I just read a captivating article. In Complicating the Narratives, Amanda Ripley explains that journalists can learn about behavioural science to ask better questions and help us to agree to disagree respectfully.
She published her work in The Solutions Journalism Network a year ago June. I only saw it this week when a journalist friend posted it in an electronic chat discussion.
This article showcases important concepts from leaders in behavioural economics thinking. It also explains how mediation experts use their understanding of these concepts to ask questions that de-escalate conflict.
…I spent the past three months interviewing people who know conflict intimately and have developed creative ways of navigating it. I met psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and other people who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths. They do it every day — with livid spouses, feuding business partners, spiteful neighbors. They have learned how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation.
I love how Ripley used notable nonfiction techniques to tell this story. Notice that she began her article with an anecdote from an event that would probably interest most people.
The anecdote makes readers care about an issue that many hadn’t considered. Then she takes us into her personal investigation into mediation. Then she widens again to explain how her lessons could be applied in her profession. She widens even further to explain how anyone can use what she learned in their own lives.
She suggests journalists ask questions to show that those they interview have conflicting ideas about issues. We should emphasize emotional connections if they take place. We also need to listen carefully and repeat our understanding of ideas in our own words back to the person, something that mediators call “looping.” If we do this when interviewing people, we can demonstrate how issues we are trying to explore are more complex than anyone generally believes.
Ripley outlines how research from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt applies to political division, such as that experienced in the United States, and to a lesser extent, here in Canada.
Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. These are the golden tickets to the human condition…If journalists want to broaden their audiences, they need to speak to all six moral foundations. If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to these moral roots — just like mediators.
Rather than harping on diverse opinions, Ripley suggests that commentators explore why people believe what they do so that underlying values and experiences can be understood. She says that when this takes place, people don’t necessarily change their minds. Instead, they become more open to hearing what someone else believes, even when they disagree.
As Canada heads into a federal election this autumn, I think this is very good advice for all of us. Our politicians are going to try to convince us that they know what should be done to run this country.
I doubt anyone has all the answers. It’s more likely that each of us has insight into a few of the things that need to be done. Perhaps we can talk about that for a change.
Unapologetically Canadian Episode 23 features an interview with Lachine Mayor Maja Vodanovic.
I asked her three key questions:
I first asked Lachine Mayor Maja Vodanovic about her experiment in public participation government. She’s holding an official consultation about the development of a 60-hectare site at the east end of her borough prior to a plan being developed, something that’s never been done before in Montreal.
We spoke about the normal process in which developers and the city agree on a plan before the public gets a say. Residents and neighbours are only consulted afterwards, in the assumption that citizens will green light changes.
The traditional process includes enough hurdles that only the most unpopular projects get refused, but at that point everyone involved has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes millions on plans that never see the light of day.
Mr. Yaccarini [François Yaccarini, development agent with SDC Angus] you know he was he was there at a conference that we organized. And he said that even with the best intentions, things can go wrong. They had made a plan and the citizens were not happy. And they had to review it and they wanted to do something good and ecological but it was turned back. And they spent over a million dollars on the plans.
Vodanovic also spoke about her public participation plans after the OCPM releases its report about the Lachine East development.
Once the consultations are over, we’re gonna do an atelier de travail. So every week or every two weeks I don’t know how exactly it’s going to develop but I know the promoters are willing to meet every month.
Around the table, we will have the urban planner that the the developers hire, the architects that the borough hires, urban planners, that we have the central city around the table, because of course that’s complex in Montreal there’s always two levels of everything, and we have representations from the citizens.
Imagine Lachine Est is an organization that’s been around for two years. I was part of it before. Now I of course I can’t, I had to distance myself but it was a citizen movement that I very much support because its urban planners, engineers, government workers live in Lachine and are very interested in being a part of the development of their own city and doing something innovative. So they will be around the table. And I think I don’t know but their membership is growing monthly. They’re becoming quite quite important.
And there’s also the organizations have regrouped into something called under the SDEC societé de developpement economique so there’s are 10 or 12 important organizations in Lachine that have come together and that are pushing for the same things and they also want a green development. Because a development durable when you say it is is actually a development that has inclusion of social housing, that has a mix.
