Activism in Planning in Australia: A Delicate Balancing Act

I’m celebrating: 2013 was a great year for community activism in planning.

 

In New South Wales, concerted action by many forces, including the Better Planning Network (https://betterplanningnetwork.good.do/nsw/fund-the-better-planning-network-in-2014/), resulted in the State Government withdrawing the contentious and flawed proposed state planning legislation.

 

The Better Planning Network has more than 430 community groups and many more affiliated individuals (like me), and this number is growing every day.

 

Group-shot-Hazzard-office-protest-380x251

On 28 November 2013, the NSW Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, the Hon. Brad Hazzard, announced that he would withdraw the NSW Planning Bills until February/March 2014. The Minister made this announcement because of heavy amendments made to these Bills in the Upper House by the Labor, Greens and Shooters and Fishers parties.

 

Aside from some misguided planners and the developers’ lobby, nobody had anything good to say about the community engagement components of the Bills, which were my main concern.

 

I argued on a number of occasions that it was unrealistic – strategically and psychologically – to expect residents to be happy with community engagement limited to the strategic planning stage. Many people, including prominent lawyers, judges and local government, agreed.

 

We are all praying that the State Government will avoid the old trick and not undertake the next stage of consultation during January (as often people do!). It’s too late to put the plans on display on Boxing Day in a distant galaxy – but stranger things have happened to hitchhikers in New South Wales!

 

It was a big win, nonetheless.

 

Dear Manitoba

 

Blog image 2 Manitoba merge

 



On a smaller scale but equally as important, we had a major win in South Australia, What architect Ian Hannaford called his “Dear Manitoba” has been saved from demolition or redevelopment, as have two other inner city site with public housing tenants.

 

I cried when I heard the news from a Manitoba resident.

 

 

 

Big Win for Activism!

A Big Win for Activism!

 

 

 

I love Dear Manitoba; as a Member of the SA Housing Trust Board, I was involved in its planning and design in the early 1970s and even lived there briefly in the early 1980s. This year Manitoba will celebrate its fiftieth birthday.

 

All credit to Alice Clark and Shelter SA and the indefatigable residents of Manitoba and the other two sites.

 

And a compliment to Social Housing Minster, Tony Piccolo, who finally saw the light.

 

Brickbats to Renewal SA.

 

Brickbats to Renewal SA. Do you know that two years ago they hand-delivered their original letters to Manitoba residents on Christmas Eve?

 

Can you believe that?

 

The letters were very vague and contained nothing that could give anyone confidence; they created terror and anxiety at a time of year widely known to be difficult for vulnerable people (for all of us, actually)…

 

I find it hard to imagine that the Board of Renewal SA approved those sorts of heavy-handed and insensitive tactics.

 

There are experienced people on that Board who certainly should know better:

 

https://www.renewalsa.sa.gov.au/Latestnews/tabid/102/EntryId/17/URBAN-RENEWAL-AUTHORITY-BOARD-ANNOUNCED.aspx

 

I can’t imagine the experienced Renewal SA officers I know doing such a terrible thing.

 

How did this happen? Who approved it?

 

And, more importantly, how can we make sure that

vulnerable public tenants are not treated in such a manner again?

 

Let’s hope the corporate memory of Renewal SA survives into any new incarnation.

 

The message is clear: Do not do such cruel things! Just do not do them!

 

A delicate balancing act

 

Man walking tight rope illustration

So, it’s been a good year for activism.

 

And a challenging one.

 

At this very moment, with my only sibling, I’m co-designing a memorial for my mother who died in her hundredth year. She was a shocker, severely mentally ill.

 

So you can imagine that it’s a delicate balancing act  – emotionally and practically  – to create such an event – for the two daughters and our friends and families.

 

Similarly (a comparison in sharp relief during this highly charged week), it’s a delicate balancing act being a planner and an activist.

 



Punishments are routinely doled out.

 

Doors quietly close and invitations are summarily withdrawn. People sidle away at cocktail parties, eyes fixed on their shoes.

 

Activists know the price we pay for speaking out when others cannot  – or will not.

 

For activism is more than rubbing raw the sores of discontent, as the American activist Saul Alinksy would have it.

 

For planners with a conscience, activism is keeping the voices of marginalised people alive in public forums and debates about planning.

 

In tough economic times, I find (sadly) that some of my most respected planning colleagues simply ignore emails that ask them to speak out about ethical matters. They seem to have hardened their hearts against the plight of disadvantaged people. Or, at least, they’ve silenced their inner voice.

 

But, like finishing off the tiramisu at Christmas dinner, somebody has to do it.

 

And this year it was me. On both fronts.

