What does community engagement look like when inclusion is the top priority? It’s a question that the Township of Langley (the Township) set out to answer in 2018, as they began public consultations for the development of a new Social Sustainability Strategy.
The idea of a Social Sustainability Strategy for the Township has been in the air for a few years, appearing first in the 2016 Official Community Plan, where a policy to consider the creation of a Social Sustainability Plan was adopted. From there, says Township social planner Patrick Ward, the Township realized the potential of such a plan to enhance the community’s approach towards equity and inclusion, and implement the social goals of its Sustainability Charter.
“That policy, coupled with Council’s leadership in allocating resources to social planning, facilitated this great opportunity to identify what our social priorities will be over the next five to 10 years, and also to communicate with our community what we see our role the social realm to be,” he says.
Naturally, for an inclusion- and equity-focused strategy such as this, the Township recognized the importance of gathering input from people from all walks of life in their community, and making sure that the voices they heard from less often due to systemic issues were prioritized. After the Township’s first two phases of engagement, they took some time to analyze the data and to think critically about who was missing from it—and why.
“We really want to make sure that the Township strategy is not just an urban strategy.” –Patrick Ward
“Our initial engagement was quite successful in that we reached a number of groups we were targeting, including youth, newcomers, and people with disabilities. Nevertheless, we recognized that there were still some gaps despite those efforts,” says Ward.
Recognizing that the needs of rural and urban residents can be very different, the Township designed a series of community engagement sessions for rural residents, one of three targeted engagements supported through a PlanH Community Wellness Strategy grant. The Township designed the rural consultations as small group conversations, where community members could discuss their perspectives with Township staff over coffee and cake at the local farmers’ co-op. One of the key groups the Township wanted to prioritize was their rural population, which makes up 20% of the total population of the community. The community spans both rural and urban areas, and characteristics of rural areas of the community, such as limited transportation options and low population density, can make it challenging for rural residents to attend events.
“We really want to make sure that the Township strategy is not just an urban strategy,” says Ward.
The second of the three targeted engagement strategies involved youth, and was conducted in partnership with the Langley School District. Though youth were well-represented within the first two phases of engagement, they were also identified by the community during those engagement sessions as a key community asset. The engagement session took the form of a full-day, large-scale workshop, with the school district bussing in students ages 13–17 from across the community to participate. Discussions focused around three key topic areas that had emerged amongst youth in the initial consultations: housing, transportation and mental health.
“We wanted to do a bit of a deep dive workshop with them in partnership with the school district to explore those issues in more detail,” says Ward. “From the Township’s perspective, we were really interested in getting the input to inform our strategy direction; and from the school district’s perspective, they were interested in helping us, but I also think they were hoping to generate some ideas that youth could take on as a catalyst for action. So the workshop was structured in a way to brainstorm action ideas for the Township’s strategy, but also some time explicitly dedicated to think about the role of youth in these issues, and they came up with some really interesting ways that youth could participate in, or even lead those actions.” says Ward.
As with the rural consultations, the format of the youth engagement session was informed by a best practices guide, commissioned by the Township at the start of the engagement process. The guide, which provided research-based tactics for reaching different subpopulations, was an investment the community made at the outset of consultations to ensure that the formats selected for the engagement would attract the intended audience.
The third engagement activity supported by the PlanH Community Wellness Strategy grant is a social innovation lab focused on community connectedness, and how organizations from across different sectors can work together to enhance residents’ experiences of social connection and belonging.
“We’re really excited to explore how we can work together across sectors to address the issue of connectedness.” says Ward. “While the data shows that the Township is within the average in the region in terms of levels of connectedness, we see emerging issues—an aging population, increasing cultural diversity, increasing urbanization—that we would like to explore in a more proactive way.”