Saturday, November 1, 2008


Things change all the time in communities. Sometimes you don't notice them at all - the ferry seems more overloaded than it was before, the salmon seem to come back later and later, there are kids at the beach you've never seen before. Sometimes the change comes fast, like this week at our house when two 75 year old douglas-firs on our neighbours property were cut down. Our neighbour was worried that these tress posed a threat to her house, and she had them taken apart by Dave Affleck's very capable logging crew. We lament these gentle beasts, but we know too that things change and that every time something significant changes, it can be a chance to come together and do something new.

That's kind of how it is with things on the island at the moment. I was reading Peter Frinton's excellent post on what we are facing and it got me thinking. We're in the midst of an election campaign that will choose the council that will embark on a formal review of our Official Community Plan. The OCP is the document that outlines all of the tools a municipality has for guiding it's growth and change and protecting its character. It's a tremendously complex task and is often greeted with the groans of a painful process to come.

I certainly don't see it that way though. I think the OCP could be a unique opportunity to bring our community together in an unprecedented way, to invite everyone who lives here now to have a hand in shaping the future and to emerge with a vibrant sense of co-ownership and pride in who we are and what we are becoming. All of us who moved here after 1996 inherited a Bowen Island that was shaped by a previous generation, and everything I love about this place was the result of those who came before me. We have a chance now to make an immediate future that will create and maintain that character of the island that we love so much. Rather than dread the OCP, we can look forward to the process and for the unity that it brings.

This is by no means a slam dunk. We have a choice in how to approach this work. If we as a community approach it from a place of dividing the community into discrete interests and agendas, then we will get a plan that is mired in divisions that focuses on the parts rather than the whole. The OCP review, being as significant as it is, has the chance to cleave us apart. So I have a number of ideas that I'd like to share with the candidates running for council and with the citizens of our island. These come from my years doing community planning and engagement in many contexts around North America:

  1. Remember what community is. I recommend that everyone running for council read Peter Block's new book Community: the Structure of Belonging. Communities are not problems to be solved. They are places in which people live and grow and in which individual achievement and health is supported by a fabric of neighbours, and relationships. However we do the OCP review, it should be a problem solving approach. You can find a summary of Block's inspiration here.
  2. People in communities are citizens and they don't belong to special interest groups. What some people call special interest groups are simply groups to which they don't themselves belong. Associational life is a strong part of community, and groups are critical to the fabric of community. But social capital - the capital needed to grow community - is best served up BETWEEN groups. There are no enemies in this community. People are not divided into camps, and so us against them posturing doesn't work here. To engage in that kind of view of the world results in finding out down that road that people you need are not there for you. We are too small a community to suffer those kinds of divides.
  3. Use participatory processes that build relationships between citizens.
  4. Use citizens themselves to do the planning. While we have experts on staff in our municipality, we are a community of thoughtful and experienced people, and there are countless ways in which citizens of all ages can take responsibility for the planning process. After all it is we who will be responsible for implementing and living with the results. If the planning process is done by a small group of people who ultimately make the decisions about how it all unfolds, it will be a document that is not inclusive of the very community that it plans for.
  5. Citizens themselves should be invited to participate in planning processes as contributors and co-creators, not as consultees in the process. This involves using processes that invite that contribution rather than simply filling in surveys or attending community meetings as passive consumers of the circus.
I could go on actually, and a lot of the blogging at my other weblog, Parking Lot is about the details of how to do this. Suffice to say that I'm interested in how this change will unfold, because I live here and I love this place and I'm not going anywhere.

And the trees next door? They are lying in the driveway at the moment, but in the next few days myself and two other neighbours will buck them up and split them and share the firewood between the three of us. Turning radical change into a chance to cement our friendships and keep each other warm.