Planning or democracy?

Or why great planning ideas wither and die.

By Les Robinson, author of 'Open Your Council'

Talk to Communities and Places Forum, organised by Sutherland Shire Environment Centre, 3 Nov 2001.

Listening to Professor Bolt makes me ask: if we had so many great urban planning ideas 100 years ago, what has stopped us implementing them? What's the missing ingredient? Why do they so often die on the vine?

I was involved in the consultations for the place-based planning system in Warringah. You'll probably hear the details from other speakers, but in a nutshell — in Warringah Council area there are no zonings any more.

So how do you what you are allowed to build and where you can build it?

In Warringah there are now 70-odd 'places' or precincts. Each place has a 'desired future character statement' which was created in consultation with the people who live there. In principal the 'desired future character statement' captures the hopes and dreams of a particular community for its future.

I say 'in principle' because it depends entirely on how thoroughly a council is willing to consult its community when devising the statements.

Planners then turned these statements, which are in plain English, into a single set of technical planning rules for each place.

Now if you want to build something in, say, Balgowlah, you don't have to fit into an arbitrary zoning system invented by planners. Instead you have to fit into the desired future character devised by the citizens who live there.

I think these is a potentially fantastic approach because it provides a way for a community to influence it's own future. I'm a fan of this system. It's a great idea and we'll hear a lot more about it in future.

But the reason why it worked in Warringah was not just because it was a great idea. We have to be wary of the supposed power of great ideas all by themselves. It worked in Warringah because the council, reeling from the community anger over a previous attempt to impose a (conventional) local environment plan, withdrew itself from the process. They said in effect 'if you are all so smart, why don't you (the community) design the new LEP and we (the councillors) won't have anything to do with the process'. So they asked for nominations from the community, set up a community committee, threw in a couple of planners, and gave them (as chair) John Mant, one of the most brilliant consultant planners in Australia.

Eighteen months later they came back with Australia's most pure place-based planning system, it was subject to extensive (and un-rancorous) community consultations and is now the law in Warringah.

I believe the secret ingredient in this success story is not just the great idea, it was the democratic process which defused suspicion and created trust. It became very difficult for sceptics and negative activists to attack the new LEP because it was seen as having come out of the community itself, and free of the self-interest of the powerful.

That's the secret of getting great ideas up and running - getting the trust right. The more things 'fall on us from above', the more they will be routinely rejected by a cynical and sullen community exhausted by having ideas imposed on them. And when the community reject a great new idea, the councillors and politicians will shy away and that's the end of the great new idea. I think we've made a democratic system that can no longer deliver great ideas. What we need to do is get clever at how we do democracy.

I live in Wollongong. Just recently a new swimming pool arrived in my suburb. Or rather the old, beloved Thirroul swimming pool was renovated into a standard Olympic pool which was distinctly less community-friendly than the old one. No one knew it was coming. It appeared to fall from the sky onto our community. I guess the council did the minimum legal exhibition of the plans over winter, but I don't think many people saw them.

When I look into the air above my community I see, way over there, quite disconnected from my community, the local council. Wollongong does not even bother to have a council newsletter or other way to communicate with its community. It feels like the space between my community and its council is a vacuum…a vacuum of democracy.

So, the things we need are - a set of good ideas of urban planning and other kinds of management, and, most importantly, good ideas about filling the democratic vacuum, to make it possible for the good planning ideas to be implemented.

The missing ingredient is trust. Trust doesn’t just happen, you need to have institutions dedicated to creating it.

Trust is something that happens between people, when members of a community meet each other and realise they have things in common that reach beyond self-interest.

If you look at the DUAP Plan First website, you'll see a document which is full of great ideas for doing community consultation better - citizen juries, consensus conferences, future search conferences. If we actually did some of these ideas we'd find them inspiring and wonderful events. But what we have are democratic tools being hijacked by planners to help them plan their developments better. Once the plans are made the planners go home and take their exciting community processes with them. The democratic space is still a vacuum. We in Australia have been extraordinarily inactive in growing, evolving and enriching our democracy in ways that give communities a sustained stake in their futures.

