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Urbanisation

Communities shaping their built environment – Part 2: Participatory planning in the Australian context

Dr Nader Naderpajouh is an incoming Senior Lecturer at University of Sydney and Alison Whitten is Sustainable and Resilient Precincts Lead at City of Melbourne. Nader and Alison authored the RICS Research Trust report Governance of participatory planning for resilient communities together with Bilal Ayub and Rita Peihua Zhang (of RMIT), and Sebastian Fastenrath and Lars Coenen (of the University of Melbourne). We spoke to them about participatory planning practice in Australia - a growing nation with a controversial colonial past. Can participatory planning present inclusive and liveable solutions to these challenges?

Fabrizio Varriale
26 April 2021

Is there a specific approach to participatory planning in Australia? What local challenges can it help to address?

Alison Whitten: Our approach is fairly standard within the Western context. The IAP2 framework is a commonly used approach in Australia. A lot of participation is led and enforced by government, and we're seeing movement towards more inclusive participation in individual projects. One of the challenges that we see in Melbourne, and probably in all the major cities in Australia, is that the city is growing very quickly. There's a perceived trade-off between deep engagement in decisions about that growth and reacting to accommodate that growth by rapidly building new developments. Involving the community in such cases is challenging, especially when we see a lot of greenfield developments in places where communities don't yet exist. However, there are models for engaging with future communities that reflect on the experience of existing communities that have gone through similar evolutions, and so we can draw on those.

Dr Nader Naderpajouh: I moved to Australia over four years ago. At the time I was looking for a home and realising that the housing market here is more orientated towards profit than it is towards health and liveability in the built environment. I'm not saying that it shouldn't be profit-oriented, I just think it has gone too far. Sometimes I would visit an apartment that’s not really liveable. To me those apartments seem to be built as investments and may not be occupied for substantial periods of time. This is a very important issue, raising the need for participatory planning. I see that a range of participatory responses are being developed to address the health and liveability issues here in Australia. There are increasing number of developers creating high-quality dwellings and spaces. These developers are slightly compromising their short-term economic returns for long-term returns.

AW: One of the things that we used as a tagline in the Resilient Communities program was the idea of turning customers into citizens. This means not only thinking about what it takes to sell a home, but also about what is needed to build a community. We can see developers with strong economic interests taking this approach because it helps them to think more holistically about the quality of the development. It’s also good for their businesses in the long run. The infrastructure between houses is important too, and I would say developers increasingly understand that.

Are there quality standards for housing developments in Australia?

AW: There is a set of standards on apartment design that have been recently updated here in Victoria. They include standards for the exterior materials and for amenities such as green and shared outdoor spaces. They also specify things like minimum window and room size. It’s increasingly understood that you need to have that baseline level of policy to enforce these outcomes and create more liveable places. There are strong developers that recognise this and are very focused on designing and building places for liveability, not just investment. That trajectory will hopefully gain traction across the market, but it has taken some government guidance. We want to make more progress around the environmental performance of buildings, in terms of the orientation of homes, making use of passive ventilation, and better use of materials. Homes could be built with better environmental standards.

NN: In terms of regulation, we have seen a move from prescriptive-based to performance-based regulations in the past decades across the world. After tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire in the UK, there is general recognition that regulatory and enforcement gaps in building safety and integrity need to be addressed.

Are there examples of participatory planning approaches for rural development or land use?

NN: There are many examples. In Victoria and New South Wales, we're looking at how communities come together to increase their resilience by improving existing infrastructures or building new ones. For example, a community comes together to realise they are prone to bushfires, but they do not have good phone reception. As accidents are communicated through text messages, the community can leverage the need to build resilience to get better coverage for cell phones. The result is that telecommunications infrastructure is developed, and the community sees where they can align their objectives with government and businesses to get more resources and build their resilience.

Post-colonial relations between white and indigenous people in Australia have been controversial. How has this history affected the creation and use of urban and rural spaces? Can participatory planning help the recovery from the mistakes of the past, as well as progressing forward in the future?

NN: This is a really important question. When we presented the report’s findings in December, the first question asked was about the historical background, i.e. what are the strategies to integrate the input of Traditional Owners? Action on this issue is becoming more and more concrete rather than being just ceremonial. But there is still substantial room for improvement. We must give Traditional Owners power and we must ensure transparency in the decision-making process. We also need to integrate the input of Traditional Owners in a way that is not prescribed, but rather based on their culture.

When we presented the report’s findings in December, the first question asked was about the historical background, i.e. what are the strategies to integrate the input of Traditional Owners? Action on this issue is becoming more and more concrete rather than being just ceremonial. But there is still substantial room for improvement.

Dr Nader Naderpajouh
Incoming Senior Lecturer at University of Sydney

AW: I would agree. There's been a long history of poor treatment of indigenous people and lack of indigenous empowerment, and there is a growing recognition that that needs to change. I certainly can’t speak on behalf of Traditional Owners, but from my perspective, we see a few examples emerging where indigenous groups have been central in the planning of important public spaces. This is also very symbolic given the centrality of those places in cities. Yagan Square in Perth is one example. In Melbourne, the Koorie Heritage Trust, a local indigenous institution, is based within Federation Square - one of our central public spaces. We are starting to see the physical presence of these communities in more formal ways. But we have a long way to go to make sure that indigenous voices are consistently included in decision making. One of the phrases that I’ve heard used by indigenous communities is ‘nothing about us without us’. This really encapsulates the need for decisions that impact people to be made with those people, and that is certainly true for indigenous communities here, as well as globally.

What are the challenges of involving indigenous communities? Is there a lack of trust towards authorities, a lack of self-confidence within the community, or resignation to the way things have been done in the past?

AW: There is some of that. It takes time to build trust, so even with the best intentions, participatory processes can still feel transactional. We have formats through which parts of the population are very comfortable participating, such as workshops, but that may not be the way that indigenous groups prefer to engage. It is therefore necessary to work with individual groups to design ways to participate that are consistent with their cultural practices. There are many demands on Traditional Owner groups, too, because increasingly, we recognise the need to consult with local indigenous groups. There’s a significant amount of pressure on them to be reactive to processes that are being developed outside of their control. It’s great that we see momentum, but it presents very practical challenges for these representatives. We need to look to them to be guided on how they would prefer to be involved. This requires institutional project leads to give up control, which is often very difficult, but the benefits can be profound.

We have a long way to go to make sure that indigenous voices are consistently included in decision making. One of the phrases that I’ve heard used by indigenous communities is ‘nothing about us without us’. This really encapsulates the need for decisions that impact people to be made with those people, and that is certainly true for indigenous communities here, as well as globally.

Alison Whitten
Sustainable and Resilient Precincts Lead at the City of Melbourne

NN: We must consider that there is this background of mistakes that have been made. We are not starting from zero, but from a point where there are some biases that have been already shaped. We want more inclusive decision-making, but the background must be addressed with broad considerations.

AW: There's never been a treaty with indigenous people in Australia, and so land was never ceded to colonial groups that arrived. That weighs very heavily in all these discussions, especially around spatial planning and the use of land for different purposes. We have seen some positive examples in development projects that are more community oriented. Some include components like paying rent: a contribution goes from the project to indigenous groups, and sometimes directly supports housing to offset the impact on Traditional Owners’ land. So there are ways that that is starting to be addressed very tangibly, in addition to including voices in decision-making.

  • The final part of our conversation explores how local and global crises highlight the importance of building community relationships and public trust through participatory practices.