Fredericton’s Great Gathering spurs social innovation

Written by Matthew Hayes on December 1, 2012

greatgathering2012Fredericton – Municipal issues featured prominently at last month’s Great Gathering, a community-led open space forum about issues that participants deemed important.

The meeting, which did not have an agenda before it started, was held on November 23rd and 24th at the Fredericton Convention Centre, and drew about 320 people.

Open space is a meeting technique designed to allow people to bring up topics for discussion, and to participate in discussions that they think are important.

“The whole idea behind open space is that you get the people in the room to generate an agenda by posting their passions to the Marketplace wall,” said the co-chair of the Great Gathering Committee, Dennis Atchison, who collaborated with other members of Greater Fredericton Social Innovation to organize the meeting.

“This becomes the agenda for the day, and participants spend the next five hours attending discussions on these topics,” he said.  The following day, the 50 topics were bundled into 12 themes, which were then further discussed by participants.

According to Harrison Owen, who wrote the User’s Guide for open space forums, the meetings are based on the principle that the people who care are the ones who can get the job done, so whoever attends each topic are the right people for the conversation.  Open space enables people who otherwise may not know of one another’s passions to meet, network and create common projects.  Participants are encouraged to “vote with their feet,” moving to conversations they feel they can contribute to.

A similar meeting was held in February of 2010, and allowed people in the community to network on topic areas that they cared about.  It also enabled the formation of a number of important community networks, including the Community Harvest Garden, the Fredericton Volunteer Centre, and Greater Fredericton Social Innovation.

Over the two day event, several groups on municipal matters were proposed, including a transit users’ advisory group and a newcomers’ advocacy committee, which could provide input to municipal and provincial governments.

Topics ranged from challenges faced by immigrants who move to New Brunswick to how to make Fredericton a more age-friendly city.

“Focusing on multiculturalism is great, and diversity is wonderful, but what is really hard about moving to a new country and a new city is the day to day stuff,” said Nora Fathalipour, who urged members of a session on immigration in Fredericton to think of integration not in terms of festivals, but in terms of activities that both long-time residents and newcomers share in common.

Another session talked about the problems with Fredericton public transit, and the need to design a service with more frequent service and more direct routes.  “People know what the problems are with public transit,” said Marie-Eve Landry, who participated in the session.  “The solutions are there, we just have to demonstrate that enough people really care enough about this issue that something has to be done about it.”

Members of the group who discussed making Fredericton a more age-friendly city pointed out that currently, residents in their senior years are cut off from social life in the city, and often housed in special care facilities in neighbourhoods where they cannot walk to amenities, or stay engaged in the community.

Participants in a number of panels talked about ideas for improving sociability in the city, particularly by increasing what urban planners call “bumping spaces,” or places in the city where strangers and neighbours alike ‘bump’ into one another.  “These are really crucial for building cities where it is possible to meet people and feel like they are part of a community,” said Hassan Arif, who led a panel on improving the walkability and streetscape on the Northside downtown. “Bumping spaces also make it easier for people moving to Fredericton from away to really get to know it, to meet new friends and find our city exciting,” he said.  Mixed-use developments along Main Street would go a long way towards producing these types of urban spaces, he said.

Other participants talked about bicycle and pedestrian friendly infrastructure, transparency in municipal government, municipal recycling and how to make Fredericton a more environmentally sustainable city.
“These are all really critical issues for the future of our city,” said Margo Sheppard of Nature Trust, who participated in the discussions.  “This brought together a lot of people from different backgrounds, and it was energizing to hear from so many passionate, dedicated and engaged people.”

“The work starts now,” said Judy Coates, a co-chair of Greater Fredericton Volunteers. Organizers hope that the two-day event will create new initiatives and carry forward new ideas about the city and the province.
The prominence of municipal issues demonstrated that a vigorous new attitude is emerging towards city government, which has long been overlooked as a focal point for social change.

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