 

I’m proud to have helped the courageous people (you know who you are), who really, truly, put themselves on the line for justice in planning and housing.

 

Here’s to 2014

 

Here’s to a 2014 with more planning and housing wins for vulnerable people in Australia.

 

And here’s to a 2014 with more respect for those planners who choose to support them in ways that push the envelope for our more conservative colleagues.

 

 

 

Gone to God

Jolted awake by the phone at 4am in my friend’s house in Berkeley, I knew. My father was dead. In Canada: thousands of miles away. My good parent: dead at 69. I was 37. Back in Australia, I grieved alone for months.

 

My loving, distressed husband finally announced, “I’m worried, Wendy. This grief has been going on for too long. You need help.”

 

My good parent: dead at 69.

 

This week the phone rings in Australia. My sister – at a more convenient hour. Our bad parent has died – in her hundredth year. In Vancouver. Thousands of miles away.

 

“I’m sorry for your loss,” a dozen emails respond. I wince at the banal language. My friends! Surely, they can do better than that! Hallmark Cards ads used to trumpet: “When you care enough to send the very best.”

 

Not their best language, that’s for sure. But it’s Christmas – and I forgive them. And they’re tongue-tied, poor souls. What to say? What to say about the death of a bad parent?

 

Decades of demonisation

Only a wise spiritual teacher finds accurate words. Reflecting on our work together 25 years ago, he emails: “The event of your Mother’s death after what seems like decades of demonisation must be profound.” Decades of demonisation. And he knew only a fragment, a glimpse. More decades to come.

 

No wonder my friends can’t find appropriate language. Word fail me.

 

Borderline Personality Disorder

 

It’s widely accepted that mental illness tears families apart. It ruins lives. Borderline Personality Disorder is a shocker, especially for children of the Borderline Mother (see https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stop-walking-eggshells/201109/the-world-the-borderline-mother-and-her-children).

 

We spend our lifetimes gaining our freedom after living such a warped childhood. Smother-love alternates with sharp rejection. Narcissism. Histrionics. Depression. Humiliation.

 

Unspeakable abuse.

 

The whole shooting match! It can make you crazy.

 

Two bewildered, terrified young daughters adrift on a stormy sea. Alone with the madwoman.

 

Sisters, 1948

Sisters, 1948

Our motto: “No good deed will go unpunished.”

 

 

 

 

 

mother on front lawn



How am I coping?

 

Many wise friends counsel me at this time. Most live far away so I don’t find them standing at my front door holding casseroles covered with chequered napkins, as I’d imagined. Intently, compassionately, they inspect my face on Skype. How am I coping?

 

I ask: What should I do? It’s such a long trip. The middle of winter. Will I regret it if I don’t go? Will I regret it if I do?

 

They say: It’s a passage, a milestone, a transition. You need to mark it. It’s important. The beginning of your new life.

 

An hour on the phone with Andrew, blessed gift of a friend, settles it. He was my planning student thirty years ago. Wise beyond his years.

 

I’ll fly to Vancouver. A generous friend of forty years’ standing will pay.

 


Friends I’ve known for over sixty years will wrap their arms around me. Perhaps a tear will come then?

 

My sister and I will find ways to do what needs to be done. A delicate balancing act.

 

An appalling childhood has some bittersweet advantages. It makes you strong – if it doesn’t kill you. Seven decades of pain and grief melt into this: two wise, capable and resilient women have emerged from the crucible of living – and negotiating – with a severe mental illness.

 

Gone to God

 

“Gone to God,” my husband pronounces over the furry grey micro bat trapped in our shed, lying on its back, black eyes fixed on the ceiling. He wraps it in a tea towel, carries it gently outside and buries it in the front garden.

 

Gone to God.

 

Awake at 3 am, I sip my tea, tucked up like a sick child. The ceiling fan struggles in the humid night air. A kookaburra is waking in the tree by my window.

 

You’re with God now, Mary

 

“You’re with God now, Mary,” I whisper.

 

“You can rest. It’s all right, Mother, truly. You are fine now.”

 

“Trust me. You don’t have to worry any more, Mary.”

 

Breathe, Wendy.

 

We are fine now.

 

We don’t have to worry any more.



 

Vancouver’s EcoDensity Policy: Reflections on Australian Planning’s Cultural Cringe and Cultural Imperialism

Australia‘s “cultural cringe”

 

One of the challenges of being a “migrant” in Australia is understanding the “cultural cringe” that infects so much of Australian life. I’ve lived and worked here for 45 years and it still puzzles me. For those not familiar with it, it is an internalised inferiority complex that causes us to dismiss our own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries. It makes us vulnerable to cultural imperialism.

