Not All Community Associations Are Equal

In my March column on the role Community Associations (CA) play in shaping our City, I promised to follow up with a piece about how not all CAs are created equal.  To do this, I chatted with former City of Calgary Councillor, Brian Pincott.

Pincott served as Ward 11 Councillor from Oct 2007 to Oct 2017.  During that 10-year period, he worked with 19 CAs on a variety of contentious issues including the River Park/Sandy Beach/Britannia Slopes redevelopment, SW Ring Road and Southwest BRT (SWBRT), as well as smaller projects like parks and playground improvements. 

  A new fence dividing River Park into an off-leash and on-leash area was part of the controversial renovations to the park. 

A new fence dividing River Park into an off-leash and on-leash area was part of the controversial renovations to the park. 

What are the challenges facing Community Associations in Calgary today? 

The biggest challenge is the unrealistic expectation placed on CAs by the City to do community programming, building maintenance, comment on development issues and fundraise. In addition, community members expect CAs to fight for their community and often their individual personal interests. Residents often forget the board and committee members are volunteers.   

A second challenge is the uncertainty of their role as a CA. They often make comments on a new development or policy not specifically related to the project or planning issues. The result: their comments are not taken into consideration, which then causes some citizens to say “why bother?” and creates a cynicism towards the City.

What are the challenges facing City Council and Administration in working with CAs?

The key challenge Councillors and Administration face is to ascertain whether or not the CA’s comments and positions truly represent the entire community. Do the 10 people on the CA’s board really understand and represent the 7,000 (more or less) people in the community, given they are often elected by a mere handful of people who show up at the AGM?  While they are called CAs, sometimes they represent the opinion of fewer than 50 people! 

A second challenge is determining the competency and knowledge brought to the table by volunteers. While in some cases, the individuals are very professional and informed with a view to the “common good”; in other cases, the individuals are only interested in their personal agenda and special interests.

Because of all the uncertainty as to who is actually at the table with you, who they represent and how they form their opinions, it is impossible to treat all Community Associations equally. This is where the Councillor’s knowledge and relationship with each CA is critical in providing clarity at Council meetings. 

  SW BRT route. The dedicated transitway (red) is the controversial section.  (photo credit: City of Calgary)

SW BRT route. The dedicated transitway (red) is the controversial section.  (photo credit: City of Calgary)

What are your thoughts on Calgary’s "community engagement" process?

Community engagement is a bit of a punching bag for everyone. If a small group of people want to disrupt it, they will and they can. It doesn’t matter how good it is. We see that in project after project, the SWBRT being the latest.

Over my 10 years on Council I feel we tried everything when it came to engagement and there were always a few people who said “they weren’t engaged.” The redevelopment of Britannia Slopes/Sandy Beach/River Park is a great example.

This regional park was identified as needing a lot of work. So, the Parks department identified the stakeholders, i.e. CAs, dog walkers and environmental groups and asked them to appoint people to a steering committee. Over a course of a year, this group identified problems within the park and came up with solutions. They reported back to the groups and a couple of open houses were held.

When the final plan was then presented at an open house, all hell broke loose. People loved the park just the way it was and were upset any changes were being considered. Then a huge letter writing campaign to Council ensued which resulted in more consultation at a cost of another $250,000.

This time, we used every tool available: online, in person, town halls, flyers and newsletters - the works. In the end, 2,000 people participated in the engagement. When it came to Council, very few people came to speak and many said the engagement process was the model for the future! Those who were unhappy with the plan had participated, so while they didn’t get what they wanted, they at least understood the compromises made to accommodate all users. It was approved unanimously by Council.

Being it was a $6 million project, it took a couple of years to get the funding. When construction started, “all hell broke loose” again. People were outraged they hadn’t been consulted, they knew nothing about it.

Same thing with the SWBRT. We had nine open houses over five years, newspaper stories, community newsletters, updates from the Councillor, yet people said they didn’t know about it.  I think the underlying issue is the people who demand more consultation are not actually interested in engagement. They are interested in killing the project by any means necessary. The noise and vitriol they produce drives away those who wish to learn more and want to truly participate.