If we look to other places, New Zealand, the USA, and a few Australian councils, however, we can see great experiments under way in growing up our democracy and giving people a real say in their future.

I've made a little book about these experiments. It's called 'Open Your Council' and you can get it from Pluto Press.

What we are failing to do in Australia is think creatively about government. I think we all know we either have governments or we have market forces. We have lost confidence in our governments and now we tasted the full impact of market forces I don't think we like them very much either. So we need to figure out how to put back a government that represents us and protects us from the free run of market forces.

Here are two examples of how others have built much richer, more responsive kinds of democracy.

In the City of Christchurch, NZ, there are 61 elected representatives. There are 13 city councillors and 48 elected citizens on 6 community boards.

The community boards are a fascinating kind of 'third level' of government, which are delivering a richer, more local democracy to the citizens of Christchurch's different communities.

Look at the power and resources which the city has devolved to these Community Boards. Each Board operates out of it’s own community centre, has a budget of about $A500,000, employs about 6 staff in delivering local services, has its own newsletter, can spend about $A160,000 at its own discretion, and allocates local project funding of about $A400,000.

The Boards oversee all capital projects in their wards and can approve tenders of up to $A800,000. They have numerous delegated powers, for instance they exercise all of council’s power over local roads; decide on local traffic works (like bus stops, pedestrian crossings, and swimming pools); manage parks and reserves; grant community awards; and lease public land to community organisations.

The Boards' primary role is to be advocates for their local communities. They review all council policies and management plans and must hold several community forums each year, eliciting community responses on almost every aspect of local government, including capital spending, development and planning, services, sports and recreation facilities, environmental issues, and road safety. All monthly Board meetings include time for addresses from citizens about local issues.

Although initially controversial, Christchurch’s Community Boards have become respected local institutions.

Judging from the council’s annual report and strategy documents, the Community Boards provide Christchurch with the basis of an unusually responsive and interactive local government.

The Boards have another healthy outcome — they provide a relatively large pool of tried and tested citizen leaders to bridge the gap between government and people.

Now for an example from the USA.

Seattle has a revolutionary neighbourhood planning model which allows communities to create their own 'great ideas' which are then implemented by the city government.

In 4 year city-wide program commencing in 1995 the city provided neighbourhoods (a neighbourhood had to include at least one ‘urban village’) with up to US$80,000 each to draw up a plan for their desired future shape.

To take part, each neighbourhood had to create a coalition which represented the variety of local interests.

The first phase involved developing a community vision through meetings (mostly facilitated by a professional consultant) and arriving at a detailed workplan.

In the second phase the planning committee worked through the plan, analysing local problems and developing solutions in collaboration with city staff, and meanwhile communicating regularly with residents.

Each committee eventually produced a widely understood and generally accepted vision for its neighbourhood’s future, with concrete steps to achieve it.

About 20,000 citizens invested their time and resources in this massive planning effort.

The City Council checked the plans and eventually accepted 38 neighbourhood plans, which are now being progressively funded from the City budget and local funds.

The plans range from modest traffic control and amenity proposals to sophisticated urban revitalisation plans based on ecological principles. Almost all the plans include strategies for housing, open space and parks and transportation, while many include arts, human services, public safety, economic development and drainage. They can all be seen on the city’s web site at —

To make possible the City’s commitment to implement these plans, the Mayor decentralised the city government, dividing Seattle into 6 sectors, directing city department’s to decentralise accordingly, and adding six Sector Managers to manage interdepartmental teams which are implementing the plans in each sector.

In a breathtaking example of accountability, the City’s internet site now posts monthly updates from the Sector Managers tracking the progress in implementing each neighbourhood plan. They make interesting reading.

Both Christchurch and Seattle have experimented with renovating their democracy. They built new democratic structures and processes that rebuild trust between communities and their governments - they allow communities to own a greater say in deciding their own futures.

I think that these cities are building the kinds of environments where great urban planning ideas have a chance of surviving and being implemented, not by a few brilliant planers, but by communities learning and deliberating together.

My message is - let's start thinking about it. Let's start being much more intelligent about how we do democracy. Then the 'great planning ideas' will be easy.

- Les Robinson

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