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We are the gov't closest to the people: Coquitlam social planner

Cathy van Poorten’s job is to connect the dots.
Cathy van Poorten is a full-time social planner for the city of Coquitlam. She will be at the Welcome to Coquitlam gathering at city hall on Wednesday, Sept. 20.

Cathy van Poorten’s job is to connect the dots.

New to Coquitlam? Van Poorten has a long list of service providers she can tap into — and an even longer list of city employees who can speak more than 30 languages — to help residents settle in the community.

Want to find out what’s happening in your neighbourhood? Van Poorten can link property owners with municipal officials about developments underway.

Planning to build a condo complex? Van Poorten will make introductions and show developers the municipal incentives available.

Van Poorten is a social planner — the city’s first — hired in 2005 to smooth out the rough patches for homeowners and business operators alike.

A Prince George native, van Poorten previously worked in the Calgary planning department and later as a social planner in New Westminster before joining the Coquitlam community planning team a dozen years ago.

And the job — as defined in welfare economics as a “decision maker who attempts to achieve the best result for all parties involved” — keeps her on her toes.

Van Poorten’s days are spent in civic planning meetings and answering emails and phone calls from the public. She and Tasha Henderson, a part-time social planner recruited last year, also attend civic advisory board meetings and collaborate with stakeholders such as the Tri-Cities Homelessness Task Group.

As well, van Poorten meets regularly with other social planners throughout Metro Vancouver. There, she and her counterparts in other jurisdictions — including Vancouver, Burnaby, New West, Surrey, Richmond and the North Shore — stay current with latest trends happening around the Lower Mainland. 

“We have a great feel for what’s going on in our community and for Metro Vancouver,” she told The Tri-City News. “We know what other municipalities are doing and we in Coquitlam can form best practices for our policies from that knowledge.”

Van Poorten has a number of documents that guide her work: Among them, the official community plan (OCP); neighbourhood plans; the Housing Affordability Strategy (adopted in December 2015); and the Multiculturalism Strategic Plan (endorsed in July 2011).

Housing and homelessness make up about 70% of her workload while the rest of her time is largely taken up with assistance to new Canadians, she said.

These days, the relocation of residents along the North Road corridor — including those displaced by the Evergreen Extension buildout — is a key issue.

Essentially, van Poorten is doing much of the groundwork as the population swells around the $1.3-billion rapid transit line, which opened last December. (Coquitlam has had an average growth rate of 2.6%, one of the highest in the region, with a current population at around 145,000 residents.)

Daily, she's in touch with such service providers as School District 43, Share, SUCCESS, Immigrant Services Society of BC, Coquitlam Public Library, RainCity Housing, RCMP, Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce and the Tri-Cities Early Childhood Development Committee as well as colleagues in city departments such as parks and recreation.

“It crosses everything,” she said. “The responsibilities are different depending on the day. Often, we are the first point of contact because we are the government closest to the people. And I believe it’s a really exciting time in the city because there is so much growth. Coquitlam is becoming more and more urban, and we have to focus on the small steps that we can make. We need to work together.”

Next week, van Poorten will make even more connections when the city hosts its annual Welcome to Coquitlam gathering at city hall (3000 Guildford Way). The Sept. 20 event is geared to new residents and new Canadians but it is also open to anyone wanting to learn more about Coquitlam.

Between 2 and 8 p.m., city staff will be on hand to talk finances, garbage and recycling collection, and recreation programming, among other things. For more details, visit