Arthur News School of Fish
Best laid plans. Illustration by Brazil Gaffney-Knox.

Consultation, Commercialization, and Confusion On Trent Lands

Written by
Nick Taylor
Brazil Gaffney-Knox
December 11, 2020

Editors’ note: When the University released the Draft Plan in October, we identified a need for more transparent information about the Lands Plan and its implications. It became one of our aims to facilitate a truly public conversation in Arthur Newspaper. 

As the former Coordinator of the Trent Apiary, Brazil’s knowledge of Trent Lands and (relative) proximity to the consultation process has been an asset to this investigation. While we cannot feign neutrality in this conversation, we have done our best to provide a balanced account of the land planning process. 

Consultation, Commercialization, and Confusion On Trent Lands
Best laid plans. Illustration by Brazil Gaffney-Knox.

As Professor Stephen Hill told us in a recent email exchange, “land-use planning is about making trade-offs between various aspirations that people have for land.” Land-use planning is a series of compromises; Trent is no exception.

The Trent Lands and Nature Areas Draft Plan, released in October this year, demands that we interrogate what compromises are being made, and on whose behalf. 

Developing History 

A recent piece of Trent’s development history is the University’s joint proposal with the City to build a twin-pad arena complex. This project fell through upon the recognition of a provincially significant wetland in April 2019. The decision came after numerous demonstrations led by students and Indigenous groups, like the Sacred Water Circle. 

The proposed construction area for the twin-pad arena in Peterborough. Image from 2015 via Trent University.

This public pushback revealed the insufficiencies of the University’s land-use decisions; this land was sold to the City, and Indigenous leaders were largely not a part of the decision making.

In light of this recent history, Trent has adapted their strategy for engagement and consultation. VP of External Relations and Advancement, Julie Davis, noted in the November 18 Lands Plan Virtual Town Hall, “We were challenged by many in the campus and the community to do better. To learn from challenges and past projects and to set new standards that inspire others.”

“In fact, no one we’ve spoken to has integrated environmental studies, Indigenous knowledge and public engagement into one plan - like we have. There are so many elements of this plan that respond to the calls for action, and I am very excited about what we have put forward.” 

Some agree that Trent has stepped up to the plate. Prof. Hill, who Chairs the Nature Areas Stewardship Advisory Committee, reflects further: “In my observations of the Trent land planning process over the past two years, there has been a sincere attempt to understand many environmental aspects of the lands under Trent’s control and to engage with a diverse group of people about their goals for Trent Lands.”

With the Draft Lands Plan up for public review for only a few more weeks, what should we make of the engagement process so far? 

Complicating Consultation

Given the University’s history of land planning, distrust is a reasonable response to their consultation efforts. 

As Shannon Farmer, former Vice President of the Trent chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration put it, “Students are told to be engaged, but when they are, their requests are seldom followed… This leads to distrust and less student participation in the future.”

When the University released the Draft Plan, the original deadline for public feedback was November 1. This left approximately two weeks for community stakeholders to comment on documents totalling around 200 pages. Community pushback led to the deadline being extended to January 4, 2021.

Though the Lands Plan team have facilitated many open consultation sessions in effort to update the community, answer questions and share feedback -- these sessions haven’t allowed for a conversation between these groups, within the community.  

This was evident at the virtual Town Hall in November. Unlike other Zoom calls, settings were such that participants could only see the faces of the Lands Plan team and the presentation screen. There was no list of those in attendance, and no way to communicate amongst participants. Community members present were unable to see others’ questions until they had been answered by the Lands Plan team in the chat. There was no way to see whether any questions went unanswered, nor to discuss follow up questions.

Screenshot from the Virtual Town Hall, held November 18, 2020. Lands plan team from top: Lina Al-Dajani (SvN), Kristen Harrison (NSE), Julie Davis (Trent), and Shonda Wang (SvN).

There have also been delays in the release of documents for public review. First, the Draft Phase 1 Report, Understanding the Land, was delayed 6 months. When asked about the delay, the Lands Plan team responded that they “underestimated the amount of time required to collect, compile, analyse and report back on all the data collected.” 

When it was released in January 2020, the Natural Heritage section (which details the environmental assessments) was not included. Through email correspondence with the Lands Plan team, we learned that they “needed more time to compile the results and write the report, including creating the maps and tables to illustrate and support their findings.” This section was released in October with the final drafts of the Plan. 

