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Wednesday morning, Londoners awoke to the news announcement that the water pipeline that supplies 85% of the city and area’s water ruptured, which caused citizens and businesses to resort to only using water held in reservoirs as well as from the other pipeline into the city, from Port Stanley on Lake Erie.

Since then, we’ve had to make do without. The City urged citizens to restrict their water use while the pipeline is repaired, going without outdoor watering/washing and keeping indoor water use to a minimum.

The pipeline has been repaired but being eased back into service slowly to ensure it is functioning properly. However, water consumption apparently actually increased above average on Thursday evening, causing the City to impose mandatory water restrictions over the weekend while they struggle to replenish the reserves. The City has said that city by-law enforcement officers will remind residents not to water outdoors, but will hand out $95 tickets for those found violating the ban.

This move from restrictions to a ban may further expose problems with City Hall’s communication strategy. I was frustrated to see neighbours washing their cars/watering their lawns last night, but many Londoners may have missed the memo. With readership of the Free Press dropping and less people watching local news, without people telling them they may not know there is a problem. I now check local media regularly, but didn’t always. Is my level of attention average, or the exception?

This ban comes at a particularly hard time for the area. It was announced this week by the Upper Thames Conservation Authority that the Thames River watershed is continuing to face drought conditions after a mild winter with little precipitation failed to replenish the watershed. We continue to see little rain, and without it this restriction makes it that much harder for residents hoping to grow gardens and keep their trees healthy this spring.

Events like this can also be a harsh reminder of just how much water we consume. We try to do what we can to restrict how much water we use, but between laundry, dishes, watering the garden/trees and showers/baths, it can all add up quickly. It has been a tough but good reminder to us just how much we depend on clean, fresh water, and everything we use it for.

The restrictions this week has also reminded us how hard it is to do without it.

Next Wednesday, national and international water conservation advocate Maude Barlow will be speaking at London’s Aeolian Hall along with London “partners in watershed protection”, specifically about the vast resources that this area of North American has in the Great Lakes.

This is just a short post on what is an enormous issue with a great deal of debate about what is appropriate use for water, restrictions/supports that should be put in place when it comes to companies that consume large quantities of water, etc. I’m really looking forward to these talks, especially when they’re being delivered at such a relevant time for our city. Hope to see you there!

Yesterday, the London Citizens’ Panel (http://citizenspanel.ca/) made an announcement at London Central Library about a new initiative they’re rolling out over the next 6 months. Their goal is to move beyond issue-specific events like the ones they hosted over the winter for citizens to discuss/tackle the issue of income disparity, and hear from Londoners of all areas and backgrounds about citizen engagement itself, how it works (and doesn’t) for them, how the entire experience can be improved in our city.

Glen Pearson, a member of the panel, writes about it this next phase in engagement in today’s blog post. He says:

And there is a powerful new element to the work of the Panel this time around. The entire public library system in London has opted to fully partner with the us. The reasons should be obvious. Long before any of the groups got started in engagement, the libraries were already deeply involved in such work. But more than that, they have the ability through their extensive networks to bring thousands of Londoners into the process that previously had remained outside of it all. In many ways this is the most exciting part of this entire enterprise for me.

It all starts with an event Thursday May 24 at Wolfe Performance Hall at Central Library, featuring 3 of London’s top civic bloggers: Glen Pearson (http://glenpearson.ca/), Gina Barber (http://ginabarber.blogspot.ca/) and Philip McLeod (http://themcleodreport.ca/). From there, the Citizens Panel will be working to meet with citizens from all over the city, via the London Public Library system; they also have a survey on their website for citizens to tell them about their experiences with City Hall, and/or reasons why they don’t connect with the city. To keep the project on course, they will have follow-up meetings in September and November, to report their progress and final findings.

It’s important to stress that all members of the Citizens Panel are doing this as volunteers, not paid by or representing anyone but themselves, as citizens looking to engage others and understand what can be done to improve citizen experiences in our city. They aren’t affiliated with the City, though they will be reporting to Council with their findings.

Above all else, we need to reach beyond the “usual suspects”; we need to have this discussion with Londoners that have been silent. They want to hear about their experiences with City Hall, or why they choose not to connect. This is especially important in the context of projects like ReThink London (http://rethinklondon.ca/) that aims to give every member of our community a say in how our future is shaped.

Please check out the Citizen Panel website, answer their survey (it’s very brief, will take less than 5 minutes of your time!), and stay connected for future events. But please also reach out to those in your circles who don’t usually engage with City Hall and/or citizen initiatives. All voices are needed to have a truly vibrant and diverse city, the hope is to have input from as many citizens as possible.

As I said in my previous post, we need to collectively address and work against cynicism, engage with our city and encourage others to do the same. I’ve been thinking and learning more about ReThink since I posted, and see that this really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. London Urban Designer Sean Galloway (who has been spear-heading ReThink London) has been a major inspiration to me in his message about the future of our city, and all the potential we have. An example of his thoughts on our city’s future can be seen here in this Ignite talk he gave last year.

