Generate trust through small, incremental actions...
This was advice given to me by David Miller when he was a City of Toronto Councillor in the Swansea ward, before he became Mayor of Toronto. It was 2000 and I was working on the massive “brownfield” redevelopment of the former Stelco Swansea Works bolt factory at Windermere & The Queensway near Toronto's Humber River and Gardiner Expressway.
The 12 acre legacy industrial site had been empty for well over a decade, with few prospects for redevelopment - a fenced-off eyesore standing between the community and Lake Ontario. I was working with a multi-disciplinary team of engineers, environmental scientists, hydrogeologists, architects and urban planners to ensure site cleanup and assist a developer to create a project that would make sense in the local community context and meet high social and environmental standards.
The developer was keen on creating a collaborative planning process through which local community members could influence many aspects of project design, including architectural treatments, street-scaping, trails, waterfront access corridors and community amenities - provided that the project's return-on-investment target would be realized. Before the concept was popular, the developer knew that "shared value" was key to a successful project.
Looking for someone who would be respected in the community as a neutral chairperson for a multi-stakeholder community liaison committee, I met with Councillor Miller. He agreed to chair regular committee meetings - but he was clear on two points:
- He would chair a collaborative planning discussion and assist in bringing in many community voices, but he would not take a position on the project until the community was comfortable with the site re-development
- He insisted that we would only have success if we followed this basic rule: “if you say you are going to do something, do it and report back that you have done what you said you would do”.
I followed David Miller’s advice on this two-year community engagement process. We created a site development plan that had very good community support, the developer got site plan approvals from the City in record time (due to the extensive community consultation), and David Miller drove the wrecking ball into one of the decaying buildings to officially start the redevelopment project.
Our team was one of the first recipients of a Canadian Urban Institute "Brownie Award" for our efforts in building and maintaining working partnerships with the local community. In 2006, Toronto Star real estate reporter wrote an article about the project, 'Brownfields Come Clean', highlighting the project as an example of a city-wide trend to rejuvenate old industrial sites.
David Miller became mayor of Toronto, and I went on to work on many more similar projects. Everytime I drive past the site on the Gardiner Expressway, I can see so many site features that reflect concepts and comments we heard from community members. We did what we said we would do.