They also noted that the environmental firm, North South Environmental, changed their head consultant and they were required to “onboard a new lead to the project” mid-way through. 

Project delays and COVID-19 have had an impact on the dissemination of information -- especially in being unable to have proper in-person discussions and forums. But the problems with communication cut deeper. 

The publicly available information Trent has provided is rife with promotional language. The Plan refers to the Cleantech Commons as becoming “Canada’s premier green technology research and innovation site,” suggesting that it “will augment sustainable development objectives and promote excellence.” 

Promotion of the Plan has extended well beyond Trent’s website. In an October Examiner op-ed, John Desbiens, member of Trent’s Board of Governors and CEO of Cambium Inc., implored the Trent and Peterborough community to engage with the plan “with an eye for supporting the success of Trent, and as a result, the success of our region.” 

Desbiens’ piece brings about important questions about the relationship between public engagement and public relations. What does it mean if the information being presented is obfuscated by the University’s marketing strategy? Can the community make an informed opinion, if their opinion is being informed by corporate interests? 

The Garden Debacle 

In the autumn of 2018, Emma Macdonald was finishing up her first growing season as the Coordinator of the Trent Vegetable Gardens (TVG). It was around this time that she first heard about the University’s plan to build a road through the southeast corner of this organization’s fifteen-year-old field garden.  

Plans for this road were first made public on June 16 2017, when Trent University’s Board of Governors approved the Cleantech Commons Master Plan. The purpose of this report being to guide the long-term implementation “a clean technology Research and Innovation Park.” This project signals a shift towards leasing large sections of Trent Lands to private corporations, a trend that is cemented in the 2020 Draft Plan.

Modelling of Cleantech Commons with Trent Vegetable Gardens shown in red in the top left corner. Image from the 2017 "Cleantech Commons Master Plan" with edits by Arthur.

It was also at this June 16 meeting that the University approved a special committee to develop the Trent Lands and Nature Areas Plan, which would be tasked with “undertak[ing] community consultation to update the Trent Lands Master Plan.” 

Why then, had no one from this Committee been in contact with the TVG? 

Macdonald learned of the road development when a member of the Trent School for the Environment sent her a map of the Cleantech Commons development. 

She then went looking for answers: “I reached out to Facilities for an explanation and was told the road would indeed impact the gardens with construction beginning in 2020 at the earliest.”

“After being given some contact info at a pop-up public engagement booth, I reached out to Julie Davis of the Trent Land and Nature Areas Plan Committee and arranged a meeting in our field garden.”

“My shaky attempt at communicating my confusion and frustration was met with a calm, friendly veneer.  Yes, the road will displace the garden and no, it cannot be moved. I was encouraged to sign up for their newsletter for updates and use the online feedback form to share my thoughts.” 

The leaders of various campus food initiatives (the TVG, the Trent Apiary, the Trent Market Garden (TMG)) had been meeting to discuss collaborating on an application for the Local Food and Infrastructure Fund, but their focus shifted when they realized there were other, more pressing concerns. 

As Matt Dutry, a member of the TMG, explained to Arthur, “Without permanency, there was no use in applying for infrastructure funding. None of our organizations had been consulted with on the road development, so it became our first priority to engage with the decision making committee leading the Trent Land and Nature Areas Plan.”  

Emma Macdonald echoed this sentiment: “If given the opportunity, I would have jumped at the chance to advocate for the garden. Instead, this plan was made public without the TVG being recognized as a stakeholder and properly informed.”

After months of inquiry, the University had begun to recognize these grassroots, agricultural, student-funded organizations as stakeholders. In response to these concerns and their need for permanency, the University proposed that their gardens be moved to sections of the Nature Areas that were previously agricultural land. In the October 2020 TLNAP Draft, these lands are labelled “pending further assessment” meaning that they have not been subject to environmental study.

It remains unclear when this change is expected, but the administration has offered the support of their facilities team in the event of a move. A transition like this would have implications for the farms’ growing seasons, yields and soil quality. 

Debbie Jenkins, a Conservation Biologist and PhD Candidate in the Environmental and Life Sciences program at Trent, has also expressed concern about this proposal, but from a conservation standpoint. In a recent Arthur op-ed, she details how the plan stands to affect the habitat of two threatened open field species -- bobolink and meadowlark. 

