Having completed our move, I am now able to devote time to important issues that I’d normally be blogging about. An issue I first learned about in early November is now at a critical point that requires people concerned to make their voices heard–and we should all be concerned.

City of Kitchener on verge of major changes to its “Safe and Healthy Community Advisory Committee”

The City of Kitchener conducted a review this fall of its “Safe and Healthy Community Advisory Committee.”

Let me start by stating that the most important word, by a wide margin, in that title is the word “Community.”

The report resulting from the review recommended major changes to the committee. The motion passed by the City Council Committee on Monday that goes before City Council on Monday night pulls back a bit from the major changes–but not enough and only temporarily until the end of the summer when they could be considered again.

Before I explain my concerns, let me say that the changes are more significant than enhancing the mandate of the committee to include “healthy living” as described in a news release issued by the city. I’m not sure how “healthy community living” is defined but as I understand it from reading the report to the Council Committee and from research I have done, it primarily refers to “healthy living” as related strictly to physical health as it relates directly to the recreation and leisure programs that the city runs.

I don’t need to read between the lines to come to this conclusion. Here’s the conclusion of the report that went to committee on Monday:

If the work of the S&H were to be focused on healthy living, it could add value for council, staff and the community. Recreation facilities and leisure services are squarely within the City’s jurisdiction, and such a focus is timely as the 2005 Leisure Facilities Master Plan requires updating in 2013. The matter should be evaluated in approximately six months to determine if the focus on health rather than safety is resulting in significant added value to Council and thec ommunity. In the meanwhile it would be premature to revise the terms of reference.

Further, the motion directs the committee “work plan focus on matters related to healthy community living together” Which as I translate it means that physical health is more than an addition to the committee’s mandate but intended to be its primary focus. The committee’s terms of reference have not changed but the intent and direction is clear and it is far different than what the mandate of the committee should be and the impact that it could have on people living in Kitchener.

I’ll elaborate but first I’d like to ask: When did City Council start directing citizen advisory committees on the focus of their work plans? Isn’t that for the citizens on the committee to decide?

What is the “Safe and Healthy Community Advisory Committee?”

As I stated, the most important word is “Community.”

“Safe” and “Healthy” are adjectives to describe “Community.

The name doesn’t need to include “Safe” since a “healthy community” is a safe community. In this context, “safe” is considered to mean “crime prevention.” Preventing crime especially through addressing its root causes is integral to a healthy community.

So what exactly is a “healthy community?”

We tend to think of “health” in terms of physical health especially when it comes to people. But a more holistic approach to health is more appropriate.

If I talk about the importance of a “healthy downtown” I’d be quickly understood by people with an active interest in municipal politics–especially City Council and city staff. While a “healthy downtown” includes people living, working and shopping there, no one would suggest that a downtown is healthy if the people in it are physically healthy. There’s many factors that make a downtown healthy: the streetscape, the retail mix, people living downtown, people working in offices, public spaces, recreation and parks, parking, public transit, social services, etc.

The same is true of the city as a whole community.

Here’s a quote that helps explain:

“A healthy community is a place that provides for the basic needs of all its members AND helps build strong positive relationships: it is as much about the how as the what.”

This quote is from the City of Kitchener’s strategic plan called “A Plan for a Healthy Kitchener.” (p. 5)

The “healthy community” concept derives from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) model for healthy communities. According to the WHO website on urban health: 

“The factors influencing urban health include urban governance; population characteristics; the natural and built environment; social and economic development; services and health emergency management; and food security.”

This approach is consistent with a holistic approach to health that considers WHO’s social determinants of health. Even an organization such as the YMCA which is perceived to be about physical health takes a holistic approach to health (spirit, mind and body) and uses the social determinants of health to inform its direction and decisions.

The relevance to the City of Kitchener

“Community safety and public health are not core services of the City,” states the report to the Council committee. It refers to the police department, the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council and the Region of Waterloo Public Health.

On the other hand, the concept of a healthy community is not about jurisdictions or areas of responsibility. It requires a collaborative effort. In fact, the crime prevention council is a collaboration of governments, social service agencies, law enforcement and others who have deliberately come together to work with each other to ensure our communities are healthy by addressing the root causes of crime.

