Canberra Urbanity

ROAMING your backyard

originality published 2010

I took a call recently from a local newspaper. I was being asked to comment on the future my own neighbourhood and a recent meeting between residents and ACT Government officials. What the journalist did not appreciate is that I was sitting on the side of my vege garden having been interrupted planting the summer crop of vegetables (it was Sunday). However the situation of talking politics from my own backyard was very appropriate.

I have long believed that people involved in larger advocacy matters, while they are prepared to speak out on core national/international issues, should be judged not on the words they use or how wonderfully they craft their sentences using the current language of concern, but on how they behave in their own backyard. How they treat colleagues and those much closer to home. How they speak of others around them and their generosity of spirit towards those who disagree and have alternate views to theirs How they behave when they attend meetings and are prepared to stand up for core values and issues of real relevance, and to then ‘walk the talk’.

In October this year I attended a local residents meeting to which was invited the local Minister for Planning. The local Chief Planner also attended. As it turned out the gathering was also peppered with people imported for the evening to endorse the views to be put by the Minister. (There’s a story there for another time)

Such community meeting usually allow for conversations between the residents and their elected representatives and bureaucrats. In this case the residents group made very informed presentations based on thorough research. I make this last point as I have come to realise how much professional expertise lurks behind the leafy front gardens of my quiet suburb.

The residents were acknowledging that this suburb was due for change, due to be effected by infill and that the residents were about to see the suburb  take on the challenges of the 21st Century. The main view being put forward was that the residents were open to embrace change and that development was inevitable. The big message was that development must deliver on the needs of present and future generations, the young and the elderly, and need to the full range of human and environmental issues – being health, ecology, transport – and you know the rest. Another major plank was that any planning and subsequent development should be through an integrated approach. That future planning should not be based on treating the residential areas separate from the commercial centre, but that the whole precinct would benefit from a larger integrated precinct planning and design process.

The officials present commenced their responses with broad statements about the bigger picture. Sounded fine so far.  Many of the well practiced words were being used. But when pressed to address the realities of local planning and the design of the future of this suburb, the responses quickly descended into talking down to the residents and a rejection of ideas being put forward by the residents. The residents felt that the responses in fact became very patronizing and left nothing open for further discussion. It was very much felt by the residents that as far as their elected government and their bureaucrats were concerned, the case was closed and the residents had better get used to it! Market forces would drive the change! Of course there’s more complexity to this – but this was the message received.

On my criteria mentioned above – how people behave in their own ‘Backyard”, I have to say that the local Government officials failed.

Nevertheless, the residents remained positive, and the debate continued in subsequent meetings. Following a meeting between the ACT Chief Minister, his senior advisors, the chair of the residents group and myself, the residents have been assured that there will be a whole of government response to the issues as raised. The Chief Minister engaged in a very direct, intelligent and open conversation and has identified with the issues and has agreed that matters should be addressed. We are yet to have real outcomes but at least the debate was undertaken with respect for all points of view. It is really that simple!

I have to say that using the same criteria again that the ACT Chief Minister and his senior advisors definitely pass the ‘Backyard’ test.

All this continues to be a reminder that as we respond to national policies and statements to address the bigger picture issues, it is vital that the advocacy has relevance to the ‘Backyard’.  It is good to walk the policy into local issues.

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