Jenkins argues, “Developing across the existing Experimental Farm and Vegetable Gardens has been justified by moving these activities into the Wildlife Sanctuary. Agricultural Areas are not Nature Areas - and this new definition has never been used at Trent in the past.” As it stands, agricultural spaces and sports fields are categorized as greenspaces under the University Green Network (UGN) criteria outlined in the Plan (on p. 11-12 in the Report Summary). Jenkins sees this as an effort to hide that Nature Areas have actually decreased since 2002.  

The Trent Vegetable Garden on a sunny day. Courtesy of TVG gardener, Jasper Drost.

At the recent Town Hall, Lina Al-Dajani, consultant from SvN Architects + Planners defended this decision, saying “the experimental farm relocation is not intended to replace natural features or to compromise natural features” and will only affect parts of the Nature Areas that are already ‘active farmlands.’ 

Al-Dajani went on to say that “it is Trent University’s aim to increase its offerings in sustainable agriculture, both in curriculum and in campus life. With the re-imagination of Trent’s campus, comes a significant opportunity to secure this future.” 

The University has articulated a commitment to on-campus agriculture. The agricultural groups have co-signed a letter formally requesting to maintain and expand the growing space threatened by the Cleantech Commons development. Given the experiences of the agricultural groups, and the lack of engagement with the TVG in the Cleantech Commons road proposal, it is difficult to discern how the University will incorporate these groups into the Final Plan.

Commercializing Lands: Trent for Lease

In speaking with Land Conservation Consultant and Lawyer, Ian Attridge, we realized that perhaps the best way to evaluate the sincerity of these commitments is to look at the plan spatially.

“I feel like the plan is pushing a number of key things to the periphery of the campus... There may be more connectivity for the nature areas, but I am seeing generally the protection of natural areas and the move of agricultural areas and Indigenous features to the campus periphery,” said Attridge. 

Here, Attridge is referring to the experimental farm relocation, the seniors' village on Woodland, as well as the proposal of a traditional teaching lodge and medicine garden, which he argues should be more central: “It’s not on [students'] circuit of the core campus. The proposed Plan would require a bigger commitment for them to get there.” 

If a Lands Plan is a series of compromises, then perhaps it ought to be evaluated on those terms. Who is asked to make concessions? Who is never asked? 

When we turned our gaze from the periphery inward, we found that what lies at the centre of this plan is revenue. 

This emphasis on economic growth can also be seen in the University’s decision to change consulting leads midway through the project. For Phase 1 of the project, the consultation was led by Mark Schollen, of Schollen & Co., with LURA Consulting leading the public engagement aspect of the consultation process. 

For Phase 2, the project was led by SvN Architects and Planners, a large Toronto firm whose clientele range from the University of Toronto, to Metrolinx, to the province of Ontario, and pretty much every municipality in the GTA.  

When asked about the switch, VP External Julie Davis said, “Given our positive assessment of SvN’s work and their extensive experience in project coordination, public engagement and large scale framework plans, we decided to consolidate and streamline our roster of suppliers.”

We reached out to both Schollen and LURA to ask about their dismissal from the project. They both told us that the university elected not to retain their firms for Phase 2. When we followed up with principal Mark Schollen, he explained to us that in Phase 2, the project became more of a large-scale land-use policy and planning exercise that was better suited to SvN's skill set and experience.

It is important to note that consulting firms are often bound by non-disclosure and/or confidentiality agreements with clients. 

The University has been explicit about the centrality of profit.  At the Town Hall, Julie Davis was asked how the plan has changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on postsecondary education. 

She could have answered this question in any number of ways. She could have spoken about how the pandemic underscored the need for localized food systems, the need for more affordable education, the need for robust social services, or the need for investment in mental health services. 

Instead, she answered in almost purely economic terms: 

“The first piece is [that] it has really highlighted the imperative of Trent being successful... In my regular calls with community leaders they are looking to Trent to continue to be the economic driver that it has been for 54 years and that we need to be strong in order to make the rest of the community strong. And again, one value and role of this plan is that the leased land creates a revenue stream that enables Trent to be successful.” 

She continues, “There [are] very limited opportunities for us to address what is now, due to COVID-19, a deficit in our budget through any other means.”

“This is how many other universities across the country have generated funds for research: new infrastructure and innovations, through appropriate land leases that are endowed and then support that long-term sustainability of the University.”

As public funding steadily declines, postsecondary institutions in Canada have become increasingly dependent on commercializing their lands to ‘diversify revenue streams.’ 

This directive is made concrete in the plan’s demarcation of campus into 5 districts: Campus Core, Senior’s Village, Cleantech Commons, Peninsula Lands, and East Bank Lands. 