You can’t be green if you’re just rich and segregated from the others. You don’t get the points. It has to be a true durable development is a mixed development where you can actually work can live and where all society can be together. And that’s actually the best kind of development and it’s best for everybody not just for the rich or the poor. A mixité is very good for all.
Integrating social housing properly will be a particular challenge, says Vodanovic, but another big challenge with the Lachine East Development will be including schools within the project.
So in planning it out, we have to figure out where the schools are going to be. That’s another issue. The school board doesn’t have the money to buy the land. Usually the land is given to them across Quebec. But the land is so expensive in Montreal so promoters can’t really say ‘oh here’s a couple of million dollars’ to the school board. You know it’s very hard. So we’re going to try to deal with all those problems from the beginning with everybody and brainstorm together.
Vodanovic is confident she’ll be able to bring people together because she’s always done so, even when issues are difficult. She began her public service activism with a concern about pesticides that led to a successful campaign to get them banned.
15 years ago I started the fight against pesticides in urban areas. So I am from Beaconsfield. At that time in Beaconsfield during the spring it would smell of chemicals instead of flowers because everyone’s spraying their lawn to kill all the dandelions. And I had neighbors who had had who lost their children to…it was horror stories all around.
After that, her activism extended into a concern about clean water, something she investigated with the help of local schoolchildren.
We wanted to clean it up. We figured out that what was wrong with the stream, why it was polluted. About 150 homes had their toilets connected to it. You know the sewage was going directly into the stream and I found this out with the kids. And as we were doing our investigation and then we said well how are we gonna change this? And the kids went and spoke to the federal government and the provincial government and the municipal government.
Her experience studying water has been particularly helpful because Vodanovic now serves as Montreal’s representative on the regional government organization (La Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal) that links 82 municipalities. One of the key CMM concerns recently includes proper flood zone mapping for its territory.
There’s three million dollars given from the provincial government from the last provincial government to do the mapping and to look about how the dams can help and how they interact with the waterways and what can be done to prevent the floods and how we can be resilient. And the mapping will show the chances of areas being flooded in 20 years 50 years and 100 years. You can make ways for the water to get in into the land but to be redirected in a controlled way.
After speaking about her current challenges, I asked Vodanovic about her biggest surprise becoming a politician.
My biggest surprise is that I can stay the activist that I am. That’s my biggest surprise. You know usually you say when you go into politics that you’ll change, you you will have to compromise, you will have to…but I don’t feel that. Not yet. So far I’ve been able to push things and speak my mind and do things. In ever since I was elected, there’s been over 160 articles about Lachine and things I’ve said and done and I’ve never really briefed anyone you know. I’m still alive, I’m still in politics. So that surprises me. It surprises me that I have this freedom and I have the capacity to do things. So it’s like a win win win win so it and I just don’t want it to to stop.
I can give you an image. At the beginning when I was an activist and working with a whole bunch of volunteers and we were trying to find solutions for things. I felt like a locomotive. I felt like a red locomotive but I was going real slow and I was working real hard to just move a couple of inches with all the wagons that were very heavy.
And now the train is going very fast. And I’m try to keep on, you know not to derail. And just to keep going and there’s like more and more wagons and where we gonna go. Where are we going? It’s very exciting. Because there’s the potential of great change. But with the speed comes responsibility. More responsibility with the position I have and a chance to do greater things.
Like many politicians who love their jobs, Vodanovic struggles to maintain a standard of excellence while also keeping her personal relationships strong.
Yesterday I had so much work to do for today because today’s council, the council at the town hall, and I have to speak about some things. And I wanted to spend the day preparing for it. And my niece came from Edmonton. And my kids are working and so I took care of my niece and I went to see my daughter. And I did not work. I took time for them. And. I think it’s good you know. And I went to bed and I said Oh God my speech today’s not going to be the best. But it’s a compromise.
When I asked Vodanovic about whether she considers herself a Canadian, she said yes. She then spoke about how her experience on the Canadian Council for Zero Waste has strengthened her appreciate for our country’s diversity.
I get to work with Canadians. You know I was mainly in Montreal and I worked with you know people from Quebec City but now it’s people from Vancouver and people from Alberta and from Ontario. And I love them. I realize like they’re so nice you know we kiss in Quebec but they hug. And it’s a very genuine hug. There’s a kindness.
