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!

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