The CURA project is conceived as an equal partnership between universities and community groups. The partners in the project are six research institutions and eleven community organizations with an extensive track-record in community development, community organizing and community health improvement. Individual university participants are for the most part also active in the community; similarly, many community partners have research or teaching experience. Community representatives took the lead in inviting academic researchers to participate in this alliance, based on their past experience and the trust gained among community members.
The CURA project builds upon past university-community collaboration in the three neighbourhoods. Direct university involvement in these communities extends back 20 years, when McGill proposed locating student residences in St-Henri and agreed to assist with social programmes, a community garden and loan guarantees for affordable housing construction. In the past few years, the universities have held four neighbourhood assessment studios and two design projects; interns, volunteers and recent graduates have been placed with both the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and the community partner organisations. A neighbourhood assessment carried out in St Raymond in 2005 highlighted patterns of socio-economic polarization around immigration status, led to initial feasibility studies of a land trust and fed proposals for densification along one street into the official neighbourhood plan. Students from the six universities already have conducted thesis, volunteer or internship work to assist community members of the Coalition. A current example of collaboration is underway at McGill: students are preparing the site analysis information for a City-run design competition to develop family-oriented affordable housing on city-owned land. Such activities have established the basis for future collaboration.
Carrying out the research programme of the CURA will require expertise from the academic sector and from the community sector. Schematically, while the former can supply rigorous methodologies for the assessment of existing conditions, processes and their outcomes, the latter can offer effective methods of action for community development and collaborative decision-making. Academics can encourage other players, including decision-makers and potential funders, to take a harder look at neighbourhoods and issues that might otherwise escape notice. The access of academics to various data-sets and of community groups to various actors (officials, residents) will make it possible to marry scientific and local knowledge and to study issues in quantitative and qualitative ways.
The project aims to improve our understanding of mega-projects and their outcomes, to enhance practices of community development and collaborative planning and, hence, to increase community capacity to participate actively in decision-making and implementation for mega-projects. Whereas the first task will largely be performed by academic researchers, the second and third will require the active involvement of community partners for the effective translation of theory into practice. In other words, because the three objectives of the project are linked logically and functionally, and because the issues at hand are diverse in nature, it is essential that the project be carried by an alliance and its research be performed by a team working across disciplinary and methodological traditions.
McGill University Health Centre (MUHC)