Welcome to the Municipal Blog relating to the 5 Year Review of the Municpality of Meaford Official Plan. Please note that this blog is not intended to replace formal public consultation under the Planning Act but is instead meant to be a forum for information sharing on topics and ideas relating the review and community planning in general. Feel free to post comments or questions. Also be sure to visit the Municipal Webste (here) for additional information about the Official Plan Review.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fostering Community. Part 2 - Official Plans & Community

In my last post “Fostering Community. Part 1 – Built Environment & Community” I noted that a review of current literature/research indicates that there is a link between the structure of our environment and the community that develops within it, because of it, or in spite of it. From the perspective of municipal planner, I see this as an opportunity - using the legislated tools available to us - to actively create environments that facilitate community.
In an urban setting this can be quite easily translated into directive policies about features & placement of buildings, organization of land uses, transportation linkages and design of individual sites. However, in a municipality like ours, which covers such a large geographic area and includes both rural, urban, suburban and hamlet areas, it seems to me that the policies need to delve a little deeper.

Community as a specific planning goal?

As you may know, an Official Plan is the primary policy document through which Council and residents can communicate their vision for a municipality. Through development of its policies, the community identifies priorities which guide land use, development and capital spending as tangible expressions of the values of the community.
If you’ll recall, I’ve previously provided a definition of “community” (per Wikipedia) as being “A group of interacting people, living in some proximity (i.e., in space, time, or relationship). Community usually refers to a social unit larger than a household that shares common values and has social cohesion.”
So, what does our current plan say about ‘community’ as a value and as a goal?  Interestingly enough, references to the active fostering of community are few. There are however, numerous references to ‘character’ and ‘civic identity’. Hmmmm…

Character & Community Intertwined

I’ve often thought that the term ‘character’ in reference to a place is quite vague and subjective. What is the character of an area? Is it the topography? Is it a built feature? Is it a feeling? Would you describe an area's character in the same way I would? Do we share a perception of the character of a house, a neighbourhood , the municipality?

If I feel that rural character is characterized by forests and vistas, and you feel that it is characterized by cleared agricultural fields – are we inclined to behave in a neighbourly way, or do our conflicting views undermine social cohesion? How different would our interactions be if we both felt that rural character includes all of those elements?  

I suppose what I’m thinking is that those policies that speak to protecting 'character' are really speaking to the protection of the physical elements that we collectively value...and because we value them, and because we identify with them emotionally, these elements form a basis for 'community' in our municipality.

This concept is touched upon in Section A1 of the Official Plan (The Community Vision) which reads: 
“According to the residents of Meaford, the excellent quality of life is what makes the Municipality a desirable place to live. This quality of life is created, in large part, by the distinct 19th century character of the urban area, with its downtown and established neighbourhoods and the Municipality’s rural area, with its small settlement areas, farmland, country homes, open scenic countryside, extensive woodland areas and shoreline communities. These are the qualities that, taken together, contribute to the identity of the community that is of greatest importance to the residents.” 
Of course, our individual perceptions will be coloured by our experiences and personal preferences and it is human nature that we will disagree from time to time on how to articulate ‘character’ as it relates to a specific area, feature, or proposal. But after much internal debate on the matter, it strikes me that the vague and subjective nature of ‘character’ in our Official Plan policies is exactly as it should be. Its inclusion as a planning consideration means that through the planning process we are all challenged to participate in an ongoing discussion about what these features and qualities mean to each of us and how, when taken together, they describe our community and the elements that matter most to each of us. 

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