Fiddling While Rome Burns?: Sustainable Communities and the Politics of Citizen Participation

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Fiddling While Rome Burns? Sustainable Communities and the Politics of Citizen Participation

Sherilyn MacGregor

Increased citizen participation in local governance is being touted as the answer to problems ranging from violence in schools to the global environmental crisis. From different ends of the political spectrum, arguments abound for the benefits of more local decision-making, more community consultation, and more direct democracy. Neoconservative governments want to hear from stakeholders (but not "special interest" groups), while left-wing social movements demand citizen control to put power in its place. But does more citizen participation really lead to better decisions and healthier communities? Or does it, in practice, amount to a lot of busy work that keeps participants fiddling with red tape while Rome burns? And what does it mean that the vast majority of volunteer participants in local governance issues - education, health care, air quality, pesticide use - are already overburdened women?

Recognizing that much of the community planning discourse is rather uncritical about the politics of participation itself, this article considers these questions by taking a close-up look, through the eyes of Hamilton resident and environmental activist Burke Austin, at the acclaimed citizen participation process of creating healthy and sustainable communities in Hamilton-Wentworth, Ontario.

Green and Healthy Hamilton?

Since its rather humble birth in Toronto in 1984, the "healthy community" concept has grown into a movement that includes thousands of cities around the world. The original intention of the Toronto visionaries like Dr. Trevor Hancock was to advocate a more holistic and community-based approach to health than the conventional treatment-oriented health care model provides. People are healthy or not depending on the quality of their immediate social, economic, and natural environments. Improve the over-all quality of life and strengthen community bonds, so the logic goes, and a healthier (and less care-costly) population will result. While such reasoning remains central, the now-international movement has broadened over the past 15 years to include the concept of "sustainability" (the environmental buzzword of the 1990s) and places greater emphasis on governance devolved to the local level.

The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) led the way in this shift by establishing a Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Programme in 1994. The Model Communities Programme was a 4 year action research project aimed at helping local governments implement Chapter 28 of Agenda 21, the "global action plan for sustainable development," which was declared at the Earth Summit in 1992. The programme involved fourteen model municipalities in twelve countries that were asked to document and evaluate how their local planning processes managed to observe the principles of sustainable development.

The only Canadian municipality selected by ICLEI to be a model community is Hamilton-Wentworth, a municipality that is not only rife with environmental problems (it is the home of Canada's steel industry and the site of one of the worst industrial accidents - the Plastimet fire - in recent Canadian history) but also well-known for its sustainable community plans. In addition to being named a role model by an international environmental organization, Hamilton-Wentworth has twice received Canadian Environmental Achievement Awards for local government by Environment Canada (the federal ministry of the environment). In 1995 the region was profiled, along with eighteen other cities from around the world, at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. 1 Recently, both the Ontario Professional Planner's Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners have given awards to Hamilton-Wentworth's planning department for its innovative planning projects. In May, 1998, the Hamilton Spectator reported that an (unnamed) Ontario social organization had declared Hamilton to be the most liveable city in Ontario, if not the world. 2

Indeed, Hamilton-Wentworth has an impressive history of sustainable community planning. Since the late 1980s, politicians and planners in Hamilton-Wentworth have worked, with innumerable rounds of public consultation with thousands of citizens, to develop a sustainable community vision. This vision is now expressed in Vision 2020: The Sustainable Region, a policy document that contains over 400 recommendations including several for environmental protection and improvement, compact urban design, diversifying the local economy, and "empowering the community." One of the elements that apparently makes the document so impressive is that it was developed - and re-developed - through a participatory process that made a point of including people from diverse communities with a wide range of interests and concerns.

In the past 10 years Vision 2020 has given rise to a host of local initiatives, many largely suggested and/or organized by citizens. Despite the large number of community initiatives, however, there remains a concern that even more civic participation and a stronger commitment to the principles of sustainability are needed. In March, 2000, a community-based non-profit organization, called "Action 2020," was established to take over the management and initiatives of Vision 2020. One of the objectives of Action 2020 is "to broaden community participation in activities that achieve Vision 2020." Clearly, in Hamilton-Wentworth, citizen participation is seen as a significant means to an unquestionably important end.

