Stakeholder Relations, Consultation and “social acceptability”: Challenges Developing our Neighborhoods

An interview with Pierre Guillot-Hurtubise by Hugo Morissette

Fallow land and vacant lots have become harder to come by in municipalities around Quebec in recent years, as they have witnessed a gradual change in their industrial landscapes. New residential neighborhoods have emerged in areas that were previously industrial, while commercial areas have encroached on residential zones, giving rise to challenges with cohabitation in mixed-use areas. As a result, relations between stakeholders have become a major factor in the success of real estate and commercial developments. This sensitivity to social acceptability has become increasingly important and critical to the success of new projects.

We are lucky enough to have one of Quebec’s top social-acceptability experts on our team, and we sat down with Pierre Guillot-Hurtubise to discuss the challenges that investors, promoters and the general public have been facing in this current climate.

What are some of the main aspects to consider when designing a development?

When planning a development, one must consider not only human factors, but the project site as well. Every site has a history, an impact on local populations and needs to adhere to specific zoning rules and building restrictions, etc. All of these factors are governed by a specific policy structure for each environment. As such, understanding the environment in which a development is being planned is a cornerstone of success. It is the basis on which we prepare our entire strategy.

What is the biggest issue that you face when considering social acceptability?

The biggest challenge undoubtedly remains establishing a relationship of trust between clients and the public. Trust is a key to success throughout the process and requires a great deal of diplomacy. I always try to establish a relationship of trust with all parties, which creates a solid foundation on which to launch discussions and pursue the process of gaining social acceptability. In the absence of trust, the journey can be arduous and filled with obstacles! Joining projects in which the relationship of trust has been broken and needs to be re-established can also be a real challenge! Planning is also absolutely critical to success

What is the first thing that you do when you are asked to prepare a social-acceptability strategy? Is there a basic formula or process that you follow?

In terms of social acceptability, no one formula can be applied to all projects. Each one is unique and should be designed as such. However, planning ahead is very important. For our clients, we always design a strategy that includes the main duties and activities to carry out before a project goes public. A regulatory timeframe for the development therefore needs to be established since it may become public, especially if a notice of motion is passed by a borough council or municipal board. The administrative and political process around integration must also be considered. This is what sets apart strategies that focus on consultation and community from those that end up in crisis management mode due to poor planning.

And if everyone sticks to their guns and there seems to be no way out, what can be done?

In social acceptability nothing comes easy and it often involves intangible perceptions, emotions, and interests. Instead of giving up at the first hiccup, we must continue to draw from comments, suggestions, concerns and criticisms in order to understand the positions of all parties involved. That being said, it is not uncommon to encounter seemingly unresolvable situations, and as a result, we must try to gain the support of the majority, which is often achieved by highlighting beneficial compromises and making improvements to projects. Of course, these improvements need to be financially and technically feasible. This is when a conventional communications strategy becomes necessary.

Do you take the same approach with small-scale local projects as you do with large redevelopment projects for entire boroughs or neighborhoods? 

Yes and no. Yes, since the basic principles remain the same. But no, since we do not have a ready-made approach that applies to all projects. Whether or not our projects are local, regional, big or small, we apply the same principles of listening, respect and open-mindedness to all of our developments. We don’t adjust our approach based on the size of projects, since small, local projects may require completely opposing strategies. Two large-scale redevelopment projects may also require completely different strategies. Every case is unique, and we believe that it is important to understand the environment and the interests at stake to ensure success.

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