Vancouver tests open-government waters with Greenest City planning

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      City of Vancouver staffers are compiling information from a year’s worth of public-engagement activities related to the Greenest City action plan. The document lays out 10 goals to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world—or at least more environmentally sustainable—by 2020. A final draft of the Greenest City implementation plan will go to council for approval in May or June, and fulfillment of the goals begins this summer.

      A more sustainable city requires behavioural change and widespread support from individuals and their communities, according to the Greenest City planners at City Hall. With that in mind, the city’s process of collecting public input on the Greenest City action plan has been a study in how to make government activity more human.

      “There are a lot of things that the city can do in order to create the greenest city using our policy and regulatory levers, but more work, in a lot of ways, is going to need to happen and be led by the people that live in the city,” Greenest City planner Lindsay Cole told the Georgia Straight by phone from her office at City Hall. “It’s been a sharing of responsibility and the recognition that no one person or innovation has all the answers.”

      The Greenest City Action Team used social media and digital technologies to spark citizen-led public-engagement activities like kitchen-table discussions at private homes, online discussion forums, and workshops at community centres.

      The public-engagement process started last June with a special edition of PechaKucha Night Vancouver and ended on March 5 with Greenest City Camp, the first “unconference” hosted by the city. An unconference is a participant-led conference with roots in the Web 2.0 communities of the early 2000s. Participants determine the conference agenda instead of having organizers set it for them.

      The 250-person crowd at Greenest City Camp featured a cross-section of Vancouver’s sustainability, tech, and open-government communities. Leif Utne travelled to Vancouver from Bainbridge Island, Washington, to attend the event. A long-time community activist, former publisher of, and son of Utne Reader founder Eric Utne, he now works for Zanby, a company that builds online communities. He also helps organize the annual Open Gov West conference that brings together open-government supporters from across the western United States and Canada.

      The open-government movement supports citizen access to online government data, with the idea that government transparency, combined with citizen engagement, improves democracy. The City of Vancouver’s emphasis on citizen-led discussion in creating the Greenest City implementation plan reflects open-government principles. Greenest City staffers are in discussion with the city’s information-technology department to include Greenest City data in the beta version of Vancouver’s open-data catalogue.

      “A lot of the most exciting innovation happening in the Gov 2.0 or open-government movement is around new ways of engaging with the government, helping the government to do its job more effectively, or creating new ways for people outside the government to use the government as a platform to help themselves more effectively,” Utne told the Straight during a break at Greenest City Camp.

      “One of the definitions of Gov 2.0 is ”˜government as a platform’. So all of the stuff around open data, open-source software, open standards, and all that is about creating ways that citizens and outside software developers can develop their own applications, [and] their own ways of engaging with the institutions and the mechanics of government in ways that serve themselves better.”

      Utne, along with other participants at Greenest City Camp, acknowledged ongoing concerns about what’s called the digital divide, or the gap between those who have the means and literacy to use digital technologies and those who don’t.

      Online technologies still aren’t accessible for everyone, especially seniors, new immigrant communities, and people in poverty. Many discussions at Greenest City Camp explored inclusivity and how to elicit participation from marginalized communities.

      Greenest City Camp attendee Miraj Khaled volunteers at W2 Community Media Arts in the Downtown Eastside, where he specializes in addressing digital issues with marginalized communities.

      “The Internet is in all aspects of society, in human activity. For people who don’t have access to information, they lose many of their rights,” Khaled told the Straight between sessions at Greenest City Camp. “We see literacies come from reading, writing, and arithmetic. But there’s also another: professor Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics talked a few years ago about building a new kind of literacy. It’s called new-media literacy.” New-media literacy is key for all citizens to access information about basic needs like jobs and shelter. Without it, people are shut out of crucial opportunities for improving their lives, Khaled said.

      Back at City Hall, Cole and her Greenest City colleagues have been working to address barriers to digital access by balancing online citizen engagement with a variety of offline activities aimed at diverse populations.

      “Just because it’s online and accessible doesn’t mean it’s actually accessible, because it’s still difficult for some people to participate in that way. So it’s about really being thoughtful about what kind of engagement you are trying to do,” Cole said. “What we’re trying to do is to get people to take real action in the real world, in their lives and in their workplaces, and in their communities.”



      Sarah Schacht

      Apr 22, 2011 at 10:14am

      For more information about Open Gov West, on May 13th & 14th in Portland, Oregon, see There's $55 roundtrip rail passes from Vancouver, and a promo code for BC residents, BCisOpen for 10% off your conference pass. :)