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EDITORIAL: The lessons of Millennium Park

Council’s about-face on $20.8M borrowing bylaw shows effectiveness of public pressure in shaping policy

Council’s about-face on the Millennium Park borrowing bylaw at Tuesday’s meeting has three important lessons for both the City of St. Albert and its residents.

First: public pressure can work. A tip of the hat to the St. Albert Seniors Centre, and to petition organizer Ciara Fraser for the significant effort put into collecting more than 4,500 signatures in barely two months.

While the petition came up short of the official number required by provincial law to force the city to either abandon the bylaw or take it to a city-wide vote, it achieved its goal in causing councillors Ken MacKay and Mike Killick to reverse their previous votes in favour.

The second lesson is that public feedback isn’t a point-in-time event, but an ongoing process, particularly for a project with as long a gestation as this one has had.

While some opposition was around the cost of the plan — an amount not finalized until last year — it seems much of the public imagination was around the scope of the plan and specifically the removal of trees from the space, an aspect of the plan the city has been asking residents about for years.

The city did extensive consultation back in 2016 prior to rolling out the first design for Millennium Park. A story from the Gazette at that time refers to the city’s strategy of “placemaking” to design.

“The community really helps you along. They are the experts and they shape what is going into the park,” said then-project manager Teaka Broughm.

In 2018, the city changed its initial design, which looks much like today’s version, to a version that preserved more trees in response to public feedback.

Then last year, as the process lurched forward again, council moved closer to the initial version with more trees removed. That spurred the opposition which culminated in this spring’s petition and Tuesday’s vote.

This will be a frustrating message for city staff and council to hear, but a necessary one: Had it checked to see if public opinion had actually shifted prior to shifting course last year, the petition and this week’s vote might not have been needed at all.

The final lesson is that public pressure can be most powerful when it’s applied far in advance.

Next week, the city is holding a public information session in the Arden Theatre lobby on April 25 from 4-7 p.m. to seek feedback on updates to its Land Use Bylaw.

If you think a few dozen trees downtown are important enough to hold a vote about, you really should care about this. The Land Use Bylaw affects every aspect of what our community looks like, from the shape of our skyline to bicycle parking.

Typically, the attendance at these sessions can be measured without taking your shoes off. But if just two per cent of the people who signed the Millennium Park petition showed up, there would be 100 people there.

It’s not speak now or forever hold your peace. Rather, it's speak now to have the most impact.

No need to wait until someone has to organize another petition.

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