Public participation in Ontario’s environmental decisions declined significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concerns that the system failed to protect a core value in times of crisis.
A statistical analysis by researchers from the University of Waterloo showed that direct intervention in land use decisions by the provincial government using a tool called Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs) increased sharply in the first 10 months after the state of emergency was declared in March 2020.
At the same time, public comment on changes in laws, regulations and policies affecting the environment has decreased significantly through an online portal set up by the province to facilitate broad input on decisions.
“Public participation has clearly suffered during this period,” said Nayyer Mirnasl, research associate at the Conflict Analysis Group in Waterloo. “Based on our statistical analysis, the number of comments received on each proposal was significantly lower than before the pandemic, although consultation times were longer during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A key finding has been the increasing frequency with which the Ontario government has deployed MZOs, which take land use decisions out of the hands of municipalities, avoid requirements such as public gatherings, and are typically deployed only in special circumstances.
“During the period we studied, there was a dramatic increase in the use of MZOs,” said Simone Philpot, a postdoctoral researcher in systems design engineering. “The government has essentially used a tool that bypasses public participation at a significantly higher rate than usual.”
The researchers did not analyze the motives or purposes of the MZOs issued during the study period to determine whether they were beneficial or detrimental to long-term environmental policy.
However, they concluded that the combination of more direct intervention by the provincial government and less public influence over land-use decisions should raise red flags about the ability of the policy-making system to withstand stresses during crises.
“The idea that our system of government and its core value of public participation has not been sustained during a crisis is something we need to pay attention to,” Philpot said. “The institutions that are supposed to protect public participation have not done that.
“What is really important is that this is not our last crisis. I look ahead and wonder what will happen if we have a climate catastrophe or other social and environmental problems. We must be able to trust our institutions to uphold our democratic values strongly, whether we are in crisis or not – indeed, especially when we are in crisis.”
An article on the study “Assessing policy robustness under the COVID-19 Crisis: An Empirical Study of the Environmental Policy Making System in Ontario, Canada” appears in Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning.
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Nayyer Mirnasl et al., Assessing policy resilience under the COVID-19 crisis: an empirical study of the environmental policy-making system in Ontario, Canada, Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning (2022). DOI: 10.1080/1523908X.2022.2051454
Provided by the University of Waterloo
Citation: Public Participation in Environmental Planning During the Ontario COVID-19 Crisis (2022, May 2) Retrieved May 2, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-05-environmental-covid-crisis -ontario.html
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