Upon closer consideration through the eyes of an actual citizen of Hamilton-Wentworth, however, neither the community nor the process itself seems terribly "healthy." While planners and political officials may choose to measure sustainability by the number of citizens who participate, citizens themselves are growing disillusioned with the process that seems to take up so much of their time while making little difference in the actual quality of their everyday lives.

Reality Check: Hamilton through Burke Austin's Eyes

Burke Austin is a community activist who lives in a working-class neighbourhood in the north-east end of Hamilton. She is raising her family in the house she grew up in, a house from which she can see (and smell) the Dofasco and Stelco smoke stacks. Her community is home to two closed toxic waste dumps, a sewage treatment plant, and the region's garbage incinerator that is Canada's largest producer of dioxin emissions. For the past 5 years she and her group, Community Action Parkdale East (CAPE), have been fighting the expansion of the Red Hill Expressway which is planned to cut right through their part of town, decimating 47,000 trees and destroying the only green space left in their neighbourhood. In the process of the fight, the group discovered that the Red Hill Creek, which also runs through their community, is contaminated with PCBs 30,000 times over the provincial standards. As a result, CAPE members are investing a lot of time taking legal action - with the help of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund - which would force the City to pay a fine for the PCB contamination.

Clearly this Hamilton, the Hamilton experienced from a less-privileged, grass-roots vantage point, is very different from the one celebrated by ICLEI and in the media. Says Austin: "Vision 2020 was a product of a lot of time and thought by some of the most civic minded people in Hamilton-Wentworth. It is a dream of the most wonderful place to live: a place with clean air and water, no homelessness, green space, sustainability, and economic vitality. This being the Steel City, inundated with air, water, and land pollution as the by-product of our economic engine, this vision looks wonderful on paper (even though the indicators are not being met) and [it will be a] huge challenge to say the least."

In addition to leading CAPE in the struggle for environmental justice in her neighbourhood, Austin has been an active participant in many of the advisory committees and stakeholder task forces in Hamilton. She has become a well-known community leader in the past 5 years and has learned a lot about politics in the process. One thing she's learned is that being an active citizen is a lot of hard work. Being called upon to participate means attending meetings, researching government policy, networking with other environmental groups, and monitoring the air and water quality in the area (all the more important since the provincial government cut its staff members who would normally do the monitoring). All of this takes up a lot of time. Austin finds it a lot like a full time job, minus the pay cheque. And it is sometimes difficult to live the life of an activist while raising a large family with young kids who also need her time while trying to get by on her husband's modest salary.

Such is the reality of many of the women who get involved in local quality of life campaigns: they are constantly having to juggle their volunteer work with household and family responsibilities which are also unpaid and undervalued. Often "housewives" are called upon by local committees because it is assumed that they have a lot of spare time to donate to improving the community "for their children." There is often little recognition that the job of raising a family is time-consuming enough or that women's concerns about local issues go way beyond their own backyards. Austin has found that women (and men) from the north end are also stereotyped and "talked down to" by the officials who invite them to City Hall. Could it be that working-class people make desirable participants because it is erroneously assumed that they are less knowledgeable about local politics?

Meanwhile, the processes involved in local community planning benefit a range of people (most of whom are white and male) who make good money being professional planners, lawyers, politicians, academics, and health policy consultants. Yet they increasingly rely on the volunteer time and labour of women like Burke Austin to monitor the health of their own communities and to fill the seats at the public consultations needed to validate progressive-sounding plans.

After spending a lot of time being active in local environmental processes, Austin has recently become a board member of Action 2020. This has given her even deeper insight into the real politics at play at the local level. She now wonders: who really benefits from participatory processes? In fact, she threatened to resign when she heard that an Action 2020 executive director might be hired for $98,000 a year. While Austin and her colleagues spend a lot of time voluntarily participating in local decision making processes - with sincere commitment to improving the quality of life in Hamilton - some powerful players continue to make deals behind the scenes that determine the outcome of the process before it even begins. For example, the Red Hill Expressway is going to be approved in spite of the consultation process that included CAPE and other community groups who strenuously oppose the development.

