Whitehorse, YK: From Skepticism to Momentum

Housing prices are on the rise. Affordability is on residents’ minds. No, we’re not featuring  Vancouver or Toronto (CityInclusive has a focus on Canadian small and mid-sized cities, after all). We’re talking about the City of Whitehorse and highlights gleaned from a conversation with Mélodie Simard, City Manager of Planning and Sustainability.

The City’s beyond-national-average population growth informed their Smart Cities Challenge application. To improve housing affordability, they hope to leverage both technical and social innovation tools through the $10 million prize.

“There was initially no appetite to partake in the Challenge,” said Simard. The tight deadlines and even tighter budgets, along with many questions about the Challenge requirements and a desire for a strong public process, held them back. However, a nudge and support (human and financial) from the Government of Yukon changed the equation.

Beyond the provincial and municipal governments, the City partnered with YuKonstruct, a local makerspace and innovation hub that spearheaded the public engagement process. Simard noted it was important to strike a balance between “over-consulting and over engaging” and “just checking off a box” to engage in ways that were meaningful.

Community Engagement and Inclusion

Public engagement consisted of a multi-staged process. First, information about the Challenge was centralized on their website, where residents were canvassed for ideas. The response rate for canvassing was high, noted Simard. Following residents’ input, a technical advisory group made up of city officials, First Nations, the academic community, utility and telecommunications organizations, and the tech sector, identified common patterns and finalized a list of 16 most pressing issues.

Public vote eventually narrowed down this list to one issue: housing affordability, which coincided with one of City Council’s four main priorities. A housing hackathon followed to enable more direct citizen input before the technical advisory committee gave final say and further scaled the project idea.

At the hackathon, a sentiment spoken often was “nothing about us without us.” Simard noted that reconciliation featured prominently, as it always does, in the engagement strategies.

The City is mindful of its growing population diversity. Just before heading into our interview, Simard was working with a colleague to change visuals within a current strategy document, to include more racial diversity.

Yet much work was left to be done to specifically target and include everyone, she admitted. Tight deadlines left them wishing for “more stakeholders at the table.” Timing, but also ensuring there is “internal buy-in” for the project are key, observed Simard.

Often innovation activities are seen as “pet projects” not worthy of attention in comparison to the core services municipalities provide (e.g. sewer lines, fixing potholes). Having the public drive the priorities and asking governments to take risks with innovation “is scary for many,” said Simard. She appreciated how the Challenge tasked all to “think and use resources differently.”

Whitehorse was fortunate to have the support of the provincial government in their application development. Simard was left wondering how other communities of similar size, without this kind of support, would fare.