“Maybe they expected to have more influence on projects”

An article by Sabrina Nanji in the Toronto Star is an interesting mix between the standard citizen-jury PR and facts that undermine this standard narrative. There is also an appearance by the familiar elite discourse of the struggle of diversity promoting liberalism against conservative white-supremacist ideology.

The story of Toronto’s Planning Review Panel shows one very important aspect (even if a completely foreseeable one) of the surge of sortition in the 21st century: it is being experimented with by established elites for their own purposes (i.e., for its usefulness in buttressing their power) rather than as a tool of democracy.

City of Toronto is looking for your input on urban planning issues

The city is looking for regular folks interested in studying and informing municipal planning policy and projects on the Toronto Planning Review Panel.

Calling all wannabe urban planners and civic champions — Toronto’s planning department wants your advice.

This week 10,000 letters were randomly sent out across the city soliciting regular folks interested in studying and informing municipal planning policy and projects on the Toronto Planning Review Panel, which is wrapping up its first-ever experiment in diverse citizen engagement, to mixed reviews.

Two years after they were recruited, the original 28 panelists will meet for the last time next Saturday and the search is already on for the next batch of volunteers to take up the mantle in January.

Their input has helped makeover the city’s ugly signage for development proposals and prompted heritage preservation services to better consider the histories of under-represented people in less affluent neighbourhoods, among other things. And they had to win a civic lottery to do it.

The panelists were randomly selected in 2015 out of about 500 willing Torontonians who had responded to 12,000 letters seeking volunteers who reflect the city’s diverse population and neighbourhoods. The goal in part was to diversify the sort of input the planning department was getting through traditional consultation meetings — typically that of older, white male property owners. (In some cases the letters are targeted to certain neighbourhoods and communities, such as Indigenous groups, in order to recruit from as wide a range of voices as possible.)

Eventually 32 people will be picked for the second term, which will run for 16 Saturdays over the next two years.

Before joining the panel, Jihan Abrahim said she wasn’t engaged in local politics despite it being ingrained in everyday living where she grew up, in Guyana. Now, she’s intrigued and says she’ll stay involved in decisions that impact the Etobicoke neighbourhood where she’s lived for 11 years.

“I’ve never had that chance to learn about this city or help shape this city, so when I got the invite I was really excited,” she said. “I could start giving back on something that makes a difference. It made me feel more like this is home (and) we are working towards making it better.”

But some of the panelists were frustrated at the perceived slow pace and politicking behind municipal decision-making.

Mark Richardson [is] an open data advocate who makes regular deputations at city hall[.] “We provided (feedback) in an impartial way, representative of the whole city and chosen at random, almost like a jury. That impartial feedback came back with some very positive ideas that we could all agree on (and) defend if we were discussing any part of the city,” Richardson said.

“Like with everything, it’s great to say we want to engage the public in a new and better way, but when that engagement brushes up against entrenched interests at city hall, then they don’t seem to be as excited by the feedback, or as willing to act upon the feedback.”

Daniel Fusca, co-ordinator of stakeholder engagement and special projects in the city’s planning division, acknowledged Richardson’s disappointment.

“Maybe they expected to have more influence on projects,” Fusca said. “It’s not privileged in any way over any other form of consultation. It’s just another way for us to get a more diverse set of voices contributing to our projects.”

Overall, Fusca considers the unique experiment a success and one that provided city staffers input they may not have otherwise heard.

“The environment that exists at the panel is very different from any kind of public consultation,” he said. “It’s much more positive. They’re very curious, they ask lots of good questions. They want to understand a project really well and they want to understand how they can make it better … There’s none of the combative nature that exists at a lot of public consultations.”

Abrahim said it was an “amazing experience” but was briefly marred by backlash she received on social media after a news report was published about the panel last year, around its one-year anniversary.

It underscored the fact that in 2014, the planning department’s data suggested it wasn’t getting enough input from certain groups, especially young people, renters and newcomers. The story also featured an image of Abrahim, and so she said she received angry messages from people on social media linking her to the statistic, and accusing her of being racist against white, male property owners — which is who the planning department said it typically heard from. One person told Abrahim to “return to your own land.”

She and her fellow panelists were upset, but Abrahim said it didn’t dampen her desire to participate.

“I’ve never felt that much hatred from people in Toronto, especially when I’m there volunteering, trying to make the city a better place,” she said.

Eventually she ignored the messages.

“I’m just happy that I’m able now to have a say and learn about the city and be involved,” she said.

3 Responses

  1. BTW, the problem is not with policy anyway – that’s just fine as it is. The problem is with the people. They just need to stop being such bigots.


  2. *** A panel selected by lot, but from 500 volunteers among 12000 citizens who got the letter, with apparently steps of selection for more diversity, and in the end without any real power. Clearly, we are very far of the model of “democracy through minipublics”. Actually Toronto gives us a near perfect case of antidemocratic use of the “deliberative panel”. The model of the “non-representative panel with correction through quotas” creates a political set the median political sensitivity of which will be usually different from the civic median sensitivity. The discrepancy will be used to heighten the “polyphony” against any popular movement. It is a good example of the polyphony which Rosanvallon theorizes (France is good for theory, maybe Canada better for practice).
    *** The use of the ethno-racial diversity flag here is to be considered in relationship with the “pluralist temptation” of the Western oligarchizing elites. The idea is the “new alliance” of the oligarchizing elites, which are minorities, social-scale minorities, with the ethno-racial minorities (and other minorities), against the citizens who are no part of a salient minority. This temptation is often found in the culture elite, but likewise in the money and business elite: I remember the discourse against the “Occupy Wall Street” movement stressing the white color of many of the militants, with this discourse especially well uttered by a businesswoman of Filipino ascent. I believe some of the anti-Sanders discourse was of the same kind. The “all-the-minorities alliance” runs into some difficulties – especially where many of the ethno-racial minorities are in the low levels of the socio-economic scale – and actually is possible only because the electoral-representative system allows the muddling of issues – whereas the democracy-through-minipublics would cancel it.
    *** Ethno-racial antagonisms are the result first of inherited prejudices, coming from past historical situations; second of the ideological differences between inherited cultures (I say ideological differences; other cultural differences, let’s say cooking or musical tastes, are usually of low importance). Many trends of modernity may be hoped to dissolve these antagonisms. But these may be heightened by the political use of them by the oligarchizing elites.

    Liked by 1 person

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