Current Issue #488

Quality in our back yards

Quality in our back yards

Proposed legislation for higher-density precincts in the inner suburbs has got Adelaide talking.

A spreading disquiet around the State Government’s proposed urban renewal legislation and associated new governance structures for higher-density urban precincts in Adelaide’s inner suburbs has got community groups talking and the experts engaged in debate. They are asking whether genuine community consultation grounded in an understanding of the psychology of place might help us achieve an urban form that is driven by design quality, rather than strict (and often manipulative) adherence to statutory planning processes.

Architect and former Commissioner for Integrated Design, Tim Horton, told a recent public forum at the Norwood Town Hall that how you think about a problem defines the tools you use to fix it. “Viewing the renewal of inner Adelaide as a problem of planning law assures us that we’ll reach for planning law fixes,” he suggests, in a recently published essay referring to the broad planning review launched by Minister Rau earlier this year. Horton believes that the shape and character of our neighbourhoods is being dictated by a vocabulary that many of us simply don’t understand: “Without a radical redirection swiftly deployed, the chance of consensus becomes more and more remote,” he argues.

Australian social planner and ethicist Dr Wendy Sarkissian told another packed-out forum at the Hawke Centre that NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) responses to housing density increases can be reasonable, helpful and understandable. She asks: “What if so-called NIMBYism is justified because what is planned for your back yard is really something that shouldn’t be there?” Sarkissian says that negative reactions to change can often be attributed to insensitive or poor quality design, and tokenistic community engagement processes that ignore basic human emotions and instincts.

According to Urban Renewal Authority Chief Executive Fred Hansen, the challenge is how to make community involvement work, while not allowing a small number of people to derail projects for purely selfish reasons. Hansen’s original Thinkers in Residence report declared that, “It is never too early to involve the community in issues directly affecting their neighbourhoods”. The report placed responsibility with the proponents of new policy, or new development to work through possible concerns early, and directly with those likely to be affected. Hansen believes that government and private enterprise must recognise and truly believe that the outcome of this process isn’t just about getting neighbourhood acceptance (although it will do that) but that the process will actually produce a better proposal.

These experts are pointing to community participation models developed over 40 years ago, in the 1960s and 1970s, and an associated body of sociological and psychological discourse. According to Sarkissian, who lived, worked and taught in Adelaide during the 1970s, we seem to have lost the basic fundamental building blocks of an inclusive professional practice that could help us create more acceptable, and better designed higher density housing, and encourage its positive reception in existing residential neighbourhoods.

Sarkissian cites the observation of British sociologist, Peter Marris, that people find it difficult to reconcile themselves with the loss of the familiar for some impersonal utilitarian calculation of the common good. People need to find their own meaning in changes to their environment before they can accept them. So instead of vilifying or dismissing resistance to change, we might be better off slowing down to the psychological limits of what communities can handle. In a similar vein, Horton refers to the ‘Planning for Real’ toolkit developed in the UK in the 1970s, and deployed worldwide to give local people a voice, and professionals a clear idea of a community’s needs and desires.

My favourite piece of wisdom from this era is Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 ‘Ladder of Citizen Participation’, with its eight ‘rungs’ or levels of participation that reflect the extent to which participants can determine the end result. At the bottom is non-participation, defined by Arnstein as manipulation or ‘therapy’, where the real objective is to educate or ‘cure’ participants to those in power’s point of view. The middle rungs represent various forms of tokenism – placation, consultation and the provision of information (perhaps reflecting the ‘tell and sell’ practices employed in this state of late) – while the top rungs of the ladder symbolise real power, in the form of negotiated partnerships and citizen control.

Horton refers to Grattan Institute recommendations to institute neighbourhood development corporations that combine residents, experts and policy-makers in the actual delivery of urban renewal projects. If we are looking at establishing new governance structures for higher density precincts, we need to make sure that the members of the community who will be affected have real power in influencing the final design outcomes.

So just as we have created a design review process that works as an early warning system for design issues, we need to install effective radar systems for detecting and addressing community concerns early, and governance models that give people on the ground a genuine stake in their future. A revised regulatory framework that fails to deliver on these two key realms of design quality and local engagement will inevitably fail.

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