experts, too

Laura Stovel

The recommendation came without fanfare and almost without notice. Tucked away on pages 23 and 24 of the draft Revelstoke Transportation Plan was the recommendation that the Mackenzie Avenue railway crossing, connecting CPR Hill/Clearview Heights to downtown Mackenzie Avenue, be “fully” and “immediately” closed.

If it had not been for one observant Clearview Heights resident, Peter Cameron, who read the City’s Draft Transportation Plan thoroughly it is very possible that the plan might have been passed by City Council without anyone – councilors, media or residents – noticing this recommendation that, if implemented, would deny pedestrians and cyclists from a whole neighbourhood easy access to the heart of downtown.

The recommendation is worrying enough, but that can be fought on rational grounds once the public is aware of the issue. More worrying is the fact that this recommendation might have been passed without anyone outside the City Planning Department noticing. Not every citizen is as attentive and thorough as Mr. Cameron. Journalists and city councilors are extremely busy and don’t always have the time to read each report, like this 174-pager, from cover to cover. We need a system that ensures stakeholders are personally notified and involved meaningfully in the decision-making process if a report contains recommendations that would significantly affect a neighbourhood is being considered by Council.

Two steps might prevent such surprises from happening in the future:

  1. involving local stakeholders in workshops to try to find solutions to problems in their neighbourhoods; and
  2. compulsory notification of residents by mail if recommendations are made that significantly affect their neighbourhoods.

In the Clearview Heights case, consultants from Boulevard Transportation Group of Victoria, who wrote the Transportation Plan, argued for full closure of Mackenzie crossing because of “the potential for collisions” at the intersection of Victoria Road and Mackenzie Avenue if people driving along Victoria Road fail to obey the stop signs.

There are many reasons why such a closure is undesirable. To name a few:

  • Full closure of this well-used crossing would prevent pedestrians and cyclists from connecting easily with the heart of Revelstoke or the trails and residences of the hill.
  • Those who want to walk or bike will have to take Track Street, which lacks a sidewalk, to Pearson crossing and then walk back to Mackenzie Avenue.
  • Such a move would turn a walking community into a driving community and would prevent children, seniors and many others from enjoying one of the most cherished aspects of life on the hill. This contradicts the intention of the transportation plan and does not make sense, even from a safety perspective.

There is also an important history behind this crossing. Just five years ago, when there was talk of closing the Mackenzie crossing, Clearview Heights residents gathered 1,467 signatures on a petition opposing this move. This led to the installation of crossing bars at the crossing, which the City helped pay for.

The point is that local stakeholders could have quickly identified all these reasons not to close the crossing if they had been asked in a meaningful forum. If they had been actively involved in decision-making they wouldn’t have been surprised by the recommendation and there would have been a much greater sense of transparency and legitimacy in the process.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the pattern of simply hiring outside consultants who come up with two or three options that are presented at an open house. This is a process of imparting expert information but it lacks scope for brainstorming solutions with local stakeholders who can provide valuable ideas and insights and who know history of their neighborhoods.

What if a workshop format was used instead?  While outside experts have valuable knowledge and can provide important outside perspectives, local stakeholders also have much to contribute.

They know the history of the area and they have to live with the results.  In a facilitated workshop – a working meeting in which all participants are treated as knowledgeable experts and share in brainstorming and problem solving – far more practical and creative solutions can be found to address genuine problems as they arise. I don’t think costs would be higher and chances of finding good solutions and avoiding controversy or City backpedaling would be greater.

I also suggest that the City communications policy should require the City to notify stakeholders if decisions significantly affecting their neighbourhoods are up for consideration. If such a step has not been taken the decision should be considered invalid. Currently the City notifies residents by mail when some issues are being discussed – such as the Last Drop Pub liquor license – but this didn’t happen with the recommended closure of Mackenzie crossing. Perhaps it’s time to make notification a mandatory practice. It would be up to the City to determine what “significant interest” is but in the Clearview Heights case a petition with 1,467 signatures indicates that this issue is of significant concern.

Municipal government is the level of governance where democracy is best practiced and citizens can most easily be involved in decisions that affect their lives.

In sponsoring neighbourhood meetings and open houses on issues such as energy, transportation and parks, the City Planning Department is making real efforts to keep us informed and invite some feedback. But there are still some gaps in the process as the Mackenzie Crossing issue highlights. By ensuring that stakeholders are notified if issues concerning them arise and by involving them as equal partners in decision-making we might find better solutions and far less controversy.

Laura Stovel is a local resident