CONSULT | Communities get even

Posted on 22/03/2011

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One of the running threads in Placing focuses on ideas of dialogue and conversation. I have a concern about how to initiate the kinds of conversations needed to ensure equitable and sustainable development. Yesterday, 45 community groups launched Brisbane Residents United (BRU) which is a umbrella organisation intended to help community groups with the consultation system. An ABC report quotes BRU’s spokesperson Elizabeth Handley: “They arrive with a plan pre-done and we’re just supposed to tick the boxes to say we approve of it. Even when you get – as we did with the Milton Station neighbourhood plan – over 1,600 submissions against that particular plan and as they did at West End where they got over 5,000 submissions – those plans are still approved.”

Such commentaries are an indictment of our opposition based planning system. I’ve seen it firsthand working in community consultation and participating in community consultations. Understandably, when developments are proposed, communities turn to their local area plans for guidance only to find the development proposal is out of kilter with the planning guidelines. In other words, the proposed development outcome will need to be negotiated with the local authority and developer. This is, in part, an issue raised in another article I’d written about Community Benefits Agreements in the USA. If communities are excluded from the process, then there is a need to respond to that issue and BRU might feasibly establish more of a negotiating platform rather than a force of opposition. The collective intelligence of communities can result in smart and connected approaches to resident action.

I’ve started to muse about this dynamic of consultation and how it positions communities in a fundamentally top down process. It is still planning from above and, even when communities are engaged in neighbourhood planning, it remains consultation with a minority. Ultimately what concerns me is the readiness and capacity of the community and individuals to be consulted. While consultation is a lauded value or principle for government, planning and, increasingly, corporations, the practice can leave people experiencing consultation fatigue and cynicism. References to ‘tick-a-box’ consultations, like that of Ms Handley, need to be taken seriously. People are clearly enduring consultations without feeling listened to. In part that might be attributable to the sourness that comes from not getting what you want or not progressing your self-interest. For example, I actually believe that in the consultation for the northern busway due to run through my local area in the next decade, this community’s concerns and care for place won’t receive attention. That care for place will not be catalysed for capacity building, community development or building social capital. It kind of feels like a lottery that we participate in on the off-chance that we might score a win.

These are complex processes which catalyse a mixed bag of issues – as such they cannot be simplified. At an Unlimited AP panel discussion, architect Timothy Hill made mention of the oppositional nature of the development and planning system. He argued that engaging people in oppositional processes – develop the plan then put it out for comment – was a waste of resources and creativity. Only two days prior to the launch of Brisbane Residents United, the Deputy Premier said that ‘not in my backyard’ sentiments pose one of the biggest obstacles to good planning and infrastructure development. However, not all opposition to development is nimbyism – local people can and do bring valid local knowledge to development and planning propositions to save places of social and environmental value. Planners and designers are clever – they can and do accommodate a range of competing interests to achieve sound results. Sustainability frameworks should be leading them to negotiating and addressing those problems in the fairest ways possible.

So to return to this question of community readiness and capacity. I think we can assume that communities have a high degree of consultation literacy ie they know the drill. They can also have high expectations, which are often not met. There’s been much work and attention to ‘place making’ in recent times and this is about largely recognising their cultural significance. Most planners and designers know that communities and individuals have strong attachments to place. It seems at odds with a planning system that proposes sweeping changes to places which may erase that significance. Taking this as a starting point, it seems that communities have nowhere to go except opposition. In the end, it seems to be the development and planning system that creates and reproduces the conditions of opposition and resident action, even nimbyism. The Deputy Premier and others perhaps need to be reminded that good consultation is constitutive of good planning and development.

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