From Sustainability to Community Well-Being: Online Engagement and the Future of Canadian ‘Cottage Country’

Complex realities are unfolding around Ontario’s cottage culture. Can online engagement provide decision-makers with a pathway to prioritize concerns of local and seasonal communities?

Canada’s iconic cottage culture is contested terrain, carrying multiple meanings for the local and seasonal communities who shape it. As Canada’s municipalities grapple with the socioeconomic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, decision-makers in Ontario’s ‘cottage country’ are faced with a complex set of issues. Amidst tensions around the interests of local and seasonal residents on restrictions necessitated by the pandemic, the region will have to find ways to address the questions that shape a collective future.

Unpacking ‘Cottage Country’ 

Cottage culture is a longstanding summertime staple in Canada’s recreational landscape, with its tranquil vistas and visions of country life. Indeed, in Canadian popular culture, retreating to a cabin, a cottage or a camp in the countryside and immersion in the natural landscape is symbolic of summer living. The spectacular Ontarian lakeside regions that have come to be known as ‘cottage country’ – a term that gained popularity after the second world war – are increasingly home to growing communities of both permanent and seasonal residents. Over the years, cottage culture has come to represent iconic aspects of outdoor leisure: an escape from the pressures of urban life, on the one hand, an intimate relationship with nature, on the other.

But as idyllic as it seems, the idealized ‘summertime home’ invokes various complex relationships to the land and local communities. To be sure, ‘cottage country’ has a complicated historical relationship of erasure and representation with First Nations communities – a complication that’s heightened by tensions around land-claim resolutions. In recent years of growth, however, regional and local decision-makers have had to consider how limited public resources may be best utilized to serve the varying and collective interests of permanent, seasonal, and visiting populations.

Speaking to the collective interest of communities with differing priorities demands striking a fine balance. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic is the most recent in a long line of issues with which the region continues to grapple. But with the practical realities of the pandemic affecting the very concept of ‘cottage country’, difficult conversations have become increasingly necessary.

Managing Expectations and Relationships

For decision-makers in the region, the pandemic continues to present an unprecedented challenge. Primarily, it remains a public health emergency, instantiating restrictions on movement to contain the virulent spread of the virus. However, there is concern that seasonal residents looking to ride out the pandemic in their countryside retreats could potentially carry the virus to rural communities; they could potentially add to the strain on sparse local health infrastructure, emergency services, supply chains and logistical arrangements.

These concerns prompted some local leaders and service providers to request seasonal residents to remain in their primary residences and avoid coming out to their cottages. Despite this, full restrictions could not be imposed or enforced. As some localities braced for the influx of its summer residents and visitors, seasonal residents were advised to bring careful consideration of pandemic realities to their time in the region. But local communities remain deeply concerned about how the pandemic could potentially devastate vulnerable populations and overwhelm public health infrastructure and supply chains.

Consequently, a recent open letter from the Mayors of Muskoka called on communities to reject divisive narratives that cleaved permanent and seasonal residents with an ‘us-vs-them’ sentiment. They underlined a mutual constellation of relationships in the efforts to mitigate the pandemic. Produced in response to emerging faultlines between year-round and seasonal residents, the letter requested communities to work together to protect shared interests.

With the recent easing of travel restrictions in some regions and shifting focus on recovery, the economic implications of the restrictions present an array of questions. Cottage culture and tourism are intrinsically linked to local economies, which, without doubt, have suffered. The road to recovery will also have to be able to achieve solutions that work for all residents and communities. This echoes many of the pre-existing issues around climate change, land use, pollution and development in the region.

Facilitating Change, Transparency, and Trust 

The pandemic is the most recent catalyst to bring various faultlines into focus while necessitating a collective effort to facilitate change. But the region has been far from immune to change. The ongoing global climate emergency has left its mark on local ecological health. The region has seen an increased vulnerability to climate-related disaster events and flooding. Equally, swelling populations and development have provoked concerns about the social, infrastructural and environmental ramifications of change alongside the promise of economic growth.

Yet, while approaches to community recovery are manifold, rebuilding beyond the pandemic needs to speak to the unique network of relationships that define ‘cottage country’. Coming together, especially in a crisis, is vital to any collective effort where the stakes are high and there are many intersecting and overlapping issues at hand. Participation, then, is key to nurturing the relationships that sustain cottage communities.

Several local government organizations in the region have taken to facilitating conversations and relationships through dedicated community engagement. Their objectives are multi-faceted and speak to the benefits of community engagement. Providing a space for communities to bring their priorities, knowledge, concerns, and aspirations to decision-makers, community engagement carries the promise of replenishing civic life. It also enables decision-makers to be better equipped to understand and address the interests of the communities they serve, across services, infrastructure and public spending.

