U of T students tackle community engagement in urban projects like Rail Deck Park

From left to right, Victoria Coffen-Smout, Joanne Udrea, Sabrinna Delos Reyes and Luba Ferdous learned about community engagement in an urban studies summer course (photo by Romi Levine)

Toronto is looking to transform the rail corridor between Bathurst Street and Blue Jays Way into an urban oasis with the creation of the much-publicized 21-acre Rail Deck Park.

Planning for Rail Deck Park is only in its infancy – the perfect time for University of Toronto students to explore the role of community engagement and consultation in shaping large-scale developments in the city like the park.

What U of T experts say about Rail Deck Park

In the first-ever summer course offered by the Faculty of Arts & Science's urban studies program, U of T students are learning about the challenges of turning big ideas into reality.  

“There used to be this sense that community engagement, public participation was a hurdle you had to get through, a box you had to check but not something that would bring positive benefits,” says Daniel Fusca, a U of T alumnus and stakeholder engagement lead for Toronto City Planning who is teaching the course. “People are starting to realize that in fact, when done well, community consultation, community engagement can actually improve a project.”

Fusca paired groups of students with clients from the City of Toronto to work on current community engagement projects – including Rail Deck Park.

Daniel Fusca was inspired to teach through his advocacy of more inclusive planning processes (photo by Romi Levine)

Students learned about the challenges of conducting public consultations, like how to bring groups of people – including newcomers, youth and renters – that don’t normally participate in the planning process into the conversation.   

“It's important for the health of our society that people engage in democratic conversations about the things that matter to them, and that we design those conversations to be as inclusive as possible in order to hear from everyone,” says Fusca.

Last week, students presented their findings to city staff and faculty members.

Victoria Coffen-Smout’s group focused on the consultations taking place for Rail Deck Park.

“Because it was something we could visualize and something we hear in the news, you then realize you are part of something and can contribute to something that actually might change the future of the city and can benefit a lot of people,” she says.

“I think just the whole process is eye-opening to what it is like to be in urban planning,” says group member Joanne Udrea.

The course is an opportunity for students to understand the value of this important aspect of city planning while getting hands-on experience, says Fusca.

“What I wanted to do with this course was give students a practical set of skills they could apply in their own careers,” he says.

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