The University Districts from the Trent Lands and Nature Areas Plan.

In the plan, the East Bank Lands are referred to as a “long-term revenue generation opportunity for the University” meaning that it is likely the university will seek out a public-private partnership to make these lands profitable. This district is unlikely to see any development for quite some time, as it still requires servicing. 

Then there is the Seniors Village. The University is in negotiations with a long-term care provider who would apply for licensing and funding with the Ontario Ministry of Long Term Care. If this application is successful, this company would lease the land from Trent, build, and operate the facility. 

It is unclear whether similar lease agreements would arise in the Peninsula Lands - which are envisioned to become a ‘Sustainable Village.’ However, of the 5 districts outlined in the plan, it is clear that at least 3 will be the site of further commercialization. 

This is not a surprise. When the Trent Lands Plan Committee was struck four years ago, the Board of Governors also amended Trent’s by-laws to “delegate specific power to this committee.” The resolution ensures that the Lands Committee can “access funds as required to advance the lands plans” and that revenue coming from the development of Trent Lands can be spent on “strategic priorities.” 

In short, developing revenue streams is and has always been the Lands Plan Committee’s raison d’etre. 

Reflexivity in Consultation:

Through this project, the University has made it a goal to address the community directly. In this way, the institution purports to engage critically with the community. As Julie Davis put it, “We expect critical engagement on the plan. That is why we published it as a draft for review and we’re keen to hear feedback to improve the plan, especially how we can successfully implement it.”

What is critical engagement? The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) outlines five possible goals for public participation. These guiding principles are meant to help institutions facilitate public engagement in a meaningful and ethical way. Trent may have achieved the ‘consult’ and ‘involve’ stages, but collaboration and empowerment remain to be seen.

IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation. (c) International Association for Public Participation

Ian Attridge shares a concern for reflexivity in the consultation process: “[the plan] needs to listen and to implement the kinds of perspectives that are being put forward.” He said it is important for consultants to ask, “what did we hear? and what is our response to this comment?”

Attridge also highlights the importance of documenting these community conversations: “There may be good reasons to say ‘your idea can’t happen’… but describe them… be honest, share them with the community.” 

“That goes back to public consultation: you can listen all you want but it's really a question of what you do with that input.”

Trent student and community groups have called for the extension of the public feedback period beyond the January 4 2021 deadline. Peterborough Field Naturalists, Peterborough Pollinators, the Council of Canadians, the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA), the Trent Graduate Students Association, Sustainable Trent, The Seasoned Spoon, TMG, TVG, and Trent Apiary are among those who have requested this extension. 

The TCSA has also responded, releasing a survey intended to assess student perspectives on the Lands Plan. Students can complete this survey up until December 22. 

The TCSA held their own Town Hall and Q&A with Julie Davis and consultant from North South Environmental, Kristen Harrison, giving students a chance to hear about the Plan first-hand and address their questions and concerns. 

Members of the community have organized a webinar and panel presentation, Honouring the Land of Sacred Elements Conference, for this Sunday, December 13. At this meeting, PhD candidate Debbie Jenkins, and naturalist and science communicator, Basil Conlin will speak on the value of Trent’s natural heritage. A panel with Dr. Shirley Williams and Elder Dorothy Taylor, founder of the Sacred Water Circle, will conclude the meeting. 

While the community responds, we will continue to consider the question of compromise. So far, it seems that Indigenous groups, environmentalists, agricultural organizations, and students have been asked to compromise. It is also abundantly clear that Trent has gone to great lengths to approach land-use decision making with ethics and environment in mind. 

Perhaps these are simultaneous truths: this is the most exhaustive consultation process Trent has ever engaged in; Trent is at the forefront of Indigenous and Environmental consulting amongst postsecondary institutions in Canada; Trent still has much room for improvement.

In our correspondence with VP Julie Davis, she reminded us that the Plan “lays out the potential over the next few DECADES, i.e. this is not a five or ten year plan.” 

The Plan reaches far into the future; its implications stretch across the expanse of undeveloped natural areas on campus, and well into the Peterborough community. It sketches, in broad terms, how the University plans to expand both economically and spatially. And while the University has never been a democratic space, we have to take advantage of every opportunity to contribute to its future, to safeguard what remains of Trent’s community values.

Chive flowers at the Trent Vegetable Gardens. Courtesy of TVG gardener, Jasper Drost.

Arthur News School of Fish
Arthur News School of Fish

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