Unfortunately, there is a loud minority in every community, individuals who are generally not positive people and they hinder engagement for everyone. 

  The City of Calgary and developers are both looking at different ways to inform and engage the public about proposed developments.  This was near the sidewalk and bus stop at the Kensington Legion. On the other side of the information booth was information on the proposed development.  

The City of Calgary and developers are both looking at different ways to inform and engage the public about proposed developments.  This was near the sidewalk and bus stop at the Kensington Legion. On the other side of the information booth was information on the proposed development. 

What has been your most positive experience working with a CA?

I love Haysboro! Their CA is working to build a community for everyone. When Haysboro came into Ward 11 in 2010 after some boundary changes, the CA was mostly “fighting city hall!” They were opposed to any changes in their community. But, over a couple of years, Board Members retired and new people came onto the board who were truly interested in understanding community needs and finding ways to engage neighbours with each other.

The CA looked for ideas to achieve exactly that. So, they had parades and other events, built community gardens, natural parks and promoted cycling - all with the goal of building community pride.

They worked to understand where the community came from and where it could be going in the context of a growing and changing city. They studied things like the Municipal Development Plan so they could direct the change, rather than fight it. They have been successful on every front.

The community is welcoming more families who are more active and want more participation in the community. And developers are willing to come and talk to them about vision and how they can be a part of it. Today, the Haysboro CA is advocating for increased pedestrian and cycling connectivity, more transit – and sustainability embedded into everything. They are doing all this for their kids, and their kids’ kids.

They truly are an inspiration!
  Open House to share information on the proposed development for Currie Barracks.  There are hundreds of these open houses each year in Calgary's inner city communities. 

Open House to share information on the proposed development for Currie Barracks.  There are hundreds of these open houses each year in Calgary's inner city communities. 

How does role of Calgary’s CA differ from that of other Canadian cities?

Calgary has more CAs than anywhere else in Canada and our system is a foreign idea to many who move here.  Calgary gives more responsibility to CAs than most other cities. We expect them to comment on Development Permits, maintain their buildings, do community needs assessments and business plans. All this with little financial support from the City.

It is a lot to place on volunteers. 
  Calgary Real Estate Board's map of Calgary's communities. (photo credit: CREB)

Calgary Real Estate Board's map of Calgary's communities. (photo credit: CREB)

What advice for Calgarians or CAs when it comes to the role of citizens in reshaping their communities for the 21st century?  

Think about how you build community. Neighbourhood change is inevitable. I like to remind people downtown Calgary and the Beltline used to be mostly single family residential communities.

Think about how to make things better for people of all ages, abilities,  and backgrounds in the community; not just you and your friends. Build on the community’s existing assets and embrace opportunities to try new things.

Look at what other communities are doing - not only in Calgary - but around the world. If there are things you would like to add to your community, then find a way to do so.

Communities can’t thrive without leadership, open mindedness and honest communication. You need to foster your leadership, honesty and communication they don’t just magically happen.

What other thoughts would you like to share with Calgarians re CAs?

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The membership of a CA Board or Planning Committee can change in a matter of months, which can then significantly change their position on development. 

Just look at the recent upheaval in Lakeview where the CA radically moved from a thoughtful participatory process to one of building walls. It is shocking; good people are resigning.

The direction and position a CA takes on an issue often depends on who shows up to the meeting as communities are made up of people with a diversity of ideas on what is “good” for their community. Consequently a community’s position can change dramatically from one meeting to the next depending on who shows up.

Last Word

Indeed, the diametrically opposed ideas of Calgarians on what makes a good city/community is what makes it challenging for the City of Calgary Administration and Council to make the tough decisions needed to redevelop our city for the future.

Note: An edited version of this blog titled "It's A Lot To Place On Volunteers" was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on Saturday May 5, 2018.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Community Associations & Urban Development

Community Engagement: The Community's Perspective

Calgary: The Dog Park Capital of North America