The power in consultation

What on earth is “true public consultation”?  This question begs to be asked after reading an article in the January 8, 2012 Calgary Herald.  Reporter Clara Ho’s first two paragraphs:

An environmental group is demanding a ‘true public consultation’ after learning of pro-posed plans to clear cut more than 700 acres of trees in the west Bragg Creek are in Kananaskis Country.
Sustain Kananaskis – comprised of Bragg Creek residents, trail users and outdoor enthusiasts – is calling for Spray Lake Sawmills and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development to hold a ‘transparent approval process that includes facilitated, accessible and meaningful public consultation in regards to logging activities in Kananaskis Country’.

A little more on the dynamics of the situation, as I read it:

  • The Government of Alberta (through Alberta Sustainable Resource Development) approved a 10 year logging plan that delegates forest management activities to Spray Lakes Sawmills.
  • Spray Lakes Sawmills has conducted ongoing public consultationover the last 10 years on various forest management activities.
  • Specific to west Bragg Creek, Spray Lakes Sawmills has consulted with stakeholders.  The next opportunity for the public to learn more and share concerns is at an open house January 26.
  • Sustain Kananaskis’ mission is to hold Spray Lake Sawmills and ASRD accountable to all Albertans affected by the proposed logging.
  • 90 percent of the trails will be affected in some way by the logging, including 30 km of new trails.
  • Sustain Kananaskis is advocating for a transparent approval process that includes public consultation, not just stakeholder consultation.
  • Sustain Kananaskis is demanding full public consultation so that dialogue can occur.

On the surface, the conflict appears to be about citizens (in the form of Sustain Kananaskis) demanding true, meaningful and full public consultation.  On their web site, Sustain Kananaskis defines ‘proper’ public consultation in three stages: let people know what’s going on (notification), seek their opinions (consultation), and involve them in the formulation of objectives, policies and approaches (participation).  By their own definition, they are getting consultation; they have been and are being asked for their opinion.  Whether they like the decisions made with their input is another story.

Sustain Kananaskis is actually looking for one of two things.  In the realm of consultation, Sustain Kananaskis is looking for evidence that their opinions and input affect the decisions of the decision-makers, in this case Spray Lakes Sawmills and ASRD.  In the realm of participation, Sustain Kananaskis is really seeking a role as a decision maker to shape the future of Kananaskis Country consistent with their vision.

The underlying issue in Clara Ho’s article is about who has the power to make decisions.  As is often the case, those without the power would like to have some.

The question I am left with:  Under what conditions can power be shared while maintaining our expectations for accountability?

The purpose of the city: create conditions for conflict

This thought just struck me – what if the purpose of the cities/towns/villages is to bring people closer together?  And the closer we get to each other, the more conflict there is.  Is the purpose of the city then to generate conflict?  What is the purpose of generating conflict?

Conflict generates dissonance, a distinct or subtle sense that things are not right.  A city, just like a person, can sit quite a while with the feeling that things are not quite right before we decide to take action.  Smoking in restaurants, idle-free parking, deciding to support active transportation are all collective decisions that have come about as a result of conflict in a community.

There is a pull in us to be closer together, but we also push each other away, to not live too close to each other.  We resist being close, because we resist being in conflict.  As a city planner and community volunteer I regularly hear people – on the public record and off – say they do not want people close to them, especially more people close to them.  I wonder if we resist the pull to be closer to people because it brings conflict with it, and we tend to either avoid conflict wherever possible, or even stir it up, neither of which takes acknowledges of the wisdom within conflict.  What are we missing as a result?

I am left with a series of questions:

  1. What if I/we let conflict teach me/us?
  2. What would happen to cities if I/we welcomed and invited conflict for the purposes of generating new understanding?
  3. What if I/we viewed conflicts as opportunities?
  4. What if I/we found ways to work through and beyond conflicts?

In the end, I notice that when I work through conflict, I arrive a new understanding.  I change.  Is that what I/we am/are afraid of when avoiding conflict?