“Strategy 1, Sub-Strategy 1, Plan 1… (Yawn)”

As I’ve repeatedly shared with those who have asked me about my intentions for public office, my first objective is to review everything I can about city hall to: (i) better understand what is going on, (ii) determine if I can add value to the City and its management, and (iii) prepare myself for a campaign should I decide to put my name forward.

To this end, I have been working my way through the numerous plans and support documents available through the City’s website (which, to its credit, is pretty comprehensive and easy to use), and have already publicly commented to some extent on the strengths and weaknesses of a couple of these plans and their fit within the City’s overall agenda.

Currently, I am working through the City’s 2015-2018 Strategic Plan, and all of the subordinate plans and actions associated with it.  And much like the first few pages of the London Plan and the BRT Business Case, I do like the Strategic Plan’s vision, objectives, and strategies.  The Plan is well articulated and touches all of the key areas necessary for our city to be successful.

I am concerned, however, that the Strategic Plan’s successful implementation is dependent upon the successful implementation of, by my count, approximately 80 subordinate plans. (OMG!).  So, my personal plan is to diligently work my way through the various subordinate plans, to determine where they make sense, where they might be improved, and where my business background and experience might be of some help.

Now clearly this is rather tedious and often boring work, which may lead me to writing some rather tedious and boring posts. Recognizing this possibility, I want to apologize in advance for the publication of any such yawners.  I might also suggest that if you are already bored with this post, you simply skip further down to the heading “what I would do”.  The writing will likely not improve after that, but at least you’ll be closer to the end.

Nevertheless, despite the tedium, success in any planning process be it public or private, requires an honest appraisal of what is working and what is not, so that adjustments can be made where and when needed.

Far too often, politicos feel the need to sprinkle a little ‘sunshine’ (insert your own word here) over every initiative for fear that a perceived setback or unattained goal is somehow a measure of weakness or failure.  And while, yes, there usually is a negative consequence attached to any public setback, the bigger mistake is to deny the failures’ existence or worse still ‘move forward’ with a failing approach.

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood…

So it should be of no surprise that my trek through some 80 subordinate plans begins with the 1st plan, under the 1st sub-strategy, under the 1st strategic area of focus, entitled the ‘London Strengthening Neighbourhoods Strategy’.

My review of this plan was particularly timely given that the City was, until recently, embroiled in a highly divisive debate over the BRT routes and their material impact on the character of an estimated 15 of London’s 42 neighbourhoods criss-crossed by the BRT plan.   It was also timely given the strong and rather visceral reactions by two neighbourhoods, Stoneybrook and Sharon Creek, towards two re-zoning applications under consideration at last week’s 7-hour Planning Committee meeting.

Briefly, and by way of background, the genesis for the London Strengthening Neighbourhood Strategy actually began in 2008, when the City established a Resident Task Force to: (i) assess London’s current neighbourhood strength and (ii) recommend actions designed to foster the development of neighbourhoods and engage its citizenry.

This work led to the creation of a pretty good piece of work aptly entitled the 2010-2015 London Strengthening Neighbourhood Strategy (LSNS). Over the next five years, City staff, working in partnership with the Urban League and a number of the City’s more mature community associations, began the process of stimulating neighbourhood development through the establishment of new neighbourhood associations, the initiation of a number of community engagement events and the sharing of best practices.  It also explored ways in which the city could improve communications between itself and its neighbourhoods.

In December 2015, City staff provided Council with a progress report on the LSNS complete with a rather impressive list of community-building results, and last week City staff unveiled its LSNS plan for the next four years, or as one Councillor coined it, LSNS 2.0.

After reviewing the LSNS and all of the various reports and plans that led to it, I am convinced that the inaugural version of this strategy delivered on expectations.  The level of community activity and engagement in a large swath of neighbourhoods grew in a very positive and sustainable manner.  I have also concluded from the enthusiastic level of civic engagement that this next generation of the strategy and associated programs will result in even further progress in pursuit of the City’s stated desire to create “vibrant, connected and engaged neighbourhoods”.   The ideas, activities and actions tabled through this latest version are progressive, desirable and achievable.

… with one rather thorny problem.

My biggest area of concern centres around the plan’s ability to improve communications, and specifically the City’s ability to communicate directly with residents in neighbourhoods that might be impacted by a specific City planning initiative (e.g. BRT, London Plan, Noise Bylaw changes, etc.).

As evident in the BRT process, a debate that touched several neighbourhoods, the City’s complete inability to communicate specifics to impacted residents contributed significantly to the level of acrimony and recrimination between those in support of and those opposed to the BRT plan.  This same divisive process also played out in the neighbourhoods of Stoneybrook and Sharon Creek, where elements of the London Plan quickly became a rather unwelcome reality for some of those residents.

What I would do

To the credit of the LSNS developers, the plan authors have already identified a number of initiatives that will surely improve communications between neighbourhoods and the City.  They include; development of simpler planning language, more staff to neighbour engagements, and development of an app to push new information out to name a few.

However, I also suggest that City staff go one gigantic step further.  Given that all neighbourhoods are not all the same, and often require a ‘flashpoint’ in which to galvanize, one additional suggestion would be to use the new London Plan and/or the new BRT plan to walk residents through, parcel-by-parcel, or block-by-block, the potential impacts of these plans on their neighbourhoods, all with the goal of effectively securing the neighbourhood’s notional pre-approval of the plan going forward.

Imagine if you will, a re-zoning application that already has the support of impacted residents in the area, or a BRT lane that already had the green light from abutting retailers.  The upfront investment would be time-consuming, resource intensive and painfully granular.  There would also be iterations involving push-back and dissention.    However, the upside would be a streamlined planning process, intense community engagement, and real public support for the outcomes.   This engagement process would also lead to better planning and design decisions, provide greater clarity to developers, assist in prioritizing civic investments, and give Londoners a vested interest in each neighbourhood’s successful implementation.

This approach is no different than that employed by large corporations with diverse and dispersed operating divisions.  Senior leaders routinely walk employees through the company plan division by division, with specific references to any direct impact to the division so that employees clearly understand where the company is going, what the implications are for their division, and what is expected of them.

I believe that the City of London must begin to proactively communicate at this intense level of detail.  It needs to get out of 300 Dufferin much more, and get into the various neighbourhoods and communities that it expects to serve with its plans.  The LSNS is a promising vehicle for this type of engagement, but it needs to include a process where Londoners clearly understand the City’s plans, the implications for each neighbourhood, and what might be expected of the residents as the plans unfold.  Only then, in my view, will the City of London meet its goal of having a cache of vibrant, connected and engaged neighbourhoods.

Now, with a Timmy’s in hand, on to Strategy 1, Sub-strategy 1, Plan 2…