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Burnaby Community Assembly first public engagement event

Participants engaged in conversations about building zoning, green spaces, affordability, infrastructure, and equity while envisioning Burnaby’s future

On April 9, around 100 Burnaby residents trickled into the banquet hall at Bonsor Recreation Centre for the Burnaby Community Assembly’s first public engagement. Between 6 and 6:30 pm, most grabbed a sandwich or hot beverage and filled the seats at the round tables in the hall. Stationery was arranged on the tables, including notepads, pens, and markers. Each table included about 10 people, including a facilitator to moderate the conversations and guide participants through the different activities of the evening. 

In September 2023, the City of Burnaby held a similar event in a community room at Lougheed Mall. The Beacon covered the event, which involved visioning exercises to imagine life in Burnaby in 2050. This event, however, had a similar look, feel, and topic, but it felt slightly different. This event was organized by the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, which is partnering with the city to help create Burnaby’s official community plan (OCP). 

Post-it notes with ideas for Burnaby’s future from the September 2023 OCP event organized by the city, Burnaby 2050. Photo: Lubna El Elaimy

The event involved the Burnaby Community Assembly. City council approved the assembly’s creation, a group of 42 citizens selected by lottery to represent Burnaby’s diverse community. The idea for the assembly was presented to council on Sept. 25, and council approved it as a city partner at “arm’s length” while producing recommendations for the OCP. 

“The Assembly will be a representative body of 40-50 residents who will meet over 7-8 Saturdays to learn, work through trade-offs, find hidden consensus and create recommendations for Burnaby’s new Official Community Plan,” said a report submitted to council on Sept. 25. “This work will take place in ways that invest deeply in community relationships, advances accessibility and inclusion, and supports the City’s commitments to Truth and Reconciliation.” 

After a land acknowledgment and brief welcome speech by Coun. Maita Santiago, who attended the April 9 event as acting mayor, attendees heard from three assembly members and Robin Prest, chair of the Burnaby Community Assembly and program director at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, who explained the purpose of the assembly and the event.

The three assembly members who spoke on stage mentioned some positive and negative aspects of the assembly and the project. Some commented on the inability of the 42 members to represent every group of people in the city. 

After the speeches and discussions, it was time to get to the evening’s program. While not structured in the same way as the event in September at Lougheed Mall, there were similar discussions and conversations among attendees at each table. Participants were invited to imagine life in Burnaby in 2050 and what their ideal city would look like. Activities were less formal and not as involved as those during the Burnaby 2050 event in September 2023. There were no zoning maps to highlight this time, few visuals, and more informal conversations.  

Conversations often revolved around the future urban infrastructure, with varying opinions. Some participants were more concerned with maintaining their single-family neighbourhoods and opposed new zoning laws. Others wanted higher density with better walkability, cycling lanes, access to transit, pedestrianized streets, mid-rise buildings, and elevated walkways for pedestrians. 

Everyone agreed that building more towers would not necessarily lead to greater affordability and the importance of better walkability and green spaces. Participants were invited to envision their ideal Burnaby neighbourhood and imagine living, walking and commuting in it. The discussion concluded with each participant distilling their ideas into one “Big Idea” encompassing their vision for the city’s future. 

Burnaby residents share their ideas for the future of Burnaby at the Burnaby Community Assembly event. Photo: Lubna El Elaimy

Speaking with the Beacon, Prest said he appreciated the ideas and conversations the participants and assembly members had during the event. An interesting aspect of the conversation was the abundance of ideas, some contradictory, and the challenge was ensuring that the OCP would be as inclusive as possible. 

Prest elaborated on the inner workings of the assembly since it started meeting regularly earlier this year and the members in it. 

“The 42 members of the assembly are more diverse than any other body I can think of in Metro Vancouver, whether thinking of people who might show up to a standard public consultation, whether comparing it to any other decision-making body in Metro Vancouver,” Prest told the Beacon. “But it’s impossible for 42 people to have every experience. We provide a lot of accessibility supports to make sure that as many people can participate as possible.” 

Despite the diversity of the assembly, some Burnaby community members may not be fully represented. Prest gave examples of people experiencing housing insecurity or other issues that assembly members may not fully comprehend. Prest’s team has started inviting experts from community groups or organizations to explain these issues in detail to the 42 assembly members. 

“The secret sauce of this is that the assembly members have their lived experiences and their community expertise and their values, and we want to combine that with technical expertise; we want to combine that with other community expertise. We want to combine that with all the accountability that the city has to show. At the end of the day, the city has to live with whatever actions they take. So by creating that conversation between the assembly and community groups and experts in the city, it’s that multidirectional conversation that forms that’s going to create the best possible decisions,” Prest said. 

Burnaby residents at the round table discussing ideas for the city’s future, with Robin Prest in the centre and assembly member Selena Di, first from the right. Photo: Lubna El Elaimy

Assembly member, Selena Di, spoke about her experience becoming a member of the Citizens’ Assembly. A few months ago, Di received a letter from the city about the lottery and the official community plan. Di said she realized it was a unique opportunity and was eager to provide her input into the vision for Burnaby’s future in 2050 and to have a direct role in shaping Burnaby’s future. Her time on the assembly has been very eye-opening so far. 

“The assembly gave me a lot of chances to meet with people from very different backgrounds. We have different ages, people from different parts of the world,” said Di noting that participants included new immigrants, longtime residents, and Indigenous people. 

“Some of them are newly coming here or were born here and grew up,” she said. “Hearing other personal experiences really opened my mind and my eyes to understand how diverse one topic can be for different groups, how views can be very different.” 

The community engagement event brought even more surprises to Di, providing her with a new perspective and differing opinions. 

“It’s very eye-opening again. As I mentioned, 42 of us coming from different backgrounds is a good mix, but then it cannot represent everyone. So, with the broader community members coming in to share their opinions,” she gave an example of some attendees who did not want laneway houses. In contrast, others want medium-rise buildings instead of high-rise buildings. “So those are some of the good ideas and aspects that we should think of when we form our recommendations.” 

During the assembly’s first three meetings, members discussed problems and brainstormed solutions. The assembly has three or four more meetings to complete, after which it will finalize recommendations and present them to Burnaby City Council. 

“I feel honoured and lucky to be part of this. Through the lottery and all the 26,000 letters sent out, to become one of the 42 is definitely very special and I’m just hoping that after hearing all the great ideas, I’m really hoping we can form some ideas that benefit most people. Because we understand whatever recommendations we put forward may not satisfy everyone’s needs but at least benefit the majority,” Di said. 

When the assembly reconvenes on April 20, members will discuss the ideas shared during the community engagement event. Prest’s team will do more outreach with community groups. It may bring assembly members on virtual or physical tours of different parts of the city to help them think about how the solutions look for different areas. They will then formulate their recommendations and share them with the broader community in a survey. The assembly will finalize its recommendations this spring and after its final meeting in mid-June, it will present the recommendations to council. 

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s joyful work,” Prest said.

This piece was made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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