© 2006 University of Guelph
Students-turned-consultants get chance to exercise rural planning smarts in Ontario village
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Several U of G graduate students were driving through the village of Consecon in Prince Edward County one day in the fall when an Ontario Provincial Police cruiser drew up and pulled them over. The officer was responding to a suspicious resident’s alert about young strangers asking impertinent questions on his doorstep. Now it was the students’ turn to answer a few questions.
The officer ended up accompanying the Guelph group back to their weekend headquarters at the Consecon Masonic Hall to verify their story that they were rural planning and development students involved in an outreach project.
It’s not every weekend that this former mill town of a few hundred people sees a group of university graduate students descend — pencils and notebooks bristling — to pry into the village’s psyche. But if the results of their fieldwork bear fruit, many Consecon townsfolk may one day toast their return with more gusto than shown by that one gimlet-eyed resident.
Eight master’s students in the program offered in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development became planning consultants for a weekend in the fall during a field assignment for a course called “Economic Development Planning and Management for Rural Communities.”
Prof. David Douglas says the course gives U of G an opportunity to practice community outreach and affords grad students a first-hand look at issues affecting small rural centres in Ontario and across the country — no small matter.
“Anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of Canada is made up of rural communities,” he says, adding that he normally facilitates and oversees such a project each year.
He assigned the students to engage the village of Consecon — more or less a textbook case of a community being left behind by circumstances — in some soul-searching about its prospects. Echoing the socioeconomic and demographic challenges raised by the group during a recent information session held on campus with Prince Edward County residents, he says: “Consecon is a good example of ‘rising tides don’t take all boats with them.’”
Located near the western end of the Loyalist Parkway on the Quinte Peninsula, Consecon attracts its share of the roughly 300,000 tourists in the county each year. Home to about 25,000 people, the county is drawing attention for its emerging wine industry and is becoming more attractive as a place to retire to.
Although Consecon is reaping some of those benefits, the students pinpointed a number of problems facing the community, including lack of infrastructure, lack of services (including, ironically enough, policing services) and public amenities, few businesses and limited job opportunities.
The highlight for students was their four-day stay in Consecon to survey the village, run focus groups, interview residents and hold a public meeting to discuss the community’s strengths and weaknesses, external opportunities and threats.
“The main benefit of this community outreach was the practical experience it provided us,” says student Kristina Rody. “It’s great to learn and discuss in a classroom setting, but there’s nothing like a real experience in a rural community.”
The students suggested that Consecon form a citizens’ committee (since established), look for ways to play up natural attractions and local businesses, and lobby for community development support.
They’re writing a report as part of their course requirement. Copies containing their recommendations will go to the county-wide Street Smarts Advisory Committee and to Consecon itself.
Street Smarts member and planning consultant Larry Spencer says the community has been “energized” by the students’ involvement. Calling them mature, confident and knowledgeable, he says: “What these students are doing is learning about rural communities. The University benefits from the class understanding what a community is in the real sense of the word. ”
Adds Douglas: “This blending of theory and practice reflects not only the school’s long tradition of collaborative community outreach but also the core mission of the University of Guelph relating to a critical, informed approach to adult education and an active engagement with society.”
December 15, 2005
Read the report that was produced based upon the information gathered from the meeting below as well as from interviews of local residents. Consecon CED Report Final.pdf
November 14, 2005
The meeting that started CARA.