Centre For Local Research into Public Space (CELOS)


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Hema Vyas, interviewed by Jutta Mason, Sept.14 2010

Hema Vyas - If a public building, like MacGregor field house, has water leaking into the basement, the city has to take steps to preserve the building. Itís old, itís of value, itís being used. So the leaking has to be stopped. But the whole process was flawed from the very beginning. What is happening is that the City is going with a one-size-fits-all approach. But all the parks are different. People who use the parks tend to have good ideas of what needs to be done. So as councillor Iíd want to talk to park users. We should have meetings in playgrounds. Community consultation is everybodyís buzzword, but how do you do it?


Iíd want to talk to the park users and to the staff and do a needs assessment. Weíd have to get really clear about whatís not working. Thatís a councillorís job, to be ongoing and present in the community. To provide that leadership so that the Parks and Rec staff are involved with park users. If the councillor is constantly reminding people who work for the city about what the community wants, things will get done more quickly. What Iím talking about is relationship-building. Itís not waiting until the last minute when thereís a crisis, or when a certain park staff is moved, and then saying ďokay this is a crisis, we have to deal with it.Ē Itís too late then. Relationships get frayed, people get really stressed out.
My job as a councillor is going to be to plan, to have a process to prevent, as much as possible, crises from happening. Crises happen regardless. But when they happen again and again and again, itís because as a councillor youíre not paying attention.

Jutta Mason - One problem is that the ward is pretty big, and a lot will depend on the councillorís staff. Another problem is, when youíre talking about Parks and Rec staff, thereís a big gap between the people who work at a site and management downtown. So how would you try to bridge that gap?

Hema Vyas - One of the biggest challenges is between design and delivery. You can be a great designer, but itís difficult to anticipate any changes that are happening in the community. The needs of people donít stay the way a piece of paper stays. So itís having that flexibility. Itís also having Design and Delivery staff communicate regularly. As an evaluator, I have often led working groups, and they usually include Delivery, Design, anyone I can talk to who has historic knowledge --- why this program is taking place Ė and there might be some community stakeholders. We all sit down and talk about this program. Itís probably the most interesting and the toughest conversation that we have Ė that first meeting. Because the first question is -- whatís the purpose of the program? The understanding of what the program is, how it should be working, and what the end result should be, is a little bit different for everyone at the table. The problem is that often, Design and Delivery donít talk, because the person who designed the program has moved on to something else. Or because that person is busy, or because the two sides just never see each other.

Transferring that approach to a park, before we have that first meeting, Iíd have looked at the design, Iíd have spoken to the person that did the designs, Iíd have spoken to the person whoís working in the park Ė so it starts with relationship-building. Because if thereís no trust, and if thereís no sense that thereís a purpose that we all share...Iíve never met a design person that didnít want to make sure that their program works. Thatís at the heart of it. Weíre not sitting at that table and knocking what someoneís doing. Weíre really just trying to get to the root of the problem. And so making sure that everybodyís clear on the purpose of the meeting and what we want to accomplish. And for the first meeting, sometimes it sounds really basic and maybe simple Ė okay, whatís the purpose of the building, what do we use it for? That gets a lot out. What does it look like? Whenís the last time the person who designed the building had seen it?

JM - So are you saying that would be a real focus for you, to try and get city management people to come and look for themselves, and talk directly to the people who do use the park?

Hema Vyas -Yes, having staff, including management and staff who work in parks talking to each other and with people who use parks. Itís not finger-pointing, itís this common goal of making sure that this building is used as well as it could be.

Iíve been reading some Paul Bedford stuff, about the local planning boards. What the cityís planning department focuses on is application by application. But what we also need in every ward Ė especially here in Ward 18, because thereís so much change happening Ė is a longer term plan, or vision, for what we need in terms of parks and community centres. And also when plans for building do come up, the ways the buildings should look, the sorts of materials that should be used, the number of stories, whether there are specific needs that we would want that building to address. All of that takes planning and forethought, to build a vision and to attract people to that vision, and thatís what I understood about the idea of a planning board.

JM - Youíre thinking more of planning new stuff, rather than oversight of existing facilities?