 

As a planner, I am constantly bewildered by Australians’ need to turn to other countries for planning models – for density, urban design and community engagement. We have many brilliant theorists and practitioners, yet we invite outsiders with sometimes mediocre credentials to brief our planning managers and train our staff. The results are rarely successful.

 

It’s easy for those outsiders to assume that Australia is “just like” Canada, the USA or the UK.

 

How wrong they are!

 

The Density Wars

 

As the “density wars” heat up in all Australian capital cities, turning to outsiders for planning advice becomes even more problematic. And, sadly, the one place Australian governments and developers turn is the one place we should avoid – at least for now. That’s my hometown of Vancouver.

 

As state governments in Australia try to find ways to sell increased housing densities to a reluctant public and recalcitrant local councils, one model has slipped into the conversation that should, in my view, quietly slip away. That’s the recent Vancouver invention of EcoDensity. This failed housing density initiative with a dodgy pedigree is being touted by visiting Vancouverism boosters as one of the answers to our housing density needs. Nothing could be further from the truth, as a significant amount of recent scholarly and practical research reveals.

 

Origins of Vancouver’s EcoDensity Policy

 

I was in Vancouver in June, 2006, when the then Mayor, Sam Sullivan, sought to impress World Urban Forum delegates with his new initiative: EcoDensity. The name was made up by his Chief of Staff. Sam took advice from people who did not know about or fully understand the complex and sophisticated legacy of CityPlan and neighbourhood planning.   He passed the idea by several academics and developers unfamiliar with the CityPlan Neighbourhood Centre rezoning program. There was no other scrutiny, especially by knowledgeable planners and managers within Council. By the time the Vancouver City planners got the job of explaining and implementing it, EcoDensity was a “done deal”.

 

Sullivan even tried to patent the term.

 

Speed was of the essence: the aim was “Doing it faster”, unlike Toronto, which built only 200 laneway infill units (several years before EcoDensity was coined by Sullivan) before they abandoned their discretionary zoning policy.

 

A massive City public relations program from 2006-2007 trumpeted this new initiative, which was seen by the spin-doctors as more interesting with “eco” than  boring old “planning” or scary new “density”. The 2008 Council meeting to endorse it lasted for six nights, with 151 speakers lined up.

 

The EcoDensity Charter

 

It took two years and four official drafts to approve the EcoDensity Charter. It is now widely accepted that the Charter misrepresented community views and did not adequately address issues raised in the public process. There were strong community complaints of misrepresentation by Council officers (and senior planners) of the contents of community submissions; there were serious weaknesses in the analysis of submissions about the draft Charter. In meetings to work out the Charter, it was observed that the moderator skewed public comments.

 

ecodensity brochure cover

 

 

In the community’s view, the 2008 EcoDensity Charter represented a “battering ram” approach to densification. Considerable discretionary power was eventually granted to Council by the Charter, thus undermining well-established policies of community engagement and implementation. Despite the extensive publicity campaign, the community hated and distrusted the policy. It sank Sam Sullivan politically. Shortly after he announced it, his popularity went into steep decline and, despite thirteen years as a City Councillor, he lost candidature after only one term as Mayor. Anti-EcoDensity public sentiment was a significant factor in his 2008 election loss. The new City Planner, Brent Toderian, inherited the policy in 2006; he had to run with it. Not surprisingly, it took its toll on him, as well.

 

 

 


Justifications for EcoDensity

You’d have to pity the City’s planners who were forced to implement this policy, this new “sustainability fix”. Their mandate was one of neutralizing opposition, while promoting social welfare through affordability. (And you’d also wonder why they did not speak up.) Instead, they went along with it, claiming that Laneway Housing was essentially “invisible” and easily absorbed. Laneway Housing before this time was about the only thing the new planning regime implemented on their watch (and it failed to deliver a significant increase in density). It was parallelled in terms of community opposition and distrust by the now infamous failed “Thin Streets” initiative (which had also been mooted in Council years before but failed to get endorsement).

Thin Streets: "Where's my corner lot gone?"

Thin Streets: “Where’s my corner lot gone?”

 

 

With regard to Laneway Housing, the city’s planners argued, unconvincingly, that gentle, hidden and invisible forms of density were possible in suitable locations across the City with design that respected neighbourhood identity. It was promoted as having the same envelope as a permitted garage, but two storeys were allowed. In fact, 95% of Laneway Housing permits issued were for two storeys, thus negatively affecting privacy and shadowing back yards, which conflicted with urban agriculture policies and reduced songbird habitat.

