For many Londoners, city hall can be an intimidating space, particularly when someone is reaching out for the first time.
To help ease that sense of anxiety, The Urban League of London decided to reach out to the civic administration around the idea of doing something they already do on a regular basis — engage the wider community.
The results was the inaugural Civic Engagement Fair, held Jan. 25, at Goodwill Industries.
Urban League of London President Wes Kinghorn said the city has been doing “some really great engagement,” especially around the strengthening neighbourhoods process, so it made sense to do something to build upon that momentum.
“If you are a citizen approaching city hall, it can be daunting. There are multiple buildings, multiple departments on multiple floors, but for this event, we’ve compressed city hall into one room,” Kinghorn said. “You can literally walk from department to department and chat and learn. What we created is a miniature city hall, which is really cool.”
Some 100 people turned out for the fair, which feature nearly 30 staffers from various city service areas offering a mix of short presentations and casual tableside conversations.
The idea, Kinghorn said, is to offer participants the chance to learn more about “who does what” at the city and how people can get further involved.
Getting involved is something Barry Coulter has done a lot of in recent years.
A self-described “interested Londoner,” Coulter attended the fair because the more he has found out about how the city operates, the more impressed he has been with the work that is being done on a regular basis.
And while he feels comfortable in the building, he recognizes not everyone necessarily would feel the same way.
“I think city hall is actually pretty inviting. Any time I’ve been in there I’ve felt warmly welcome,” he said. “But around any government people, there would be hesitation by some. I think something like this, in a neutral location . . . this is a good setting.”
John Fleming, City of London Managing Director Planning and City Planner, welcomed the opportunity presented by the fair.
He lauded the Urban League for bringing the idea forward as it offers yet another way to engage the public, something Fleming said is essential in building community.
“We’re always looking for new and meaningful ways to reach out to people. It’s a chance to get outside the bureaucracy of places we normally reside and into the community to have an informal chat with folks,” he said. “I think something like this humanizes the services we provide. It’s really more of a chit-chat.”
City of London CEO Martin Hayward agreed the fair offered staff the opportunity to talk about “a lot of the good stuff we do,” while also providing that face-to-face interaction often essential in building relationships.
It’s an experience, he added, that was learned through ongoing efforts to provide Londoners with greater engagement around the budget process.
“We found through the budget process, where we did something similar, it demystified the budget for people, they were able to ask questions . . . when they heard the answers, it made sense,” he said. “This one-on-one, asking questions of staff, it’s a good thing. We do a lot of good work in the community and the staff are proud of what they do; they want to share that.”
Hanna Kim, a member of London Youth Advisory Council, said the fair offered participants the chance to become better educated on a number of subjects.
For example, she found the fair offered “a good representation” of what’s going on in the city, including highly visible topics such as ranked ballots, bus rapid transit and poverty — just three issues represented during the course of the evening.
“I think engagement is important,” she said. “It is important people know what their government is doing, and that they are open about it, not doing things behind closed doors. I think this is a good environment.”