I think Canadians are very kind people and peaceful. But we’re very far apart. It’s a very big country. And I feel very privileged now being on the council to meet them and we do a lot of Skype Conferences and we we were together by phone and and then sometimes we see each other and there are very very very incredible moments. And I feel my Canadian identity very much. I feel like this need for us to be more cohesive and more united as a country because we’re so small.
We’re such a small country where there’s so few of us that if we’re separated we’re not strong. But if we’re all connected we become strong. So to me that’s a huge issue.
You know, I’m an immigrant so I was accepted by Canada. And when I go to ceremonies recently I was invited as an elected official to go. When immigrants become Canadians, there’s a special ceremony. And I cry. I still cry. Oh my God, these are so good. This is such a good thing that we accept all these people. We should accept more people.
That’s my point of view. I came from Croatia I came from Croatia in 1975.
And I go back a lot. So I feel very much. You know my kids feel very strongly even if just half of them is Croatian.
I wish Canada was more like Germany you know. Like where Angela Merkel just said you know what she brought in a million people a million Syrians. Because she said we can do this and we need we need a lot of skilled people. We don’t have enough people especially in Montreal. There’s a lack of skilled workforce right now. So immigration should not be a problem for us. We should welcome it, especially people that are skilled. You know. So I definitely feel Canadian.
Last weekend, the mayors of Lachine and Verdun tested new ways to determine how neighbourhoods get created. Each consulted local experts and residents prior to creating plans for new development.
Their methods differed, but if either or both methods work to make residents comfortable and attached to new projects, municipal land use planning in Montreal could change forever.
Either way, residents appreciated efforts to bring them into the fold early in the planning. Both consultations attracted hundreds of participants. Covering them for my local paper marked a pleasant change.
I’ve followed municipal land use development in the city for years. Most of the time, residents have little or no influence about what happens in their neighbourhoods.
The usual land use planning routine features city officials privately meeting with developers to negotiate a new project.
Their plan then goes through an internal planning committee of residents and local municipal planning experts.
The committee makes changes.
Developers pay architects for more concept plans.
By the time the development gets approved, both the city and the developer are wed to a project. Only then do local residents get a say.
From the developer and city official perspective, residents who notice problems are trouble-makers.
Traditionally, politicians deal with the potential conflict by attempting to hide legally-required consultations from residents.
Journalists and citizens with an interest in land use planning pay careful attention to official consultations set for December, January, July, August, and holidays. Consultations set for those times are likely to represent very unpopular developments. The consultation for one particularly touchy development took place on the night of the Stanley Cup Playoff! Only four people attended.
Too often, major changes are made to neighbourhoods without property owners being informed at all.
I know of one case where residents in fancy skyscrapers didn’t discover that future developments would eliminate their precious views of the mountain, the river or both until shovels went into the ground.
Usually, public consultations pit residents against developers. If possible, politicians try to divide critics. Advocates for projects with condos and townhouses work hard to set people with environmental concerns against social housing activists.
From the resident perspective, city officials and developers care little about neighbourhoods.
Residents who notice problems must work hard to prevent developments from occurring as planned. I’ve seen local residents prevent a former school from becoming a senior’s home shortly after a baby boom because they knew that more schools would be needed in the neighbourhood a few years later. They stopped grocery store owners from expanding because they knew that the resulting traffic would create safety hazards for children attending the school across the street. Schools haven’t opened for years because neighbours use every avenue open to them to stop projects.
Local residents prevented one major development near the highway three different times. In that case, it was hard to believe that the city and the developer kept bringing back the same unpopular project.
In contrast, the presentations in Lachine and Verdun during the weekend felt lively and fun.
The Lachine event featured an open house with developers, local activists and business groups staffing tables to share their visions with residents. A video camera taped attendee visions for the future neighbourhood. It felt so positive and inviting, a few people wondered if it were some kind of trick.
The Verdun event felt equally positive. Set up like a competition, the presentation featured volunteer teams of architects, interns and citizens presenting extraordinarily-well-thought-out plans for the new development. After each team presented, attendees could ask questions or make comments. It was not only informative as a process, but kind of fun too.
I hope these two events usher in new practices in municipal land use planning.