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What’s the Policy on Moving Forward with Policy?

While reviewing some key City planning documents, such as the Airdrie Downtown Plan (2008) the Downtown Redevelopment Plan (1999, 2002), AirdrieOne Sustainability Plan (2012) and the Airdrie City Plan (Municipal Development Plan, 2014) it becomes clear to me that since 1999 (and again in 2002, 2008 and 2014) Airdrie City Council has adopted plans which include policies related to the strategic development and planning of Airdrie’s downtown. This leaves me wondering why, in 2017, some members of our Council seem to be reluctant to move forward in achieving the policy direction set out in the aforementioned documents. The City creates plans; City Council approves plans and policies – they also need to stick to them and get the work done.

The City creates plans; City Council approves plans and policies – they also need to stick to them and get the work done.

I realize that a strategic planning document must be reviewed and updated from time to time, especially in communities like Airdrie where population growth has been exponential. However, I do believe that Council must always be moving forward in an effort to meet the vision and plan set forth in its’ planning documents. As mentioned, in my previous blog, I also believe that public consultation must form the basis for any plan that the City adopts.

The Downtown Redevelopment Plan was created in 1999 and amended in 2002. Highlights of this plan’s policies include: to ensure the downtown is the primary retail, office, and entertainment heart of the City. The plan identifies a wide range of land uses that are appropriate for the downtown. This includes education such as a community college and a multi-purpose civic centre intended for use by community and cultural groups. (Downtown Redevelopment Plan, 1999, 2002) Clearly this plan articulates that downtown Airdrie should be developed to include some large-scale projects in order to increase the vibrancy of Downtown.

In 2008, Council deemed it desirable to amend the Downtown Redevelopment Plan and thus created the new Airdrie Downtown Plan (2008). In that planning document the vision for Downtown Airdrie was “Downtown Airdrie will become the retail, office, financial and entertainment centre of the City. Development in the downtown will create a friendly multi-functional pedestrian environment where building and site design combined with street furniture, landscaping and economic activity invite residents and visitors into the area.” (Airdrie Downtown Plan, 2008) I don’t know about you, but this plan makes me excited; it creates a plan and vision for Airdrie’s downtown that hints of energy, liveliness and prosperity.

The AirdrieOne Plan was adopted by our current City Council on March 5, 2012 and includes the vision, goals, objectives, guiding principles and broad strategies for moving the City toward a more sustainable future. The AirdrieOne planning process took place over five years and involved significant public and stakeholder input obtained through a number of methods. The AirdrieOne plan quotes resident feedback: “Need a stronger downtown. Should be a focal point and gathering place.” This plan also recommended that the Downtown Plan be updated and that policies be developed to create a more vibrant, diverse mix of uses. (AirdrieOne Sustainability Plan, 2012)

In 2014, City Council adopted the Municipal Development Plan (MDP). The MDP, also referred to as the City Plan, includes a more detailed set of land use policies that build on the AirdrieOne strategies. Contained within this strategic document are several policies which outline downtown development. The 2014 MDP states: “It is the intent of this plan to ensure that the Downtown area serves as a significant business, cultural and civic centre in the municipality and retains a viable retail district capable of meeting the needs of residents and providing a unique sense of place. The policies of this plan are designed to promote civic, community, cultural, employment and residential uses in the Downtown as well as a high quality of streetscape design and built form.” One of the policies contained within this document, relative to downtown development, states: The City shall promote the downtown as the civic, cultural, entertainment and business centre of the city. This included promoting the downtown as the location of choice for any major arts, culture and entertainment facilities; accommodating innovative projects designed to animate the downtown and encourage better placemaking; accommodating outdoor cafes, food trucks, and other similar uses that create pedestrian activity on the sidewalks and adjoining courtyard areas; and explore the potential for additional civic and cultural facilities in the downtown. (The City Plan, 2014) Again, this description of downtown is exciting to me. It sounds like an area of the City I would be drawn to and which I could be proud of.

Given the content of the aforementioned planning documents and the vision for Airdrie’s Downtown, I am wondering why we are still debating the redevelopment of downtown. Why are some calling plans to develop downtown to be the civic, cultural, entertainment and business centre of the city inappropriate and “vanity projects”.

