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Want to Revitalize the Right Way? Work with Communities

The key to truly successful revitalization work lies in one place — community consultation. 

Woman speaking to a group of people

Published on August 06, 2021

Community revitalization can happen in many ways. It can mean redeveloping under-used assets like vacant storefronts, investing in the redesign of public spaces like parks and libraries, or simply repairing existing infrastructure like roads and bike lanes. 

Often, local governments will partner with other organizations and private developers when embarking on a revitalization project. But the key to truly successful revitalization work lies in one place — community consultation. 

For any revitalization or “urban renewal” projects, deep consideration for those who call the community home is essential, so as to not displace existing residents.  

A holistic approach needs to be taken, where existing community organizations are key partners in the project, and community members are consulted every step of the way. 

We took a closer look at what it means to design revitalization projects for their communities. 

Understanding the Community 

When considering a revitalization project, it is essential to understand the needs of the existing community. 

To start, we can expand our definition of “residents.” Revitalization projects impact existing natural systems, including the plants, animals and water of a space. According to Matthew Hickey,  Senior Project Architect at Two Row Architect and a Mohawk from the Six Nations First Nation, we need to consider how a revitalization project will impact all our relations. 

“Urban projects by their very nature displace,” he shares. “That displacement is not just limited to humans, it impacts all of our relations. We need to think about being better than we were before. While consultation may not fully address this issue, it can help us understand why these natural systems are important, and that understanding can help us think in a different way. A paradigm shift to realign our values with those that we share the Earth with is needed.” 

Consultation is Not a Static Process 

Traditional consultation processes can bring community members into the conversation once a plan has been largely established. By bringing community in at the very beginning of the planning, revitalization projects can truly reflect their needs and interests. 

One North End is an organization working in Halifax to support African Nova Scotian community members in the city’s North End, who are at risk of displacement in the gentrifying neighbourhood. 

“We want to be sure that the community’s long-standing residents — many of whom are African Nova Scotians — are not displaced, as history has shown that Halifax has a long history of displacing Blackness,” says the organization’s Director, Rodney Small. 

One way to achieve that? Small has joined the City's "Road to Prosperity" committee, to continue the dialogue around passing legislation in Halifax that would allow for Community Benefit Agreements, contracts signed by community groups and developers requiring the developer to provide specific amenities or design elements to benefit the existing community. 

Hickey also believes that consultation throughout the revitalization process is essential. Two Row Architects conducts several rounds of initial consultation when beginning a project. 

“We believe in listening before we start designing, and we believe that consultation is not a static process, but a relationship that is to be built and nourished throughout the life of the project and beyond,” he shares. 

Building Relationships Begins Pre-development 

That consultation can happen in different ways. Hickey shares that Two Row Architects has several methods of building relationships with communities they’re working with. 

“We do like to ensure there are three elements [to our consultation work]: listening, play and conversations.” 

Listening can take the form of a “sharing circle,” where a meeting is centered around conversations. Play can happen through hands-on games, that allow for a more creative way to give feedback, while conversations can take the form of focus groups, where preliminary concepts or designs are discussed in a conversational way. 

“These relationship builders are intended to take place before the design of the project begins,” explains Hickey. 

Looking Forward  

While consulting with community members before, during and often after a project can take more time and resources, the results are worth it — spaces built with and for their existing community. 

“There are many people that know more than we do and we would never assume to know what is best for a project without building those relationships with the rights-holders, users and occupants of the building,” says Hickey.