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September 21 and 22
2 days, 2 disciplines, 2 ways to participate – defining our professional roles and uniting to build more equitable, accessible and inspired communities.
In Ontario, it is no secret that development approval is a comprehensive process. When you throw the public consultation aspects into the mix, this process inherently becomes more complex. When Ontario was hit by COVID-19 in March 2020, town halls across Ontario were closed to the public. This closure also impacted the development community and those that deliver the development approvals services within their respective municipality. This sudden change pushed planning departments to understand how they were going to deliver development approvals and engage the public, which can be, even in non-COVID times, a challenge.
With the understanding that public safety was paramount, the growth and development of communities could not be ignored and business had to continue. Municipal planning departments and planners grappled, adapted swiftly, embraced remote working, and shifted to the virtual world to conduct “business as usual.” While some resourceful municipalities acquired electronic planning solutions, others resorted to creative digital options. Public engagement was sought through various e-platforms. Councils, staff, and the public all had to become “technologically savvy” quickly.
Municipalities found efficiencies in these systems and improved business practices, but there were also some challenges and lessons learned. While adopting the technology to our day-to-day dealings, planners found a key component missing: the social and human interaction critical for public engagement. The face-to-face interactions of planners with the public and the small group chats after open houses and public meetings are gone. Council, staff, speakers, and the public now face each other in virtual council chambers, which may be daunting for some and only accessible to a few. With similar experiences, both the Town of Ajax and the Town of Whitchurch-Stouffville provide interesting perspectives related to the development approvals process and public engagement in their own communities in this new reality. Both share some lessons learned and offer a few effective toolbox strategies developed during this time that could continue beyond the pandemic.