The Community is the Expert

Emma Cohlmeyer was Sustainable Cities CIDA IYIP intern in the summer of 2010. This article was recently published in the University of Guelph’s “The Portico” Grad News Section about the work she’s been doing with community engagement and participatory planning in Colima.

The original article can be found here.

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By Mary Dickieson

Photos courtesy Emma Cohlmeyer

Nobody knows a city better than the people who live, work and play there.

That’s the first thing Emma Cohlmeyer, BA ’07, told people in the Mexican city of Colima as she invited residents to help design a local park.

The participatory planning process she introduced last February has turned out to be a big success. More than 200 people got involved in redesigning the park, construction is now complete, the mayor and other officials have decided to apply the planning process to other city projects, and Cohlmeyer was hired to help implement those plans.

Emma Cohlmeyer says her new Mexican friends were excited to help redesign a local park. She led visioning workshops in Colima that sparked a new interest in sustainable planning practices. Colima is a forward-thinking city, says Cohlmeyer, who completed a sociology degree at Guelph and hopes to enter a master’s program in urban planning later this year. She initially spent a six-month internship in Colima funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and organized by the Vancouver-based International Centre for Sustainable Cities. The latter is part of a global network of city planners who share best practices in urban sustainability and planning.

“Following my internship, I was offered a position by the city to continue my work related to public and community participation in the planning process, although this time in the development of a master plan for one particular district.” Cohlmeyer will complete the contract in March. She says Colima has many projects underway, “all with an urban sustainability impetus,” and mentions a new transportation and mobility plan, a Sunday city-wide bike event, new green space developments and the revival of the downtown historical centre.

In some ways, Colima could be compared to Guelph, she adds. “It is fairly close and thus influenced by bigger cities but definitely has its own characteristics and governance. It has a vibrant historical centre, universities, and a friendly and pleasant street life.”

Colima is not on the tourist route. It’s the inland capital of the Mexican state of the same name that touches the Pacific coast. “The people are so kind and open and have such a sense of community. It has been easy to adapt to the Mexican culture and to build lasting friendships with local people. I am now fluent in Spanish, and I owe this to time spent in Colima, being fully immersed and working in Spanish.

“I think the biggest difference between working in Mexico and in Canada would be the importance of time. A meeting time, a deadline or a start time are mere approximations here; this definitely takes some getting used to. For example, if a meeting is supposed to start at 12 p.m., a 1 or even 2 p.m. start is not unheard of, and may even be the norm.

“On the other hand, I find the general culture here much more appreciative of a slower pace of life, the importance of family, spending time together and taking care of each other, and food ─ oh, the food!”


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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