Hema Vyas - No. What we need isnít always new. What we need may be something that we already, have which just needs to be modified, or which needs to be communicated, or that people need a safe route to get to. Basically, how are our communities networked?

JM - You look a little pained when youíre using that word.

Hema Vyas -Yes, it sounds so key-word-ish. What I mean is, how do they fit together in a way that makes sense? How do you get from Bloor and Lansdowne to Dufferin Grove Park on a bike with your kid? Is there a safe way to do it? And if there are some empty lots, or empty stores, along that route, you should also know that. Big on Bloor Ė they did a survey to find what businesses they wanted to attract. That builds on what we have here Ė and it changes.

JM -So community consultation is big for you. That raises another problem Ė as soon as you have people talking to each other about what they want to see, thereís a possibility of strong disagreements arising. Public space is a place where small wars can start, in a park, for example between dog owners and non-dog-owners. People have lots of frustrations, and those can sometimes be channelled into neighbourhood public space. Or in Dufferin Grove, a few years ago, some of the neighbours began to say Ė this park is really getting way too busy. Thatís not what we want. We want an area of peace and reflection. Thatís a legitimate view of a park, but itís problematic in a city. There are a lot of people who want somewhere outside to go, and if those many people find a particularly attractive spot, you no longer have a quiet place of reflection. At Dufferin Grove Park, some people felt that the little gardens, the ovens, the farmersí market, the cob kitchen Ė all interrupted the lovely green vista of grass and trees that was formerly there. Those views can come out as loud disagreements at community meetings. What do you think about that?

Hema Vyas - If I as councillor am going to have a meeting in the park, I can say, this meeting is about Ė ďwhat do you want in a park? -- by the end of the meeting, weíre going to gather what you think, and then weíre going to meet again in a month.ĒWeíd have to see how the meeting goes. Then Iíd have to be in the park and see how people are using it. Itís not just a single meeting, itís online, itís getting e-mail, itís having newsletters, itís getting people to give me input one-on-one, because some people feel uncomfortable in meetings.

Itís a two-way responsibility. As a councillor I have to be fair and look in the mirror and say, did I do everything I could, to reach everybody? Did I use online tools, did I meet with people, was I in my office when I said I was going to be? When someone said, look, can you come by to talk about it for a half an hour because I canít get to where you are, thatís really tough as a councillor, because thereís a million things going on. Even so, Iíd have to ask myself: did I do the absolute best thing that I could? Did I ask the questions?

Being a councillor, I want to be respected. But I know that a leader canít always be liked for her decisions. Iíll never agree with everybody all the time, and if I am agreeing all the time, I may not be doing my job right. But I can say, look, this is what is going to happen in this park, everybody we talked to, this is what they said they want, and this is why. The councillor has to do that research too, to know about all the different park in the ward. So as a councillor I have to be transparent about issues like that, and I have to be clear. People might not always be thrilled with the resolution, but at least I would have gone through a transparent process, and I would have answered the question.

JM - You say you get to an end point. What if, after all that work, Parks management says, no, we wonít go along with what youíve worked out?

Hema Vyas -Well, IĎm going to have them involved from the very beginning of the process. Itís tough at the end of a process, to tell someone what to do, no matter what their position. If a person is participating from the beginning of the process, then all of us are learning together, and our perspectives are changing.

JM -In other words, you would like to help city staff think in about what details concern people in Ward 18.

Hema Vyas -Yes

JM - And theyíll say, we donít have time. And youíll say

Hema Vyas - Iíll say Ė ďitís making your job easier.ĒThere are a lot of things that are unpleasant for everyone.

Nobody likes to have their name in the paper, when itís unpleasant news. Nobody likes to feel that they havenít been listening. Nobody likes to look in the mirror and say, well I just wasnít there. So my job as councillor would be to involve people in the process from the very beginning. Itís a real pain to get out, and it takes time, and sometimes thereís an evening meeting and it sucks because you work nine to five. But taking that one hour or that two hours will save the twenty hours at the end, and will save the crisis management work that the cityís been doing.


Content last modified on October 04, 2010, at 03:25 AM EST