IDEAS | Another day at the Ideas Festival

Posted on 29/03/2009


Another day at the Ideas Festival has affirmed some of my concerns and thoughts. In the process of working through my postgraduate course in planning and design, I have come to appreciate the challenges that face suburban communities in the transition to a post-carbon and sustainable future. I’ve resolved that my postgraduate research will be examining these questions in more detail, exploring alternative and richer community visioning, engagement and education methodologies and technologies that engage citizens in sustainability, planning and (re)development process. One of the recurring themes of the festival was that the thinking that produced these ‘crises’ (environmental, ecological, social) won’t get us out of them. This has prompted discussion of the need for new approaches, redirected solutions and practice, longer term anticipatory thinking and a better understanding of what is not ‘working’. Unsustainable practices do not work – they are a sign of breakdown.

In today’s festival sessions – one exploring Futures and Values and another on Sustainable Urban Futures – the speakers affirmed the need for more effective ways of engaging communities. People, in general, are wise to the ways of community consultation. Griffith University academic Brendan Gleeson reminded us that the suburban form is unsustainable. However, he said, there was a need to address this situation more empathetically and to engage suburban communities in more meaningful ways. Because cities are slow to change, it takes a long time to engineer social change through urban form. Social planner and consultant Wendy Sarkissian also spoke of the centrality of communities in the planning process, saying “we can’t ‘other’ the community because the community is us“. Her concern is that the processes of government are not enabling change and that those who make decisions have not engaged the citizenry: “our best ideas for a sustainable future will amount to nothing without deep involvement of communities”. 

This session echoed several of the themes in the earlier Futures and Values session, at the end of which Sarkissian asked futurist Sohail Inayatullah to elaborate on his method of city futures and visioning. Her question intimated that a widely used four step process for community visioning was not an anticipatory process. I am assuming she was referring to the Oregon Model. Inayatullah explained that his approach to city futures was to develop anticipatory democracy at the citizen level while also engaging Councillors, as the decision makers, to grow support for the visioning process. In other words, Inayatullah stressed the need to engage the whole system. Unsupportive Councillors can often derail a community planning or visioning process by not championing the long term vision and by only having an eye to the next election. For Inayatullah and the other speakers, environmentalist Ian Lowe and researcher Richard Eckersley, growing an effective response to the current environmental and economic crises requires social equality, empowerment and resilience.

Interestingly, at several points during various sessions I attended at the Festival, including the Thinking Differently Masterclass with Michael Hewitt-Gleeson, discussions turned to consideration of regional population growth. Several people observed that current rates of population growth are unsustainable and that plans for the western growth corridor are not factoring in climate change issues such as heat and fire threats. Population caps are often mooted as a solution. Are we developing equality and resilience with such willingness to lock people out? We know that the planet produces about 2kg of food per person per day. So why lock people out? Why force other people into poverty, unsettlement and hardship rather than remodel the systems of land use, food production and food distribution? Excluding people doesn’t seems like a community or city building response. Exclusion looks like low hanging fruit (the sort that become platforms for political expediency in local council elections) when there are other options for structural or systemic change.

One very distressing story I heard today – and it was distressing because it was the first time that I had heard that parts of our environment are as good as dead – is that an environmental group had commissioned research about the impact of rehabilitation efforts in the Great Barrier Reef and Murray Darling region. This research has concluded that the pace of response is not commensurate with the pace of degradation. Unless more is done more rapidly and more effectively, then we might as well forget about these two precious ecologies. Unfortunately, I can’t give you the details of the research (and perhaps I should find out before I write reports like this). However, as citizens, we need to understand that inaction results in great loss of ecologies. In the face of this, perhaps consumption-based approaches to economic recovery aren’t wholly appropriate. If over-consumption and over-production has created our current crises, as Gleeson, Lowe and other speakers contended, then perhaps there is a lack of wisdom in expecting they pave the way to a more prosperous or more sustainable future.

In the Sustainable Urban Futures session, Cr Helen Abrahams slapped us all in the face by saying that ‘we’ had voted for more tunnels and roads in the most recent Brisbane City Council election. We could rightfully expect more reflexivity from her in this context given that Labor ran such a weak and disinterested mayoral candidate in the last election. Abrahams said that if we wanted things to change then we had to prove that we were serious about our commitment by changing things first at home. If we changed our home energy use, then Council would respond. Sarkissian’s retort was that Council should show some leadership and anticipation, rather than stand idly by. She speculated that public transport will experience more demand in the near future and that there was a need for Council to anticipate that growing demand for services rather than ignore it to the point where commuters are stranded at bus and ferry stops (as happens in other Australian capitals). This unreliability not only pushes people back into their cars, but might also translate as a lack of trust and respect.

Another recurring theme, demonstrated so deftly by Abrahams’ gaffs, was that governance was a priority. The question time in the Sustainable Urban Futures session demonstrated to me that citizens are very engaged in and aware of urban affairs. I personally think this is an interest that should be cultivated in communities across the city. One member of the audience asked directly about what can be done to work with suburban communities. Gleeson observed that suburbia shouldn’t be demonised – it is the backbone of our cities – and that there is a need to keep a critical eye on proposed solutions. We can only benefit by always keeping our minds open to possibilities and opportunities. For me, this is an opportunity to be anticipating and exploring new stories and visions for our suburbs. Excessive consumption and/or vehicle use is not exclusive to suburban communities. While a more compact form would certainly contain the footprint of the city, those who live in more compact inner urban environments still needed to be attentive to their consumption habits.

Another member of the audience indicated a degree of incredulity about the ability of current planning and policy processes to effectively guide change, commenting that many community plans across the country seemed fundamentally the same. She pointed out that there was dissonance between the plans and their implementation. Another person commented that people are ignored by governments which needed to recognise the value of collective input and people’s ideas and knowledge. Given Abrahams’ comments, we might sink into scepticism about whether our institutions are yet to learn the value of the citizenry. For the first time in a long time, I felt that there were citizen demands for more and better quality involvement in the affairs of the city. There is definitely an opportunity, as Sarkissian explained, for more interesting educational processes. This means that is a need to commit resources for productive and deliberative dialogues as well as different and more sophisticated engagement processes and technologies. However, with the movement of social media and connectedness, perhaps the need is not so much those engagements and dialogues to come from institutions but those to emerge from communities and networks.

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