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Public Hearings: The Public Was Never The Enemy

July 07, 2023

by Stephen Mikicich

In response to a recent Vancouver Sun article by Dan Fumano on the future of public hearings, I offer my own perspectives on the subject as a Registered Professional Planner of 30 years. A public hearing is a legislated opportunity for decision-makers to hear from the public, in support of or opposition to a proposed bylaw change, or simply to hear opinions and suggestions from citizens. In theory, this should provide for a more informed Council, rather than decisions made at the outset without full information. The argument that public hearings amplify the voices of groups opposed to new housing at the expense of citywide objectives and affordability is simplistic rhetoric that has been used to demonize the public and the value of citizen input - particularly if those comments deviate from those of development lobbyists. I have attended public hearings where the speakers' list is dominated by investor and development industry representatives and associated advocacy groups, so a public hearing is far from being a venue for any singular group or perspective. If public engagement is genuine and transparent and citizens feel heard, they are much less apt to attend a public hearing. I have never heard any member of the public say they oppose new “housing.” Rather, I hear concern expressed over the form and scale of new development, the loss of existing affordable housing, displacement of small businesses, the lack of amenities needed to support growth, and disregard for Vancouver's legacy of thoughtful community planning that established our livable city. The bigger question is: Who is listening to the public and, if they are, do they still care? Removing requirements for local governments to hold public hearings for rezoning applications that are consistent with official community plans sounds reasonable, but only if those plans have been developed with meaningful citizen engagement and are broadly supported by the public. Can we truly say that about the transformative Vancouver and Broadway Plans? What is completely appalling is the argument that doing away with public hearings supports equity and social justice, and moves us away from "comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted." These are heavily loaded statements, dripping with ideological rhetoric, which have propagated an increasingly "us" versus "them" discourse. The public was never the enemy, and neither was true participatory planning. We must ask ourselves what is the motivation for creating more division in our city, and who ultimately benefits?

We should be doing a much better job of community planning with transparent and meaningful public engagement that brings together rather than divides our society.


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