Bringing Toronto planning into the 21st century - Part 1

A city works best when its citizens are actively engaged in ensuring its well-being — when people speak up about things that affect them and their neighbourhoods. 

In Toronto, one of the ways that happens is through the planning process — an application for a zoning or official plan amendment kicks off a cycle that gives anyone the chance to submit comments to city staff by email, attend meetings in their community, and get up to speak at Community Council. So, if you're not wild about a condo that's proposed for your street — or even if you love the idea — you have several ways to make yourself heard.

I've talked recently about the rampant development happening in my area. I've had ample opportunity to see this process in action. I've contributed to all stages of it; in fact, community meetings are coming up two a week recently. Like it or not, it's become one of the ways I spend my free time. 

As a result, I've also had a lot of time to think about the flaws in the system. Despite all the ways in which it's possible to contribute, the process is by no means transparent or user-friendly. And I have one or two — or seven — ideas about how it could be improved. 

Current and accessible information

The city actually has a cool little search engine on their website called the Application Information Centre. You can use it to find all the development applications within a specific ward, or look for everything on a single street or something at a specific address. If you happen to know the application number because you've seen it on a planning application sign, you can even search using that. 

However, it's not perfect. For example, this is the page for a project that's proposed for a couple of blocks away from me. I was at the community consultation meeting for this development this past Thursday night. You'll notice, however, that under the "Meeting Dates" heading, it says "No meetings currently scheduled". The information on the site just isn't kept as current as it needs to be. One of the documents available at the community consultation meeting was the planning department's preliminary report on the application — this page should also have a link by now to search for that report. 

Yes, that's right — search  for that report, which is the other problem. Here's another page, this one for a project that's already under construction nearby. If you click on "Additional Information", you'll see links to search for both the preliminary and final staff reports. Those links, which take you to the search tool for the minutes of the various City Council and committee meetings, are notoriously fussy. If the development site is a package of multiple addresses, for example, it can be very hard to get the search to work properly. Why isn't everything related to the application — both staff reports, the minutes from the appropriate Community Council meeting, the minutes from the City Council meeting — why is it not all linked directly from this page, without any searching involved?

Getting your foot in the door

If you want to stay updated about a specific project, you have that right, and there are lots of ways to do so. You can call, write, or email the planning department and ask them to add you to the list of interested parties, and then you'll get a mailed notice of any meetings that happen. If you attend a community consultation meeting and sign in at the door, you'll also be added to the mailing list. 

But why so much effort and manual intervention (and room for manual error)? Why not just have a link on each project page where you can add yourself to the mailing list automatically (and, if you lose interest, have yourself removed too)? 

Alternatively, for the hardcore wonks, why not some online method where you can automatically have yourself added to the mailing lists for all development applications that are filed in a specific ward? That way, you don't have to rely on happening to pass by a sign stuck in a window somewhere to know that a project has been proposed. 

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Ah, yes, the sign. Some very useful changes were made to the signs a couple of years ago. It seems like they're larger now, and they include a picture of the project. I seem to recall some discussion of adding QR codes to them that linked to the project page, but that seems to have been set aside. 

A few weeks ago, I was railing against another development project at a consultation meeting, and specifically giving them hell about the fact that I'd walked past their site only an hour earlier and nobody would have had a clue from looking at their sign that the meeting was happening that night. To my embarrassment, I learned that the only meeting that's listed on the sign is the "statutory" meeting — the meeting of the relevant Community Council. In other words, if you were only getting your information from the sign, you would have missed a good chunk of the process. 

Since the sign goes up pretty much right after the development application is filed, there's no reason that it shouldn't include the date, time, and place of the consultation meeting once it's scheduled. Then, just as it would be now, it could be updated again with the information about the Community Council meeting once that's scheduled. 

 Tomorrow - part 2: notice areas, publicity, venues, and meeting times…