Listening-Like it Really Matters. My lessons as a placemaker.

Crosswalk safety

On this short work week I am contemplating some of the lessons that I have learned in placemaking in concert with communities in British Columbia, other areas of Canada and elsewhere. What really stands out for me is the importance of truly listening to what someone is saying, to completely understand not only the context, but the meaning.

There are two lessons with citizens  that stand out for me. I prepared the first joint planning/engineering transportation management plan for  Oakridge/Langara with my Engineering colleague Doug Louie who is now working for Metro Vancouver. We held a series of open houses and workshops throughout the Oakridge area. At each venue, an older gentleman who had been the manager of a major department store in Vancouver (he had come up with the concept of the “$1.49 day”) would quietly speak to me about the importance of installing a traffic light on Oak Street between 54th and 59th Avenues. At each meeting this soft-spoken gentleman would repeat his request for a traffic light. I always listened, gathered information suggesting such a light was not warranted, and asked him more about why he felt it was needed. Finally this resident told me the story of his eight year old daughter skipping across the street  at that location because the marked crosswalks and traffic lights were too far apart. She had run across the street with her friend. The friend made it across the road but his daughter died when she was hit by a car. He then turned to me and said that while we would each disagree about whether a traffic light should be installed at that location, he respected the fact we could talk about it, and listen to each other’s position.

It was a valuable and heartfelt teaching-I was not debating whether a traffic light was needed. I was treading in the murky waters of parenthood and wading in the depth of loss that only a parent could comprehend. I am grateful for learning to be patient, not to prejudge, and to listen intently to what the learning is.  And I never looked at that stretch of Oak Street the same again. I always think of that skipping eight year old girl.

The second citizen lesson came from a lady who was widowed and had raised two sons on her own. She had a small house that was located close to where a closed street was going to become a greenway, and was very concerned with an increase in crime due to the parklike nature of the closed greenway street.

As I listened to this lady I asked her a bit about what it was like to raise two children on her own, where she took the children to parks, and where she walked with her children in the neighbourhood. I found out she took the bus everywhere and  had worked long hours in a fish packing plant for thirty years, and heard how hard this was on her back and on her hands. I also learned that she did not have a lot of outside support in raising her children, and learned that her fears about the closed street really came from her own fear of not managing well. During her visit to city hall, I really just listened. I listened  to truly understand what the mutual interest for us was and found that it was about safety and security of the street. We agreed to stay in touch, and I visited her at her house to further listen and allay any concerns.

After her visit, she dropped by again and left a handwritten note and a chocolate bar. The note thanked me for listening. The note also said that no one else had listened.

We live in a time where we think that our job is to mend, fix, or change. Sometimes it is simply more profound to just completely listen and understand another person’s perspective. It is a great gift.

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