In the end, Burke Austin suggests that it was "...the Old Boys Club that put the rubber stamp on Vision 2020. I think they made it part of our Official Plan, not because they believed in it, but because they liked getting the awards. It makes us look good in the international community and that promotes prosperity and drives the economic engine. And we can't forget about the perks! The trips and the fancy dinners at the Chamber of Commerce followed by a boat cruise in the west end of the Harbour where it is pretty and green and cleaned up. They tout being a wonderfully sustainable region while making the most environmentally disastrous decisions that you would ever want to see."

In Austin's mind, the vast potential of local citizens to make Hamilton a better place to live is being high-jacked by an elite group of people with a pro-development agenda: "Action 2020 might lead to some very significant improvements in the quality of life in Hamilton-Wentworth. IF we-the-public elected a Council that believed in the vision, who understood the concept, and were dedicated to using it to base their decisions upon. Then it might just work. But all the concerned volunteers like myself cannot make things change and chart a course for the vision until we have the political will in check."

Local Governance and Healthy Scepticism

In 1969 American planning theorist Sherry Arnstein wrote an excellent, and still highly relevant, article entitled "A Ladder of Citizen Participation" in which she argued that "participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless." 3 Her central message was that we need to be able to distinguish between participation that leads to citizen control and the kind of participation that can be co-opted and manipulated to support the desires of the municipal power elite. It is this kind of critical analysis, it seems to me, and those based in women's grounded understandings of the way local politics work, that is needed in discussions about healthy communities.

It might be objected that healthy or sustainable community visions really are all about citizen empowerment and the creation of liveable places for all. While it may be the case that there are well-meaning planners with the best of intentions (as there are in Hamilton-Wentworth), it is also unquestionable that these planners are working alongside one of the most right-wing, pro-business governments in North America. "Citizen participation" to Mike Harris, and political leaders just like him all over the world, means less work for government which in turn means lower costs to taxpayers and more votes in the next election. Downloading the responsibility for healthy communities and ecosystems to unpaid and overworked citizens (the majority of whom are women) is a sure way to create the illusion that progress is being made when in fact very little is being done to redistribute wealth or to avert the ecological crisis.

In Ontario, just the opposite is occurring: the gap between rich and poor is growing, more control is being given to transnational corporations, and environmental protection has been sacrificed for tax cuts. 4 The Common Sense Revolution has been particularly harmful to women who rely on social services in order to have a decent quality of life. Thousands of women are forced to fill in the gaps of a downsized health care system by looking after family members - without compensation - at home. They call this "community care." How can truly sustainable communities be created in this context?

Women have an important role to play in movements to make local neighbourhoods better places to live, work, and play. They have been doing so well before the advent of the "healthy community" concept. So it is important to keep in mind a healthy dose of scepticism that can protect us from being duped into legitimizing empty processes that serve dominant new right agendas. Simply more citizen participation is not the answer: for lasting social, economic, political, and environmental change we must go much deeper.

1 Creating a Sustainable Community: Hamilton-Wentworth's Vision 2020 Canada.

2 John Hughes, "Welcome to the best city on the planet" Hamilton Spectator, May 26, 2000, DD1,3

3 Sherry Arnstein (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of American Institute of Planners, Vol. 35, 216-224.

4 Since the Harris government came to power in 1995, the Ministry of the Environment has had its budget cut by 40% and Ontario has become the second worst polluter in North America (second only to Texas). The recent Walkerton water contamination disaster may be further evidence of the costs of downloading environmental monitoring to local communities.

Sherilyn MacGregor is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. She is working on a dissertation on the experience of women activists in environmental justice struggles in Canada. She gives many thanks to Burke Austin for speaking her mind via e-mail.