There’s an old saying in the news business that, “if it bleeds it leads.” But what about stories that don't top the daily newscasts or, if they do, end up falling out of the news cycle quickly? Stories about urban-planning issues, for instance.
It's a question Uytae Lee began asking a few years ago when he was a Bachelor of Community Design student in Dal's School of Planning.
Keenly interested in local policy and urban planning in Halifax, Lee (who graduated in 2016) saw an opportunity to explore some of those undereported issues in a different way than traditional news media does.
So he and fellow planning student Byung Jun Kang decided to start PLANifax, a weekly video series tackling local issues in Halifax. He calls it engagement journalism, or put a bit more plainly, “news that people can do something about.”
“I think what we’re really trying to do is create news that empowers people,” says Lee, who was recently recognized as one of Canada’s Top 30 Under 30 in sustainability leadership by Corporate Knights magazine. “When you hear news about something that directly affects you, I think that can really move you.”
And it didn’t take long for the local community to become engaged. By the time they released their second video, an item on Halifax’s “Be Bold” rebranding campaign, local weekly The Coast reached out to Lee offering to republish the videos to a broader audience.
Hundreds of views turned into thousands, and the group produced three full seasons of videos for the weekly paper (before going solo again this year) on topics ranging from winter biking and navigating roundabouts to the Nova Centre and the city’s revamped transit plan.
A thoughtful take on urban issues
Although he grew up in Vancouver, B.C., Lee says he now knows a lot more about Halifax than he does about his hometown.
“It was after I came to Halifax that I really developed a passion for opening my eyes to what was going on around me and what was happening in my surroundings,” he says.
The outfit’s 2015 video ‘How to park in a bike lane,’ a funny gag-style segment showing Lee parking his bike in crosswalks and other inconvenient places, garnered nearly 30,000 views when it was first posted on YouTube.
While humour is clearly part of PLANifax’s charm, as is Lee’s natural ease on camera, it never seems to get in the way of the group’s ability to present a thoughtful take on sometimes complex urban issues.
Take the group’s recently published video on off-campus student housing in Halifax. The segment actually arose out of research Lee himself did as part of his Honours thesis project for Dal researcher Jill Grant, professor emeritus in the School of Planning.
There are many students in Halifax who live in off-campus apartments that are essentially unlicensed rooming houses — loosely defined as a house with six or more rooms for rent. Landlords are making plenty of money by offering students this affordable option, but with so few of them licensing the properties (and, indeed, creating them in areas not zoned for such housing) there is also the potential some are skirting local by-laws that call for regular safety inspections among other things.
In just over five minutes, Lee is able to present the issue of whether Halifax needs more regulation when it comes to student housing, offering comparisons to other cities with more active regulations that have resulted in more expensive options. Rather than take a hard line on the topic, he ends the video on the hanging question of whether more regulation would actually help or hurt students in need of affordable places to live.
It’s the kind of relevant and engaging content that entertains as well as educates.
“I think it is an incredible educational tool that lets young people who are concerned about the state of the city investigate and explore interesting questions that might not otherwise get addressed,” says Dr. Grant, of her former student’s video venture.
Lee’s research, which was part of Dr. Grant’s larger SSHRC-funded Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, is just one of the many Dal-linked projects and initiatives that have inspired videos. Another recent video looked at a Dal student’s initiative to carve out an area for public swimming on the Halifax Harbour waterfront. And some of their videos on cycling have arisen out of research being done by DalTrac, another research group in Planning.
“It’s been a vehicle for a lot of students to disseminate their research in different ways,” says Dr. Grant.
An evolving model
PLANifax has also begun taking on work for paying clients, including the City of Halifax and even a local developer. While some viewers have questioned the group’s ability to produce independent videos if they are under contract, Lee says they have been very clear with clients that PLANifax remains in charge of writing the scripts and they are not wiling to be fed a message.
“We said from the get, go, ‘I can’t make a video selling units for you,’ but at the time the developer had an interest in gauging the community’s input as that’s kind of how the development process works in Halifax,” he says.
Lee admits he and his colleagues are still trying to figure out exactly where PLANifax fits on the spectrum between journalism and public relations — something they explored this past summer as participants in the Dal-run LaunchPad startup accelerator. They’re now exploring the option of registering as a social enterprise (they are currently a non-profit) and are working on ways to become more financially sustainable.
But even through all these changes, Lee says they’ve had mostly positive feedback on all of their content as people appreciate gaining information they might not otherwise have.
“All of our stories are on topics that we think either governments or companies would want to have out there and, at the end of the day, that our citizens and audience would want to see,” he says.
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