Rethinking ReThink: Citizen Engagement Does Not Imply Youth Engagement (Part 1)

This is the first of a multi-part post looking at London, Ontario’s ReThink London community consultation process from a youth engagement perspective. It is condensed/adapted from my paper “Rethinking Rethink: A London, Ontario Case Study on Increasing Child and Youth Participation in the Development of Municipal Official Plans in Ontario” for my “Childhood Advocacy and Institutional Cultures” class. If you’d like to read the original paper, feel free to get in touch. This is months overdue, but I hope my research and thoughts on the subject can make you think about how we can better engage youth, and other under-represented populations, in citizen engagement processes of all types and purposes. This first post is primarily background information and setting the context for what’s to come.

Under the Planning Act, all municipalities in Ontario are required to have an official plan. An official plan is an important part of land use planning; it’s a vision for the future that describes a municipal council’s general goals and policies on land use and helps to guide coordinated growth and service delivery that will meet a community’s unique needs while balancing the social, economic, and environmental concerns of various residents and stakeholders.[1][2]

“The Official Plan is a powerful tool. A community is only as good as its Plan: a Plan is only as good as its ownership by the community it is designed to serve…In order for the Plan to achieve the vision that we set out and make a true difference, the community must have ownership of the Plan and participate in its implementation.”[3]

Through ReThink London, the city set out to achieve the desired ‘community ownership’ of the new official plan.

Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing makes recommendations for citizens to get involved in the planning process, such as learning as much as possible about the proposed official plan, attending public meetings on the matter, and letting the municipal council know about concerns.[4] These recommendations place primary responsibility on the citizen to inform themselves and speak out, and are not inviting methods for most youth. ReThink London went above and beyond what is required to reach out and include citizens in the process, leading Lura Consulting to say “The figures we have suggest that no other official planning process in Canada has had as much exposure as ReThink London.”[5] More than 9 200 residents of London shared their vision of London in 2035 at more than 63 events. In total, information about ReThink London reached over 60% of Londoners.[6]

            I’d describe the citizen as a subject in the ReThink London process, as their opinions and visions for the city’s future were actively sought out and valued by city planners. They could even be described as co-agents, based on the opportunity to provide ongoing feedback on the work planners were doing based on public input they had already received, as opposed to simply taking the public’s subjectivities and working with them on their own terms to create a draft plan. By extension, one could technically describe youth in this process as either a subject or co-agent.

However, did they really engage with residents of all ages like they claimed to? From my viewpoint, no they did not.

To create a city that will serve the needs of all its residents, it is important to talk to and engage all of its residents. I don’t have any specific facts or numbers to back up my claim(I did try), but it’s important to note that just because a process is seen as open and engaging for adults, does not mean youth see it that way too. We must actively reach out to youth to involve them and create opportunities that they consider worthwhile. You don’t talk in the same way or about the same things to a 15-year-old as you do to a 45-year-old, do you? Some topics will be the same, sure, but even then do you talk about them in the same way? So why do formal institutions continue to talk about these different topics in adult-centric ways, and wonder why youth don’t respond? More on this later. I realize it’s a challenge, given that engaging adults is typically a difficult enough process, but I also believe it’s possible. Given the overall success of ReThink London and the space I see in the process to make changes to more actively engage youth, I do believe greater levels of youth participation in the development of official plans is a very realistic goal.

The ReThink process clearly spoke to citizens, but in the future we must ensure the further inclusion of a younger demographic. How might that be done? Stay tuned!

[1] Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, “Citizens’ Guide 2: Official Plans,” (2010) 2-3

[2] City of London, “ReThink London Discussion Papers”, (May 2013) 3-4

[3] City of London, “ReThink London Discussion Papers”, (May 2013) 3-4

[4] Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, “Citizens’ Guide 2: Official Plans,” 4

[5] City of London, “ReThink London Discussion Papers”, (May 2013)

[6] City of London, “ReThink London Discussion Papers”, (May 2013)