Is Burlington – a set of unique, distinct, but isolated communities within a larger community setting?

This is the first of a regular column by Casey Cosgrove that will appear on Wednesday’s in Our Burlington.  Cosgrove, is a life long resident of Burlington who has been an active participant in community affairs.  His focus will be on community, leadership and keeping our leaders accountable for the decisions they make and advocating that the community accept its responsibility to engage with leaders.

By Casey Cosgrove

BURLINGTON, ON  September 21, 2011  –  When I agreed to write a column on community and leadership, it allowed me the rare opportunity to reflect more deeply on the concept of community and how it relates to a place that means so much to me – Burlington.

I have lived in Burlington as long as I can remember, and have watched my hometown grow into a very prosperous city in the last 45 years.  I do remember when there was very little of ‘anything’ north of Fairview Street.  My parents referred to Burlington as a ‘suburb’, but with a tone as if to say it was not its own unique place, just a bedroom community.

Some may still see it that way, but I never did.  It was seen as a  ‘nice, safe place’ to grow up away from Toronto or Hamilton, where our parents worked, mostly our fathers at that time.   It still is.  Like most kids, my daily life revolved around my family, my school, and various playgrounds in southeast Burlington.  As a kid, that was ‘my community’.

Casey Cosgrove: “I believe that we have no shortage of passionate citizens, people willing to lead, and a creative energy right here in Burlington, to bring an even stronger sense of community to everyone that lives in this city.”

40 years later, I wonder whether that view of community that I had as a child is the one that many others that live in this city default to when they think of ‘community’.

Do we, as Burlingtonians, have common, shared, elements (other than the name of the city on our mail) that bring us a strong sense of belonging to the larger community?   Looking more closely, it is as though Burlington has organically evolved into a set of unique, distinct, but isolated communities within a larger community setting.  When I speak of isolated communities, the most telling case in point is the north-south dichotomy in Burlington.

The south is more established, so you might expect an increased level of community engagement stemming from this part of the city.  Yet, efforts to engage younger families and diverse ethnic communities in the north have yet to take hold in measurable terms in Burlington.

Given that we are in the midst of an election, voter turnout is a good case in point. The ‘south’ tends to determine our political representation to a great extent, and I suspect the final voting numbers for the provincial election October 6th will bear this out again, as it has election after election here in my lifetime.

Is it simply that those ‘north of the QEW’ feel less engaged, less a part of the Burlington community, so they vote in smaller percentages?  Further complicating matters is the fact that many of our fellow Burlingtonians from the north actually vote for a Halton candidate in both the federal and provincial elections.  This fact would not only be confusing for many, but is not likely to promote a sense of belonging and engagement among those that live in these areas feel while the ‘rest of Burlington’ votes for a candidate in the Burlington riding.

When I ran in the 2006 municipal election, I had a great many people living in the ‘Orchard’ tell me they didn’t feel like they were a part of the Burlington community.  I suspect that this can and will change, but it wont do so by itself.

It is natural that every larger, growing community is made up of smaller sub-communities, that will always be so.    In our case, with a major highway running through the middle of the city, this isolation takes on a physical dimension as well.  It would be an oversimplification to choose one isolated target within the city as a way of explaining why we have had difficulty engaging all citizens in our community, but the north-south example is one few can argue with.

Perhaps the larger issue is the fact that we, as a community, have not identified and nourished those common elements that speak to all Burlingtonians, that bind us together as a larger community, both young and old, north and south, and across the many demographic realities shaping our city.

Some take great pride in what others think of us (we were ranked as the 3rd best place to reside in Canada by Moneysense magazine).  The criteria that were used to determine this ranking were prosperity, housing, lifestyle, crime, health, and weather.  We can read the statistics to see that compared to the rest of the country, Burlington is doing well in most ‘prosperity ‘ measures.  This is indeed something to feel very fortunate about.  Yet, as someone who has been doing community engagement work for many years, and grew up here, I know we can do more.

I believe that we have no shortage of passionate citizens,  people willing to lead, and a creative energy right here in Burlington, to bring an even stronger sense of community to everyone that lives in this city.  We have done quite well getting good people involved, but the much harder work and greater reward will come from engaging the unengaged in this city, not just including the same folks who always seem to step forward.


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