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October 15, 2019

Yasir Naqvi: It’s time to reclaim the public square

Yasir Naqvi, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), will be moderating the session Better Together: Building Communities for All at the Future Cities Canada Summit this November. The session will explore examples of collaborative approaches to community-building, and why the concept of ‘place’ is so important in building inclusive cities. We sat down with Yasir to learn about his work at the ICC and to get a glimpse of what Summit attendees can expect.

How is your work at the Institute relevant to the concept of participatory placemaking and inclusive communities?  

At the ICC we talk about some very tangible things we want new Canadian citizens to take up. We want them to be active citizens. We want them to be engaged in their communities, find ways to volunteer, find ways to give back, and to develop those important networks that help build a successful life. Active citizenship also creates a place of belonging. When people feel they belong that’s where real ownership comes in to help build strong local communities. One of the key ingredients for that to happen is inclusion. That’s what the Future Cities Summit is really about, and where the synergies are with the work that we do. Community is a broad term. It means neighbourhood, it means our local library, it means our workplace, and it includes our schools. That’s the idea that we want to bring to the session. How do we build local communities that keep inclusion in mind, from the perspective of fostering or encouraging active citizenship that results in a sense of belonging?

What are some of the practical challenges that get in the way of building inclusive communities?

One of the most important challenges we need to take on is reclaiming the public square. In the old days, public squares were a place to come together and meet. In modern urban designs, we have, in some respect, lost the public square. Traditionally, these were places where there was no hierarchy or rank. People came together, mingled, bought things, and talked to each other. One of the big factors for us here in North America is our climate, which obviously doesn’t allow for traditional open public squares in the literal sense. Then the question becomes how we can reclaim that. How do we retool the notion of public square where we can bring people together and create connection points that lead to inclusion? And that’s even more relevant in the suburban building that’s taking place around us. Look at how suburban subdivisions are built. They can be so reclusive and so detached that neighbours often don’t even talk to one another. What we want to do at the Future Cities Summit is provoke a conversation about how you can redesign these places. Either brand new designs where new communities are being built, or redesigns where existing communities are.

Is it as simple as that, just get people to talk to one another?

It’s a pretty good place to start. But a big challenge we face is getting people’s eyeballs off their screens and more into each other’s eyes. It may sound over-simplified, but we need to bring back face-to-face conversations. That’s where story sharing happens, and that’s where you start to make links and bonds based on our commonalities instead of our differences.

Another thing we need to consider is that misinformation online is playing a big part in eroding our citizenship. More and more people are now consuming information from their screens, and we know how strong the algorithms are that keep us scrolling instead of engaging with the world. They keep us in echo chamber environments consuming information which hardens our views of one another instead of opening them. I believe that the best way to do that is to get people interacting face to face.

Our lens at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship is to do that – bring people together, eyeball to eyeball, and engage them in conversation that can result in story sharing and relationship building. Because that’s how you build inclusive communities. When we start learning about each other, and we start feeling like we know one another, we start to create synergies despite our differences. It’s those synergies that can create opportunities for people to volunteer and give back to their community.

But what’s a practical way to do that? Does the private sector have an important role to play when it comes to helping create public spaces?

The answer lies in a couple of things. First of all, when it comes to businesses you need to appeal to their pocket motives and make them realize that they’re in the people business. In places like malls, if people are hanging around and mingling, they’re spending money too. Creating those connections is important. Secondly, local governments also have an important role to play when it comes to planning. You see often new subdivisions being built and public amenities like community centres or libraries are often situated on the far-flung corners of those communities. Why not design new subdivisions where public places like community centres or libraries are in the centre of the community? Narrower travel times mean more incentives for people to get together, as opposed to putting them in a far corner of the community where it’s inconvenient or irrelevant for people to gather.

What’s one example of a collaborative approach to community-building? Are there any community solutions out there that are working?

In Ottawa there’s an initiative called Building Better Revitalized Neighbourhoods. It’s all based on engaging with residents, businesses, and service providers about neighbourhood priorities. They’re looking at suburban communities where new subdivisions are being built as well as urban, downtown areas where redevelopment is taking place. The idea is to bring public and private partners together – that means all levels of government, school boards and businesses – so that public spaces are built collaboratively. As they go through the official planning process, they’re embedding those collaborative principles into everything they’re doing. If they’re successful I think it will be very interesting.

Can you give us a sneak peek into what people can expect at your upcoming session at Future Cities Canada Summit?

My hope is that we’re really going to provoke people. We want people to look at the notion of inclusion from a very new and different perspective. People think of inclusion as accessibility, or at a very abstract and notional level. We want to explore ways to challenge people to put real meaningful action behind the concept of inclusion, even at the most minute level, like at their office or workplace. I think it’s going to be great.

Edited for length and clarity.