Putting the CON into Consultation

By A. Resident | August 12, 2013

Type “planning and consultation” into the search box on the City of Toronto’s website. Today you’d find 10,690 items; five years ago the number was 6150. There are working groups, working committees, liaison committees, neighbourhood committees, advisory groups, visioning studies, community forums, community consultation meetings and more.

There are excellent developers and skilled and principled city planners. There are also bad developers and unprincipled planners who take the easy road and go with the developer’s flow.  What follows is garnered from residents’ experiences with the latter in Toronto’s City Planning Division’s working groups, but the planning jargon and consultants’ methods are common at public meetings and visioning exercises across the country.

Neighbourhood groups are often tarred with the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard)  brush and dismissed as knee-jerk nay-sayers. In my experience most groups are realistic and know that change is inevitable.  One victim of a city planning process I talked to says she’s forming a new organization – NERGE – Not Even Remotely Good Enough.

Nor are all consultations cons. Some councillors consult with constituents because they respect and value our opinions. Those councillors can help us counter the con side of the consultation racket.

The Set-Up

The wording of the recommendation to establish a working group is key.  If the task is “to establish design guidelines” the planner and the developer will try to limit discussions to details like building materials and windows. (“We value your input. Would you prefer brown or grey cladding on the new 20-storey abattoir?”)

When the working group meets there’ll be many people around the table, typically between ten and 15. The developer will come to each working group meeting supported by paid-consultants -– such as architects, planners, transportation planners, heritage specialists and public relations facilitators. The city planner or someone from your area councillor’s office acts as the moderator, and city staff from other departments may attend. There will probably be four or five residents.

That puts you at an immediate disadvantage on at least three counts. First, you’re outnumbered. Second, you and the other neighbourhood representatives probably don’t think alike nor will you agree about everything: you may have been chosen for that “diversity” of viewpoints. You may not even know each other. Third, the developer and his consultants speak with one mind. And the developer, his consultants, and sometimes the planner have a common interest in getting and keeping you under control so the proposed project can be sent to Council as soon as possible.

For residents, being a member of a working group is like travelling as a tourist in a foreign land. The developer and his consultants and the city planner know the terrain. They’ve got the itinerary and the map. They’ve been on this trip before and they share a common language. You’re disoriented. It’s difficult to get your bearings. You hear familiar words, but their meaning keeps slipping away into truisms and generalities. The insiders are using well-tried methods that are not immediately clear to you. These methods are similar whether the setting is a working group, a visioning process, or one of the other variations-on-a-theme for community consultation.

The Methods

 Snow Words

Our neighbourhood representatives had to give themselves a crash course in planning terms, such as density, setbacks, and non-conforming uses.

These are technical terms, words with a meaning defined in law, and in order to be effective in a working group you need to know what exactly they mean. But you’ll probably soon find that the discussion isn’t concrete or specific. Planning jargon and consultant-speak aren’t designed to communicate in a two-way conversation. They’re calculated to mask real intentions and obscure details.

Every job has its own jargon. If the insiders want to talk to each other in private about “sensitively reconfiguring the articulation of solids and voids in the public realm,” that’s okay. But working groups are public processes, sponsored by city hall, with the ostensible purpose of serving residents. When the planning insiders lecture us using those words, it’s their way of reminding us who’s got the upper hand. They’re doing it because they don’t believe we have anything worthwhile to contribute.

Earnest adjectives:  You’ll hear about rational structures, sensitive infill, viable alternatives, friendly connections and sustainable development. If we’re going to have development, structures, infill and alternatives, of course we want them to be sustainable, rational, sensitive, viable and friendly. Who wants irrational structures, insensitive infills, alternatives that won’t work? The earnest adjectives are there to create virtuous vibrations. They’re weasel words. Make them define their terms.

Nouns in vogue:  Examples of currently fashionable planning nouns include iteration, public realm, template, stakeholder.

Public realm: If you’re unfamiliar with current planning terms, the first image of a realm that will come to mind is of a kingdom. It should mean the sum total of all the things in the city we hold in common—or ought to. Planning translation: what they’re probably talking about is the sidewalk.

