’30-minute city’? Not in my backyard! Smart Cities Plan must let people have their say


Community protest against plans for hi-rise buildindgs and a marina at Toondah Harbour in Redland City

Community protest in 2014 against plans for hi-rise buildings and a marina at Toondah Harbour in Redland City

The federal government’s Smart Cities Plan is framed around the “30-minute city”. In this city, journeys will take no more than half an hour, regardless of your location.

The recently released plan has significant implications for population, transport provision and land-use intensity in neighbourhoods – the places where people live and how they get around. The realisation of its goals will require ongoing densification of Australian suburbs.

Cities with more houses, more people, more NIMBYs

The doubling of the population in some Australian cities by 2045 is likely to generate fierce opposition to housing and transport projects.

Many medium-density housing projects prompt residents to act strategically to protect their neighbourhoods, even when these projects improve housing affordability and access to jobs and services.

Resistance is also directed at major infrastructure. Fierce campaigns are being (or have been) waged against Melbourne’s “sky rail” project and East West Link, Sydney’s ANZAC Parade light rail and Westconnex projects, and the Perth Freight Link.

Such opposition is not only felt through the planning system. Residents also use political channels to stop projects, as with the East West Link.

How should government respond to community resistance?

Contestation over city planning should not be shut down. Rather, we need to think about citizen opposition as a constructive process for working through difference. Here are five points to consider when including people in the delivery of the 30-minute city.

Point 1: We need active governments and active citizens

Private-sector lobbyists argue government is poorly placed to deliver small- and large-scale infrastructure. But think about a city with no roads, sewers, hospitals or schools. Without government-led planning, our cities would be dysfunctional places to live.

However, governments are not benevolent institutions. Active citizenries have long scrutinised the efficacy of government decisions.

The introduction of private and non-government infrastructure providers further complicates the relationship between citizens and governments. Whose interests does urban development then serve – a local community, regional community, or developers?

Governments need to be ready to answer questions about the role of the private sector and to change their plans following community input.

Point 2: More than finding better participation tools

Urban planning systems play important roles in engaging residents. However, community consultation has been sporadic. Neighbourhood meetings and letterbox notifications often fail to ignite engagement.

Then there is the question of representation. Community consultations attract the “usual suspects”. Time-poor working-age households and young professionals find it difficult to fit engagement with planning into their busy lives. Even more rarely does planning engage with youth and children about their visions and hopes for cities.

 Some issues mobilise people across social and age groups, but achieving representative public input to urban planning can be difficult. Tony Markham/AAP

Some issues mobilise people across social and age groups, but achieving representative public input to urban planning can be difficult. Tony Markham/AAP

Local and state governments are aware of the need for new ways to bring citizens into decision-making. Infrastructure Victoria’s citizen jury panels are meeting mid-2016. Social media is also being considered as a way to engage a broader public about city futures.

However, when planning departments use social media the uptake by communities is poor. Our research suggests opponents to planned projects, rather than planning departments, are more likely to use social media.

The problem with current participation tools is their failure to account for conversations, debates and protests that take place outside the formal planning process. We need ways to include these discussions.

Point 3: Moving beyond NIMBYism

Not all community campaigns are the same. The dominant narrative around community participation in urban planning centres on the pejorative idea of “the NIMBY” (not in my backyard).

The term NIMBY is frequently used to delegitimise the claims of citizens opposing planned developments. They are characterised as self-interested residents who resist the inclusion of new social groups in their neighbourhoods, or any change to the built or natural environment.

Deliberately labelling these residents as self-interested fails to recognise the positive roles they can play. Local resident campaigns can focus on city-wide or local issues. They can range from unwavering opposition to more flexible and reflexive engagement in an urban discussion.

Some community campaigns might be viewed as vital forms of urban citizenship. Others are seen as “protecting their patch” against the best interests of the broader citizenry. Both views should be part of our discussion about city planning.

Point 4: The conversation never stops

An active citizenry is involved in short-term “one-off” planning and long-term strategic planning. Too often, public participation roles are confined to one end of this spectrum. For example, the NSW government recently attempted to limit public participation to high-level strategic planning documents, reducing community input into individual developments.