But the promise of effective community engagement extends beyond better policy outcomes. In a closed-loop with engaged communities, decision-makers can create greater clarity and transparency. Community engagement can also foster crucial relationships within communities by bringing different stakeholders together to better understand each other in relation to mutual issues and objectives. It can also bring together citizens and policymakers to urgently address global issues, such as climate change. Turning to the complex issues concerning the lakeside region, moreover, it enables necessary conversations to address a socially sustainable future. 

woman on computer

Engaging Online in ‘Cottage Country’ 

In a time defined by a need for safe, social distancing, online engagement provides a way to bridge many gaps. In the current crisis, an online approach can offer practical suggestions to build resilience to promote inclusivity and accessibility. More pointedly, in the context of tensions between permanent and seasonal residents, it can offer a space to engage in good faith with the tangle of questions that now present themselves to decision-makers in the region. For local government organizations speaking to issues binding the communities of ‘cottage country’, the benefits of online engagement present unprecedented opportunities.

Promisingly, a growing number of municipal organizations have harnessed the possibilities of online engagement to connect decision-makers and communities. In this way, digital engagement hubs have ventured into various dimensions of civic life. From broad and long-ranging policy issues to region-specific challenges and local agenda, online engagement is making inroads into areas as diverse as community safety, seasonal recreation, urban forest management, accessibility, and housing.

A key example is public infrastructure, which is a vital component of the region’s commercial and civic life. It is also a salient area for community input. The Town of Midland’s Transportation Master Plan, which provides policy recommendations and assessment of the town’s transportation needs to 2030, and the District of Muskoka’s Community Transportation Plan, the Transportation Needs Assessment and Growth and Sustainability Plan, are cognisant of the challenge transportation present to residents. While the master plan sought community input in the development of accessible, affordable and sustainable transport solutions, the latter seeks community input to ensure transportation programs are invested where community needs are prioritized. Another municipal example in the region includes the Township of Ramara’s Transit Survey, which currently seeks residents and community members input to identify priorities and ascertain accurate transportation needs in the community.

Alternately, promoting community inclusivity in policy planning stages, The City of Kawartha Lakes’ Strategic Plan 2020-2030, Ramara’s Budget 2020 consultation, the Town of Collingwood’s Community Based Strategic Plan and the Town of The Blue Mountains’ Corporate Strategic Plan 2019-2024 each seek community input and feedback to set priorities and guide public decision-making into the future.

From Sustainability to Community-well being: the Future of ‘Cottage Country’

Without question, the region’s intimate relationship with its natural environment foregrounds issues such as waste management, environmental policy and sustainability. Here, Muskoka seeks to consult communities on its broad Waste Management Strategy and a Bin Site Transition Plan, while Collingwood hosts an online public information center for the expansion of their local water treatment plant and is conducting a review of water and wastewater user rates. Online engagement has also reflected the impact of climate-related events, with the Town of Huntsville having opened up for online Q&As on the 2019 floods. Similarly, Lake of Bays has surveyed the community on recent extreme weather events.

Most recently, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has prompted the use of online engagement hubs to connect communities with vital information. Although speaking to the physical restrictions imposed by the health emergency, digital engagement hubs, in fact, enable a uniquely local sense of real-time connectedness. But it’s not just about sticking together through a tough time. With the future subject to all kinds of uncertainties, decision-makers and communities need to be able to understand each other in order to determine and realise shared objectives.

For many local government organisations, digital engagement hubs offer a ready pathway to possibilities of working collectively to address issues as they emerge. The Town of Bracebridge, for instance, set out a newsfeed with comprehensive local updates and a Q&A space at the onset of the crisis. The hub continues to link users to a range of crisis-related resources, and other online spaces for live information and updates. Further, it directs users to a business impact survey hosted by the local chamber of commerce to gain a deeper understanding of economic impacts of the crisis. Similarly, the Town of Midland‘s dedicated hub tracks the status of local services, listing local delivery services, groceries, pharmacies, restaurants and banks. Users can also sign in to share stories, ideas, and experiences with their community. Collingwood, who is hosting a community forum on their site, looks to community input on the economic aspect to help identify where resources need to go. The ideas and suggestions will have a place in informing the Town’s Economic Recovery and Support Plan. Alternately, Huntsville is calling on the community to share ideas for business support and recovery to tackle the economic challenges of the pandemic, while Kawartha Lakes’ online engagement is bringing community input into an economic recovery task force for local businesses. 

Yet, while economic challenges will continue to remain a key area of focus on the road to recovery, there is a simultaneous need to account for the multiple dimensions of community well-being. Nevertheless, with community engagement in a relatively nascent state in the region, it has much ground to cover if it is to effectively infuse community priorities into public decision-making. To these ends, the extension of online community engagement and participation is in the interest of everyone who has a stake in the region’s future.

Learn more about how online community engagement can transform knotty challenges into opportunities for change.

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