Stakeholder: Until the market-oriented consultants invaded planning, “stakeholder” was a word associated with the gambling hall, the stock market, or pioneers staking a claim. Now it means “those with financial interests.”  The stakeholder-approach to planning means only those with direct material interest count. It’s easy to exclude the public interest when the process is confined to  stakeholders.

 Slippery verbs:  Slippery verbs include enhance, reconfigure, harmonize and articulate. These verbs appear in mind-numbing phrases such as “articulate with solids and voids” and “enhance the public realm.” Translated, these phrases mean simple tasks like “design a building with windows and doors” and “put a pot of flowers on the sidewalk.”

Some of the language of contemporary planning fits George Orwell’s description of political language: language designed to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Ordeal by Powerpoint

 At the first meeting you may have to endure a lengthy powerpoint presentation from one of the developer’s consultants. In this “age of persuasion” (the name of the CBC program on the history and techniques of advertising) the powerpoint is the tool of choice. The presentation will aim to restrict the terms of the discussion; describe the proposed development in an exaggerated positive light; and use up large blocks of time, keeping the time for questions and criticism to a minimum.

The powerpoint illustrations will guide your eye to see the proposal as an exciting (“vibrant”) improvement to the neighbourhood. But you may notice that the text gets the name of your street wrong, and that the wash of green watercolour isn’t your local park. You begin to wonder whether that’s a sign of the presenter’s indifference to your neighbourhood or his/her ignorance of it.

The drawings of the proposed new buildings will likely be from the perspective of someone sitting in a tree six blocks away, or in a helicopter, rather than the view of a pedestrian standing on the adjacent sidewalk. Photographs showing the existing context may be distorted. A photo taken at knee level with a wide-angle lens can make your narrow local street look as wide as the 401. (“See, there’s plenty of room for trucks.”)

Fishing 1 – Roundtable discussions

 Sometimes there’s an underside to frank discussions around the table. The developer’s team will be on the watch for a comment they can grab and use to justify the development they want. Let’s take 20 minutes to brainstorm, they say. What they’re really doing is trolling for their kind of fish.

One resident might idly muse “well, demolishing that house would give you more room for parking and might get the cars off our street.” Later you may hear the developer’s expert tell you—or the community council–that that they’re planning to demolish the house to reflect the wishes of the neighbourhood.

Fishing 2 – Workbooks

 A developer’s consultant may surprise you by arriving at a meeting with a stack of colourful workbooks with pictures and diagrams. The title will always feature the word “Options” and each section will list statements about the development and/or alternatives, followed by questions with multiple-choice answers for you to choose from. (“Pigs? Cows? Chickens? Check one.”)  You’re to pair off, or divide into small groups, check the answers you prefer, and record your comments. At the end of the exercise, the consultant collects the workbooks and says you’ll get a report on the Options at the next meeting.

This is a fishing expedition, similar to the roundtable approach, except that you’re being treated as lower-class participants.  If the developer truly cares about what the neighbourhood thinks, his consultant will give you the list of options and ask you to report back at the next meeting. That would give you time to figure out whether any significant options are missing and canvass your neighbours about their views. That’s unlikely to occur, and you should expect to be rushed.

Snow Jobs

 A common problem for neighbourhoods is the increased traffic that new development will bring. The developer and city staff may propose a Traffic Management Plan. Be warned: the city doesn’t enforce Traffic Management Plans. Without enforcement measures, for residents they’re not worth a cent.

The Public Interest?

 In a world of stakeholders, partners and players, where is the public interest?

A good starting point for change is the People’s Plan for Toronto, passed at the 2007 Neighbourhood Planning Summit organized by People Plan Toronto.  Its provisions?  Abolish the Ontario Municipal Board (which has the power to override local decisions), create community review boards and comprehensive secondary plans, and build strong local organizations. In the absence of those things, beware.


On August 11, the day this article was posted, the City of Toronto’s website showed 14,500 “planning and consultation” items. “A. Resident” is a pseudonym.

1554 words;  August 11, 2013



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