ReThink is all about shaping our City for the next 20 years, effectively for 2032. This is our time to make our voice heard, and talk about exactly what kind of city we want to see, live in and be a part of.

It is also time to think big.

In this excellent post, Philip McLeod concludes:

The ReThink London exercise – actually planning officials prefer to call it a campaign, although experience might be a better word – will wrap up in the fall of 2013. By then all the other reports will have been completed and vetted and ReThink should pull everything together into a cohesive statement about the kind of city Londoners want this to become. Pretty much everything is on the table, an opportunity for some intelligent and visionary thinking that doesn’t often come along. All you need to participate is an opinion.

This is our time London. Please take some time to deeply consider what you like in our city, and everything that can be done to make it even better. Reach out to friends, family and members of your community and invite them into the conversation. I’ll do the same, and together we can create a real community dialogue. We won’t have another chance like this for another 20 years.

Last night we had the pleasure of being among the 1,300 Londoners that came out to the Convention Centre to be part of the kick-off for the new year-long public participation project ReThink London, and hear CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge talk about what this process means for our city.

The entire talk was powerful, thought-provoking and very interesting. Peter is not only a trusted voice in Canada’s media, but also a truly excellent public speaker. As my wife Sarah said last night, if George Stroumboulopoulos is Canada’s boyfriend, Peter Mansbridge is Canada’s dad.

He touched on many subjects last night, including his thoughts on city and community building as well as politics. He opened his talk with this message:

The government of Canada spends billions of dollars to defend this country against the threat of foreign aggression and terrorism. But there’s another threat that is just as serious. It’s the threat of cynicism.

He told the audience he has met with politicians from all over the world, from all levels of government. He has met with at least 1,000, and the “overwhelming majority” is there to serve the public. He also asked us to consider what a politician goes through. They spend long days and nights, often away from family, meeting with and hearing diverse opinions…and being chased down hallways by people like him that want to ask tough questions.

He reminded us, as a journalist, there’s nothing wrong with healthy skepticism. But it must be tempered by an understanding that we are all looking to make the places we call home better.

He also reminded us that we are truly fortunate to be able to call Canada home, and participate so openly and completely with our planning process. Many cities that think they’re doing it right (he included efforts by Beijing, post-wall Berlin, and Niagara Falls New York) by hiring experts and doing what is thought to be good planning, but ending up with spaces that aren’t inviting and liveable because the public wasn’t consulted to see what it is they wanted.

He (gently) chastised us about our voting record as well. He spoke movingly about how precious the electoral process is, and how we mustn’t ever give it up. We can do better, he told us. We have an open and fair election process, and we have our city approaching us to find out what we, the people, collectively want for our city. They want to hear from us.

I hope we all listen, and can help engage the cynical among us.

And defeat the cynic that resides inside us too.

Until that moment, I felt like I have been fairly upbeat about London civics despite the cynicsm that has flowed from many sources, over many disappointing events, in recent years. At that moment, I came to realize how much doubt I too have been feeling, even as I felt an awakening hope that this will be a new dawn for our city and most importantly, its citizens.

As I said in my previous post, this only works if we’re all in this together. Peter Mansbridge admonished us for our low voting turnouts, and also reminded city staff and council that our opinions must be heard and respected for the system to work. We all have a role to play – it is Council’s responsibility to respect our thoughts, opinions and expertise, but it is also our collective responsibility to hold them accountable and ensure they do so. This will only work if we all participate together.

As a graduate from Fanshawe as a student of land planning, I was deeply moved by the message and what the entire project means. Even having studied planning I find it difficult to become truly excited about the Official Plan, let alone try to energize others to participate in the process. But last night I was inspired by those that spoke, and to see City of London planners so passionate about their profession, and doing so much to encourage Londoners to join in the process. This is planning at its finest, not professionals working out the details in isolation, but genuinely bringing citizens into the conversation.

I have so much hope for this project, and I can’t wait to get involved, and encourage every single citizen to join me.

This is only the beginning. There are lots of ways to connect with the process and our community and get involved.

There are several ways to stay connected and give input online. The website to get connected is http://rethinklondon.ca/, which includes a link to this terrific introduction video. ReThink London is also on facebook and Twitter: you can follow @ReThinkLDN, and join the conversation using the hashtag #ReThinkLDN. The ultimate goal is to create city-wide and neighbourhood conversations, the website and social media are great ways to find out about future events and post your thoughts, but ReThink aims to bring Londoners together, not just facilitate and record online discussion.

There are many offline ways to be part of the process as well. There are meetings, education and roundtable events in the works, and London citizens can find input cards at all city buildings, from libraries to the convention centre, Museum London and City Hall, to record and give their opinions on the city.

