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Unlocking Value

May 2, 2018
Rachael Williams

A public policy think tank is pushing for governments to leverage public infrastructure investments through community benefits initiatives.

In a report released this week entitled Engage and Empower by the Mowat Centre, a policy and governance think tank at the University of Toronto, the authors argue that community benefit initiatives give governments transformative powers in reshaping the social, economic and environmental aspects of existing communities.

“Broadly speaking, it’s a way of unlocking greater value through infrastructure investments,” said co-author and Mowat Centre policy associate Jordann Thirgood.
Citing mistrust in government and the historically top-down approach to urban planning, the report urges governments to get residents and citizens’ groups involved in the planning process at the earliest stages of development.

“Communities are very capable and they are robust and they have the capacity to do a lot of this kind of work,” said Thirgood.

The provincial government has committed to the development of a Community Benefits Framework that all major infrastructure projects across Ontario must comply with by 2020. The goal of the program is to increase diversity and provide jobs and training to local neighbourhoods.

The program has been successful in the City of Toronto, with council moving forward with community benefit initiatives from the expanded casino at Woodbine, for example. Benefits include a $5-million investment in a childcare centre and a commitment to ensure 40 per cent of the expanded staff resources will come from the local community and equity-seeking groups.

“By putting equity at the heart of economic development and focusing on the most marginalized, community benefits can create shared prosperity and empower communities to build lasting social capital,” reads the report.

Metrolinx has also proposed community benefits for the $1.4-billion, 22-kilometre Hurontario Light Rail Transit project in Mississauga.

“Metrolinx is committed to ensuring that its transit infrastructure investments provide benefits to communities, including local employment, training, apprenticeships, local supplier and social procurement opportunities,” said spokesperson Vanessa Barrasa in an email.
Cycling infrastructure, greenspaces and parks, noise barriers for public transit, public spaces, affordable housing and Francophone programming were priorities respondents identified in a survey conducted by the Mowat Centre, which is included in the report.

“The problem is, community groups don’t feel that existing consultation methods by the government have been adequate,” said Thirgood. He added that the government needs to engage with existing groups to understand the community before prescribing how to “improve” it.

The City of Hamilton is ahead of the game with its Neighbourhood Action Strategy. The resident-led, city-wide initiative started in 2010, with staff and volunteers working within 11 neighbourhoods to address social, economic and health concerns on a neighbourhood level.

The strategy has resulted in the development of the McQuesten Urban Farm, a public garden which provides food security in an area of the city underserved by grocery stores. The city has also launched the Xperience Annex to connect underprivileged youth with job opportunities, as well as an alleyway beautification program.

“Often those neighbourhood action strategies, although they aren’t tied to a specific project, they help identify problems within the neighbourhoods and recommend what’s needed to address the health issues, social issues and economic issues those neighbourhoods are facing,” said Hamilton chief planner Steve Robichaud.

The report, which was co-authored by Thirgood, Kiran Alwani and Erich Hartman, recommends collaborative relationships between governments and grassroots organizations to ensure a more holistic and equitable approach to city-building.