LONDON — For years, Evelynne Kobes had chatted with neighbours in her west London community about forming an association. The transformation of a red-brick bungalow on her street into a sprawling multi-unit structure had sparked the idea. From what she could tell, no one was happy with how the renovated property looked.
But what ultimately spurred Kobes to action was a development of a very different kind. “When Trump got elected, it depressed me and then it made me feel the loss of control that I have over that situation,” she says. “But I thought, you know what I can do? I can have a say in what goes on in my community.” And so earlier this year, she formed the Oxford Park Community Association, in the neighbourhood that contains about 375 households.
The idea of people in a community uniting to address a need or issue is hardly new. For instance, a number of groups that belong to the Bluewater Shoreline Residents Association — an umbrella organization of nearly 50 resident associations located along the lower Lake Huron shoreline — have been around for half a century.
But interest in such organizations has been on the rise throughout southwestern Ontario. Groups have sprung up over the past year in downtown Windsor and Chatham. Nine neighbourhood associations, including Kobses’s, have been established since the beginning of 2016 in London alone.
Neighbourhood associations are mostly self-organized, and often come into being in response to land-use issues or other external problems, such as high housing prices or rents. They typically monitor municipal agendas and planning decisions, run recreational programs, such as skating rinks, and support activities geared to enhancing their local communities.
Leah Levac, a political science professor at the University of Guelph, thinks the growing number of such groups reflects a broader trend toward citizen engagement.
People have become disgruntled about the state of politics, she says. “We’ve moved away from a more deferential form of being governed.” More and more, people expect to be consulted and to participate in decision-making. Neighbourhood associations offer a forum for such participation — and they’ve been known to get results.
Last year, for example, the Bluewater association convinced the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority to redo its shoreline management plan, arguing that not enough information or opportunities for consultation had been provided. “It was a really big issue, and certainly one of the biggest that our association has dealt with, because it affects whether or not you can do shoreline protection, whether you can put shoreline protection structures on your property. But it also affects the development guidelines if you want to put an addition on your cottage,” says Sue Haskett, Bluewater’s president.
Municipalities, for the most part, are happy to work with such associations, says Levac, because through them, officials can gain insight into the needs of different communities.
The city of London, for instance, adopted a neighbourhood strategy in 2016 that emphasizes the importance of helping associations communicate with their members and with the municipality. A website offers tips on how to start groups and access municipal grants. The city has also developed a program that gives residents greater say in how money is spent in their communities.
Levac, though, is not convinced local governments always have altruistic motives. “Sometimes creating opportunities for people to have their say is not that meaningful if you’re not prepared to listen,” she notes. And focusing on feedback from neighbourhood associations can make it possible for officials to control and channel responses in a way that helps them avoid more disruptive forms of participation.
And not everyone is convinced that the motives of the community organizations themselves are always entirely altruistic. When it comes to planning issues, their priorities can work to reinforce “NIMBYism” (not in my backyard), emphasizing the apparent interests of the neighbourhood over those of the larger community. Zachary Spicer, a senior policy associate with the innovation policy lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, notes, “The power of people is great — to the point where it jeopardizes equity within a city, I think that’s something we should be very hesitant about.” He’s in favour of giving different communities the ability to control their own environments more, but limiting their purview to make decisions about such concerns as speed bumps, stoplights, and park spending.
There’s also a question of the extent to which neighbourhood associations truly represent the interests of their communities. “People who face barriers to society also face barriers to community engagement,” Levac warns. An association can create opportunities to engage a neighbourhood’s most vulnerable residents or, she says, “It can produce exclusions.”
Sandy Levin agrees that an appearance of community representation can be deceiving. The president of London’s Orchard Park Sherwood Forest Ratepayers Association, former president of the Urban League of London (an umbrella organization for the city’s community associations), and former city councillor says he’s run into situations where he’s had a dispute with a community association only to discover it was really with “the four people on the executive who hadn’t had an annual general meeting in four years.”
For her part, Kobes wants to encourage participation in and keep enthusiasm levels high. Years ago, there was another association in her neighbourhood, but it didn’t last. Currently, about 20 people attend Oxford Park Community Association’s monthly meetings, and more than 100 belong to its Facebook group. During the group’s short existence, members have held a community garage sale, a neighbourhood safety audit, and an Earth Day clean-up. Earlier this summer, she picked up Canada Day signs from a local MP’s office for use in the neighbourhood and posted a notice about them on Facebook: they were gone within two days. “And that was just 50 signs, but it made a huge impact,” she says. “Half the neighbours still have them up.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.
CORRECTION: This piece originally identified Sandy Levin as the president of Oxford Park Sherwood Forest Ratepayers Association. Sandy Levin is, in fact, the president of Orchard Park Sherwood Forest Ratepayers Association. TVO regrets the error.
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