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Why we need more active citizens
The Citizens Handbook is meant to encourage the emergence of more active citizens – people motivated by an interest in public issues, and a desire to make a difference beyond their own private lives. Active citizens are a great untapped resource, and citizenship is a quality to be nurtured. Here's why.
A way of tackling large public issues
In British Columbia, no less than eight recent task force reports have identified more active citizens as the key to responding more effectively to large scale public issues. The reports include When the Bough Breaks (on child protection); the Ready Or Not! Final Report (on aging); Making Changes (on family services); Closer to Home (on health care); Greenways/Publicways (on the urban landscape); Clouds of Change (on climate change); Report of the Round-table on the Environment and the Economy; and the Safer City Task Force Report.
A way of solving local problems
When people become involved in their neighbourhoods they can become a potent force for dealing with local problems. Through co-ordinated planning, research and action, they can accomplish what individuals working alone could not.
When people decide they are going to be part of the solution, local problems start getting solved. When they actually begin to work with other individuals, schools, associations, businesses, and government service providers, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.
A way of improving liveability
Citizens can make cities work better because they understand their own neighbourhoods better than anyone else. Giving them some responsibility for looking after their part of town is a way of effectively addressing local preferences and priorities. Understandably, boosting citizen participation improves liveability. It is no coincidence that Portland, Oregon - a city with a tradition of working in partnership with neighbourhoods - regularly receives the highest score for liveability of any U.S. city.
Cities are sources of potential conflict, between government and citizens, between different citizens groups, and between citizens and special interests such as real estate developers. Recent studies have shown that greater citizen participation in civic affairs can reduce all of these sources of conflict. In particular it can prevent the firestorms associated with changes brought about by growth and renewal.
A bridge to strong democracy
When citizens get together at the neighbourhood level, they generate a number of remarkable side effects. One of these is strengthened democracy. In simple terms, democracy means that the people decide. Political scientists describe our system of voting every few years but otherwise leaving everything up to government as weak democracy. In weak democracy, citizens have no role, no real part in decision-making between elections. Experts assume responsibility for deciding how to deal with important public issues.
The great movement of the last decades of the twentieth century has been a drive toward stronger democracy in corporations, institutions and governments. In many cities this has resulted in the formal recognition of neighbourhood groups as a link between people and municipal government, and a venue for citizen participation in decision-making between elections.
A little recognized route to better health
In the late 1980s, following Canada's lead, the World Health Organization broadened its definition of health to account for the fact that health is much more than the absence of disease. The new definition recognizes that only 25% of our health status comes from health care, the rest comes from the effects of an adequate education and income, a clean environment, secure housing and employment, the ability to control stress, and a social support network.
Understandably, public health professionals have become some of the strongest advocates for more active citizens. Health Canada has provided many resources to nurture the grassroots including the recent Community Action Pack, a full crate of material on community organizing.
A way of rekindling community
Active citizens can help to create a sense of community connected to place. We all live somewhere. As such we share a unique collection of problems and prospects in common with our neighbours. Participation in neighbourhood affairs builds on a recognition of here-we-are-together, and a yearning to recapture something of the tight-knit communities of the past. Neighbourhood groups can act as vehicles for making connections between people, forums for resolving local differences, and a means of looking after one another. Most important, they can create a positive social environment that can become one of the best features of a place."