Citizens, United?

I think there must be something in the air this week. First, the Spectator‘s Sean Howard, in Part I of what will be a two-part series, discussed ways to “change our local world” with a focus on exercises in “direct, participatory, deliberative citizen engagement” like Citizens’ Assemblies.

The cover of the book "Urban Acupuncture"Then CBU professor Tom Urbaniak dedicated his Cape Breton Post column to the subject of “quick wins” for political leaders. (Urbaniak has a new book, In the Public Square: A Citizen’s Reader, which this citizen is looking forward to reading.)

Although one sounds like a top down approach to change and the other more bottom up, I think Urbaniak’s suggestions for local improvements are precisely the sorts of ideas that might emerge from a Citizens’ Assembly.

Urbaniak, for instance, writes:

We’re stuck in the paradigm – the perspective – that impact and improvement always require big moves, big technical consultants, big specialists, big capital projects and big price-tags.

He then proposes that rather than paying “Halifax-based consultants” to study and advise us, we turn to “talented Cape Breton University and Nova Scotia Community College students”:

To be honest, my students could have done a better job on some of those consultants’ reports – as class projects at no cost to the municipality.

Urbaniak takes his inspiration from Jaime Lerner, an architect and urban planner who served as mayor of Curitiba, Brazil in the 1970s and ’80s and who became:

…internationally famous for his brilliantly simple concept called “urban acupuncture,” which he applied over and over again.

Lerner’s solutions to Curitiba’s problems were both idiosyncratic and entertaining:

To clean up hillside favelas that were impossible to navigate for garbage trucks, Lerner offered bus tokens for bags of garbage, instead of impossibly expensive technical solutions that would have involved knocking down people’s houses…

To mow the lawns of the vast parks he developed on floodplains, he used sheep! (The parks were created to keep development out of inevitable disaster zones.)

(I read in a review of his book, Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change that Enrich City Life, that Lerner also offered groceries in return for bags of garbage and it made me wonder if there was something we could offer people in CBRM that would stop them dumping garbage in the woods?)

Lerner’s interventions also included less idiosyncratic but surely equally valuable innovations like a Bus Rapid Transit system and a downtown pedestrian zone.

Reading about Lerner put me in mind of another creative South American mayor, Bogotá’s Antanas Mockus, a mathematician and philosopher who, among other innovations, used mimes to encourage people in the Colombian capital to obey the traffic rules.

Overhead view of meeting.

Meeting of the BC Citizens’ Assembly in the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, BC

But I don’t think we need to pin our hopes on finding one charismatic person, a Cape Breton Lerner or Mockus, with the energy and imagination to transform our community. I think we could take advantage of the energy and imagination of our citizens, as Sean Howard proposes. Certainly, their deliberations could (and should) be informed by ideas and examples from other places, but as I told Sean this week, there’s something really exciting to me about the possibility of bringing together a group of CBRM residents selected at random from—and actually representative of—our community to discuss important issues.

And I won’t lie, the idea of cutting out the middle man—the Halifax (or Moncton or Ontario)-based consultants who would normally be tasked with such an undertaking—appeals to me. It appeals to me a lot.

I need to educate myself on this process but luckily, I have the resources at my fingertips—and so do you. I’m lifting the paywall on Sean’s articles in the hope that it will ensure wider readership, so please feel free share to share them with anyone you think might be interested.

After all, what do we have to lose?