Given the content of the aforementioned planning documents and the vision for Airdrie’s Downtown, I am wondering why we are still debating the redevelopment of downtown. Why are some calling plans to develop downtown to be the civic, cultural, entertainment and business centre of the city inappropriate and “vanity projects”. On the contrary, these developments are in keeping with the City’s approved plans, and the community’s vision for Airdrie’s Downtown. These plans are building on the concept of placemaking. Placemaking strengthens the connection between people and the places they share. Effective placemaking results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being. (“What is Placemaking?” Project for Public Spaces, www.pps.org/reference) Who wouldn’t want that for their community?

There was lengthy debate (over 3 hours) at the April 18, 2017 Airdrie City Council meeting about whether to develop a new downtown plan or to amend the existing downtown plan. To me, it shouldn’t be a huge stretch to develop a new plan given that our population has grown by over 27,000 people in the timeframe from when the last downtown plan was updated in 2008. (www.airdrie.ca). Almost ½ of the people who currently live in Airdrie were not consulted regarding their vision for Downtown Airdrie. I do believe it is time that the City undertakes a community consultation process regarding our Downtown and that a new plan be developed to include as many community member’s ideas and visions as possible.

“Council voted to commence a downtown visioning exercise as immediately as possible at the regular meeting on November 21, 2016.” The plan for the visioning exercise was presented to Council on January 16, 2017, and McElhanney Consulting Services were hired to review the consultation strategies, train staff to perform facilitation and review all consultation data. This firm’s website states: “McElhanney believes strongly in community engagement in planning. Our planners are trained and skilled at facilitation and innovative public engagement techniques. We mediate solutions between developers and municipalities as well as among municipalities.” (ww.mcelhanney.com)

It seems that several members of Council did not believe that the results of the community consultation and visioning process were valid. They didn’t believe the results of the visioning exercise were accurate or that they should form the basis for moving forward with the development of a new/updated plan for Downtown Airdrie. Perhaps this is because the results overwhelmingly suggest that citizens wish to see something in Downtown other than what these Council members believe Downtown should be? The visioning exercise indicated that residents preferred that “downtown be improved and transformed into a place that has – in particular – increased vibrancy, excitement and action. Many participants desire to see the downtown modernized in some respects, with excellent accessibility and walkability throughout. The aspiration, for many respondents, is to have downtown become a prime destination, rather than just a functional service centre and to have high quality gathering places and social hubs located within the geographic downtown area.” (City Council Report, April 18, 2017, p. 219)

The visioning exercise indicated that residents preferred that “downtown be improved and transformed into a place that has – in particular – increased vibrancy, excitement and action…

It would seem that some members of Council feel they understand community engagement better than a firm which specializes in community engagement in planning. One common theme mentioned by a Council member was that the results of the consultation were “anecdotal evidence with little statistical value”, that the information from the consultations were “only a snapshot in time driven by emotions.” (I would invite you to view the YouTube video from this Council meeting to hear the comments yourself) As one who participated in the visioning exercise, I have to say I take exception to the idea that my thoughts and ideas are not valid and were emotionally driven, rather than driven by a very real desire to improve our downtown.

Furthermore, one could argue that the results of the visioning were in fact reliable as it is meant in the realm of statistical analysis. According to the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association and the Alberta Association of Municipal District and Counties Citizen Engagement Toolkit, reliable surveys reflect a representative sample of participants. This Toolkit states that if you have a population of 100,000 people and if you are okay with a 5% likelihood that you have the wrong impression from citizens, (95% probability that information is accurate) you would need to survey only 400 people. Given that there were 427 unique responses to the online survey and our population is considerably less than 100,000 it could be argued that the results of the online survey are indeed reliable. Reliability refers to the repeatability of findings. If the study were to be done a second time, would it yield the same results? (Alberta Urban Municipalities Association and the Alberta Association of Municipal District and Counties Citizen Engagement Toolkit, 2015, p.57). I would argue that they would produce the same results, especially given the consistency in the desire – as reflected in the City’s planning documents – to have the downtown be a vibrant, hub of culture, and entertainment (among other things). I don’t know about you, but to me the results of all of these plans sound an awful lot alike. The citizens have spoken. Now I hope City Council can move forward on making the citizen’s vision become a reality!

By Marie Lauer