For the City of Kitchener, this means using the lens of being a healthy community to make decisions such as:

  • the “complete neighbourhood” approach that is central to the draft official plan
  • the mixed-use designations along sections of several major streets and their impact on the surrounding neighbourhoods
  • the availability of properly equipped parks (even in newly developed suburbs) that are designed to be used throughout the day by a variety of user groups
  • crime prevention through environmental design
  • the city’s involvement in the Central Transit Corridor study and the station area planning to come
  • the settlement and orientation of newcomers to Canada
  • the role of the city’s leisure and recreation services including community centres and support of neighbourhood associations
  • etc.

Being an active participant in building a healthy community IS a city responsibility within its established jurisdiction.

Gives citizens a voice

Eliminating the committee or re-focussing it on healthy living means that their is no advisory committee of citizens to help council and staff navigate the types of issues that affect the health of our community. Sure there may be other ways citizens can and should make their voices heard and council and staff should always make citizen engagement a priority but there is still a role for an advisory committee of citizens that is dedicated to building a healthy Kitchener. Let’s keep that voice active!

Recommended next steps

I’m not sure exactly how we got here but directing the committee work plan to focus on “healthy community living” (a phrase not commonly associated with the concept of “healthy community”) is not the answer. Adding “crime prevention as needed” does not help because it makes crime prevention (and by extension) healthy community building a secondary priority–and only if the need arises to consider it.

I understand that most of the remaining members of the committee (7 of a possible 15 I believe) do not believe the committee has a sense of purpose. There’s a sense that it is not accomplishing enough and needs a focus on healthy living if it is to exist at all. It has been kept on life support until the fall when the city recruits new members for all committees–and must prove itself between February and June.

What is needed is a committee membership that understands the “healthy community” concept and develops an effective work plan with clear objectives relevant to a holistic approach to being healthy.

The situation has been complicated due to the fact that the city did not recruit any members for this committee over the past few months when it did so for all other advisory committees due to the review of the committee’s future. This means that a special recruitment must occur shortly before the world shuts down for the holiday season.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • That council does not endorse the Council Committee decision to modify the focus of the committee and the direction for its work plan.
  • That council considers and supports a motion to
    • rename the “Safe and Healthy Community Advisory Committee” to “Healthy Community Advisory Committee” or “Building a Healthy Community Advisory” committee which would have a more operational/policies/procedures focus than the higher level strategy focus of Compass Kitchener (similar to the Environmental Committee or the Arts and Culture Committee)
    • that new committee members be recruited by early January and selected by mid-late January
    • that the first item of business for the committee be to review and if necessary revise its terms of reference
    • the committee should then be tasked to develop a substantive work plan
    • both the terms of reference and work plan should come to council through committee as is standard procedure
    • that the committee’s 2013 annual report include an interim review of the committee’s effectiveness with a follow up final review to be completed by Labour Day 2014

Based on my experience with Compass Kitchener, it will take at least 4 months for orientation of new committee members and to develop a work plan. Add in the terms of reference and it will be six months or more before this committee of volunteers is ready to start addressing its work plan. So the timeline included in the motion going to Council Monday night is ambitious at best. My proposal is designed to give the committee a chance to prove it can help advise city council and city staff.

Does the City of Kitchener need a “Healthy Community Advisory Committee?” Yes.

Putting my words into action

When city staff presented a draft version of the report to Compass Kitchener, I spoke passionately about the importance of having a “Safe and Healthy Community Advisory Committee.” I said I would be willing to switch from Compass Kitchener to join a committee that I knew had a purpose and could make a tremendous impact with the right mix of committee members who developed an effective work plan (similar to the model I had experienced with Compass Kitchener).

In my last post, I wrote about this blog’s focus. I’d like to add that “building a healthy community” is the dominant theme that runs through the majority of my posts. After the meeting, I said as much when I shared with staff that I was eager to help because these issues touch upon the core of who I am.

I am still willing to make the switch and put my words into action–as long as the committee is focused on how to make Kitchener a “healthy community” and not about “healthy community living” or “living in a healthy community” or “healthy living.”

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