Productive, happy dialogue from a happy city

happy city

ST. JOHN’S – On Saturday, more then 50 people showed up to the Foran Room of St. John’s City Hall. They were not there for a public meeting, or information session, but a dialogue. The event was titled “Your City, Your Ideas”, and was an endeavour of Happy City, a citizen-run organization whose mandate is to “inform and encourage the discussion surrounding development and growth in St. John’s”.

Since organizing a Public Forum on Smart Growth in downtown St. John’s last February, Happy City has been working to inform and encourage debate through their website and other social media. Happy City’s unique approach aims to simply encourage debate, not take sides. Through their website, individuals can submit their ideas on how to make St. John’s a better place, and how to address what people see as issues in this fine city of ours.

Although the organization’s origins trace back to what was a divisive fight over a proposal from Fortis Properties — which was ultimately withdrawn before council could vote on it — Happy City has always taken the high road. During the Fortis kerfuffle, they strove to refocus the debate on the broader issues of development in the downtown and throughout the city, rather then on any individual proposal coming to council.

When it comes to individual proposals it’s often too personal, with a line drawn in the sand, forcing people to take a side. Happy City has done well to steer away from this sort of polarizing debate, and instead acted in the most positive manner possible, focusing on how to make St. John’s a better place. This is something we can all agree we want.

The dialogue on Saturday was as unique as anything I have ever attended. While it was facilitated by Bui Petersen from the Centre for Negotiation and Dialogue, the day started with no set program. After some brief explanation of how the day would unfold, Bui stepped back, and said that he would no longer be needed until the end.

People came up, one-by-one, and stated the topic that they wanted to discuss. Some of the topics that were similar enough were combined, and a schedule was made up so that three or four discussions would take place concurrently in three 45-min blocks. People could partake in whatever discussions they wanted, or even bounce between them. The real beauty of this process was that all decisions were made completely by group consensus. There was no bell to tell people to switch, discussions took exactly as long as they needed to.

Rather than many public meeting which often take the form of a screaming match between two sides, the three hours unfolded gently, without so much as someone having to raise their voice. The discussion of each topic was summarized by the individual who had proposed the idea, and posted on a wall at the back of the room. The topics discussed included:  improving public transportation, development and heritage preservation, encouraging sustainable farming, tourism, and developing a local currency. These topics are listed and summaries of discussions will be posted on the Happy City website.

Some of the stand-out ideas I heard in the sessions I attended were to start a land trust to encourage farming in St. John’s, developing a rapid-transit system, and creating a staff position at the city to develop community organizations.

Moving forward, Happy City continues to be a force in promoting discussion through their excellent forums/dialogues, and through their strong web-presence. In a city where you wonder if some councillors even check their email, it’s good to see that alternative routes to dialogue on municipal matters are finding their way into St. John’s. The more positive, inclusive discussions we can have on the future of St. John’s, the happier the city will be.

photo by Dave Lane