I am absolutely excited about this project, and will both participate and share my thoughts on everything happening as it unfolds. However, it will only work if we bring as many Londoners into the conversation as possible, especially those that feel that City Hall isn’t interested in what they have to say, and those that feel the system has turned its back on them.

A great team of city staff and passionate volunteers have put together this ambitious framework, but it really is only the beginning. It can only succeed with many diverse, engaged citizens taking the wheel. This is OUR chance London, let’s be part of the change we want to see!

Last week I was able to see the Fourth Wall presentation by artist and organizer Dave Meslin at Museum London (full video of his presentation here). The artistic presentation is a series of display boards advocating 36 actionable ideas for the City of Toronto around citizen engagement, many applicable to all municipalities.

As he explains, the Fourth Wall is a theatrical term used to describe the imaginary, invisible wall that separates the actors from their audience, and creates the illusion the two parties exist in separate worlds. This wall also exists between citizens and their representatives, City Council. Dave Meslin advocates for ways that this barrier may be broken down, so that we may have contact with those we have elected and keep the communication channels open.

He argues that at present, this isn’t happening in that the ways the City Hall uses to communicate to the public (information on city websites, public notices etc.) aren’t easily accessible or comprehensible to citizens. He doesn’t want to see more politics geeks (like himself, as well as his audience that night), but to find ways for citizens to be able to more easily connect with their councillors and participate in the process while living their lives.

All of these things I completely agree with, and I find his ideas for change/enhancement very compelling. We need to make City Hall more understandable and give citizens the tools to navigate its complex network more effectively.

This leads us to what unfolded at City Council Tuesday night.

Three very emotional issues were addressed between 5:30-10:30 Tuesday, CETA (Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), the Ayerswood development on Reservoir Hill, and continuing to fluoridate city drinking water. Each issue brought 3 very engaged and emotional groups of citizens to City Hall to see how the events would unfold, all of them united (or nearly so) in opposition.

I’m torn as to how I feel about what happened. On one hand, I am excited and encouraged by any action by citizens to be involved in the civic process, connect with their city council and be present when the decisions they feel strongly about are voted on.

On the other hand, I was deeply frustrated by the behavior I saw at City Hall Tuesday. Many citizens stood up in the gallery despite repeated demands for decorum by the chair, berating and swearing both at Council as well as members of staff asked (I admit, leading) questions about what was being decided on.

We need to be able to accept when a decision isn’t going our way. Every child is taught this, so I found it very disturbing to see members of the public my parent’s age behaving poorly because they don’t agree with what is being said. I do understand that these were very emotional issues, and how quickly emotion can take over – I was moved to applause by Councillor Baechler’s impassioned speech over why she would not be recommending the Reservoir Hill development goes forward (that may have to be an article for another time), though I didn’t respond to the rest of the night’s proceedings.

So, what do we take away from this? Philip McLeod draws this conclusion:

…however much we value public engagement we all have a lot to learn about how to respect and nurture it without pandering to whomever shouts loudest. That is as true for the public as it is for council.

We still have a great deal to learn about engagement and what form it will/should take. Both sides demand and should receive recognition and respect. And unfortunately, many may not return to City Hall after Tuesday because they faught hard for a cause they believe in, only to feel ignored by Council because they didn’t see the outcome they wished for. We need to continue to foster citizen input and interest, tempered with the acceptance Council may not come to the same conclusions.

Meanwhile, the city is beginning a new engagement season. Tonight, chief correspondent for CBC News Peter Mansbridge will be helping the city kick off ReThink London, the year-long process to update London’s Official Plan, which promotes controlled urban growth and ensures land use compatibility. It is the long-term planning strategy for our city, the outcome of which will affect every citizen and signal what kind of city we want to live in.

Through this, there seems to be growing cynicism of government at all levels, and the value governments place in citizen interaction. Many are speaking against this event before it even gets started, questioning whether City Hall will truly take their thoughts into consideration, or if this is only an exercise is pretending to listen while continuing to plan as we do now. There is also concern that it is the city’s development community that have the hands on the steering wheel instead of the city staff and citizens.

It’s hard not to find thoughts like this disheartening. With events like Change Camp and ReThink, the attitude seems to be that the “usual suspects” will attend, say what they always say and nothing will actually happen.

It pushes me to think that if we’re to try to truly move forward with ReThink and work to have a voice in the process, we need to give it our all, and encourage as many citizens as possible to join us. As Jedi Master Yoda says:

Do, or do not. There is no try.

I look forward to tonight’s talk, and hope it will ignite many citizens to work with the City, stay committed to the process and ensure their input is heard. It will be a learning process for us all, and one I hope will shape a better city for all citizens. We can only move forward if we keep pushing, I hope many of us will push together on this new endeavour. Tonight will be an excellent start, I hope as many citizens as possible will continue the process with me.