 Most of the city’s residents seem unaware of the Sydney metropolitan plan and its reliance on higher-density living. AAP/Dean Lewins

Most of the city’s residents seem unaware of the Sydney metropolitan plan and its reliance on higher-density living. AAP/Dean Lewins

Most people have little knowledge of the urban planning system. A recent study found only 24% of Sydney residents surveyed were aware of the Sydney metropolitan plan. Confining participation to upfront strategic consultation limits community involvement.

For most people, engagement with planning and development issues will be reactionary. People engage with the planning system when a development is proposed for their area.

However, a recent national survey revealed that 65% of responses believed urban residents should be involved in each stage of the strategy-making process. Most will not be involved, but options for participation should not be confined to upfront consultation.

By engaging the community in an ongoing discussion we can listen and respond to local interests without compromising the broader strategic and long-term vision for our cities.

Point 5: Metropolitan-wide but locally situated debate

There will be winners and losers in the 30-minute city. Houses will be acquired, buildings will be demolished and sections of the natural environment will make way for new infrastructure.

Over the last decade, the idea of consensus has dominated participatory approaches. However, consensus-seeking is not always the best way to work through community disagreement. In some cases, consensus can be manipulative, or useful for mobilising resident opposition.

We need to recognise that cities are home to many different people who hold diverse views and values, and who will not always agree. Rather than aiming for consensus, we should set our sights on metropolitan-wide, locally situated debate, which supports an active citizenry.

In the end, the difference between no action and implementation may be in “agreeing to disagree” through open discussion about the planning of the city.

This article draws on research by the authors and recent discussions about a possible crisis of participation in Australian cities at a symposium in Sydney in April 2016.

The Conversation

Crystal Legacy, Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow and Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University; Dallas Rogers, Lecturer in Urban Studies, Western Sydney University; Kristian Ruming, Associate Professor in Urban Geography, and Nicole Cook, Researcher, School of Geography, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Republished by Redlands2030 – 31 May 2016


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5 thoughts on “’30-minute city’? Not in my backyard! Smart Cities Plan must let people have their say

  1. Formal consultation process are more and more just public relations …selling a product rather than seeking community engagement and involvement. The efforts of Redland City Council with the draft City Plan 2015 or the Toondah Harbour debacle being obvious examples…and obvious failures.
    Genuine consultation in the planning is needed… listen to the people and base the plan on what they say.
    Planners should facilitate planning and not set themselves up to be the font of community wisdom, needs or wants.
    Redland City and the State Planning Department should take note.

    • the community has clearly shown what is wanted in the Redland Community Plan 2030

  2. Coal seam gas mining. It’s well known, and I’ve written politicians many times, but they tend not to hear until farmers commit suicide when contaminated ground water has poisoned crops and land can no longer be used for growing produce….ruining lives. Nor can farm animals survive on contaminated grasslands. Mining company near Chinchilla are now having to clean up operations due to poisoned land and ruined lives. One chemical used in the ‘fracking’ process is benzene, plus other chemicals that over time poison ground water. People have asked politicians to explain bubbling of the Condamine River…suspected to be from coal seam gas mining. Watched on TV in a small town in US match being lit onto running tap town water, with flames shooting skyward off the running stream of water. Time for politicians all sides to end coal seam gas mining that mpact on agricultural and cattle grazing lands throughout Australia.

  3. I agree – moving beyond the NIMBY label is very important. Proponents of projects such as the Toondah Harbour marina, for example, are quick to assume that objections are made on a ‘NIMBY’ basis and as such are negative examples of self interest. In contrast decisions made on the basis of wealth and power are privileged and promoted as positive, pro-growth, pro-job and progressive. Yet objections are frequently made not on a NIMBY basis but on the basis of the validity of the project itself; for the greater good and are often voiced by those from outside the backyard; including experts in relevant fields. Some of the objections to the Toondah project cover such areas as aesthetics, design, sustainability, environmental impact, place attachment, protection of biodiversity in a RAMSAR area, the health of the bay and the project’s proximity to eight sites on the Queensland Heritage Register – hardly negative examples of self interest.

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