Newswise — Public participation in environmental decisions in Ontario declined significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concerns the system failed to protect a core value at a time of crisis.
A statistical analysis by researchers at the University of Waterloo showed direct intervention in land use decisions by the provincial government using a tool called Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs) soared in the first 10 months after a state of emergency was declared in March 2020.
Moreover, the number of comments received by the public on changes in laws, regulations, and policies affecting the environment declined significantly via an online portal that was created by the province to allow for broad input.
“Public participation clearly suffered during this period,” said Nayyer Mirnasl, a research assistant for the Conflict Analysis Group at Waterloo. “Based on our statistical analysis, although consultation periods were longer during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of comments each proposal received was significantly lower than before the pandemic.”
The key finding was the increased frequency at which the Ontario government used MZOs. These are land use decisions that are taken out of the hands local municipalities. They avoid the need for public meetings and are typically only used in exceptional circumstances.
“There was a dramatic rise in the use of MZOs during the period we examined,” said Simone Philpot, a postdoctoral research fellow in systems design engineering. “The government essentially used a tool that bypasses public participation at a significantly higher rate than usual.”
The researchers didn’t 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.
They concluded that the combination between more direct intervention from the provincial government and less public input in land-use decisions should raise questions about the system’s resilience to stress during crises.
“The idea that our government system and its core value of public participation has not been maintained during a crisis is something we need to pay attention to,” said Philpot. “The institutions that are supposed to protect public participation have not done that.
“What’s really important is that this isn’t our last crisis. I’m looking ahead and wondering what will happen when we have climate catastrophe or other social and ecological issues. We need to be able to trust our institutions to keep our democratic values strong whether we’re in a crisis or not – in fact, particularly when we’re in a crisis.”
A paper on the study. Assessing policy resilience under the COVID-19 crises: an empirical study on the Ontario, Canada, environmental policymaking system, appears on the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning.
The research was overseen by Keith Hipel, a professor of systems design engineering and an officer of The Order of Canada. Aidin Akbari was a former graduate student.