 

Laneway Housing under construction

Laneway Housing under construction

 

 


My sister, living in Marpole, now wonders if her beautiful garden, that is her delight and solace, will be in full shadow throughout the day in all seasons with proposed height increases on Oak Street.

 

Will she have to move?

 

These were the sorts of concerns that Vancouver residents expressed in 2007 and onwards. Knowledgeable critics acknowledged some eco-footprint benefits in EcoDensity as, in terms of development and environmental stewardship, it showed some promise. However, community people soon pointed out that regulations made laneway houses unnecessarily costly to build. In violation of basic sustainability principles, EcoDensity in laneways     — as currently implemented in Vancouver –encourages demolition and replacement of existing dwellings, with loss of embodied energy and character. Those two weaknesses alone neutralized its power as the “new sustainability fix”. The Council ignored suggestions from community members about how Laneway Housing could be less costly and intrusive but they were ignored.

 

Thin Streets protest 2013

Thin Streets protest 2013

 

 

Research reveals that even the City of Vancouver planners were not convinced that the policy would work. Brent Toderian was quoted in 2007 as saying: “EcoDensity won’t provide housing that meets average incomes. I don’t think we would affect housing supply to the point that prices would go down.”

 

A 2007 staff report agreed that the “trickle-down” effect would not work for housing affordability. If they were referring to so-called “filtering” (i.e., the concept in housing research that older residences, once sold by their owners so they can downsize, move into a retirement community, etc., become available as affordable housing to younger buyers), they were right that it simply doesn’t function in Vancouver’s housing market. Nevertheless, in November 2013, Toderian told a Sydney audience that, “EcoDensity gave a good context for an idea that didn’t have traction.”

 

Community and professional views

 

Research revealed that, in Vancouver, local people were not scared about density until June 2006, when the Mayor “put the fear of density into people.” EcoDensity was seen as an “institutional fix” to make densification acceptable:   a “Trojan horse”. To many local people in 2006, density was seen as equal to development and profit to developers. Densification consistent with “Community Choices” had been approved under CityPlan Visions and under pre-existing Local Area Plans (but that density was primarily small-scale, not suited to major developers and overseas condominium pre-sales). #/nom-generique-du-cialis/ There was a pre-existing public understanding of density after years of sensitive community engagement conducted by the City. Those sensitive approaches and the densities they involved conflicted with the kinds of density envisaged by Eco-Density supporters.

 

The Sullivan initiative heralded a new era of top-down city policy making and implementation. People were frightened – and angry. One community view was that EcoDensity opened floodgates for more large-scale types of development, which were not consistent with existing plans or “discretionary” urban design guidelines. Researchers found that EcoDensity destroyed public confidence in “discretionary zoning”.

 

There is a great irony in this destruction of confidence. An approach which had been designed to placate opposition to housing density (to “clothe the wolf of densification in the sheep’s clothing of eco-trendy jargon”) had failed miserably. One of the two former City Planners (either Larry Beasley or Ann McAfee) was quoted in academic research as saying, “By putting the dirty word of density with the very sweet and tasty word of eco – you launder the dirty word of density.” Not surprisingly, others cottoned on as well. Community people challenged the discursive connection between density and affordability. It was seen as a prominent example of how environmental concerns can be co-opted to neutralize environmental opposition by promoting a value-free vision with “win-win-wins” among economic growth, social development and ecological protection. What was seen as manipulative rhetoric designed to break down resistance and opposition led to perceptions of false promises and misleading descriptions (in the engagement processes).

 

Some people argued that EcoDensity deceptively sells densification for profit – using the values of liveability, sustainability and affordability. Basically, they argued, it serves developers, not communities. Many experienced critics (including current and former City staff) felt that they were tangled up in political sloganeering and deliberate attempts to mislead, deceive and lull people into acquiescence. City planners were forced to promise one thing and enable another. Basically, for the communities, it boiled down to a simple suspicion: the whole policy was nothing more than a publicity campaign for the Mayor aimed at serving developers’ interests.

 

As a result, decades of careful policy development and trust building (guided by the stellar former co-director of planning, Dr Ann McAfee) became mired in distrust. Now Vancouver’s neighbourhoods were experiencing for the first time in decades a lack of genuine participation and the over-riding of community planning.

 

What people feared

 

What people feared was not density but overcrowding.  Community concerns focused on problems associated with very dense neighbourhoods and what was coined “green overcrowding” (density without amenity). The policy was seen as greenwashing of developers’ agenda. Critics were concerned that EcoDensity would sacrifice liveability and that led to anxiety and open protests in a number of neighbourhoods.   Before long, Vancouver’s neighbourhoods were in uproar. At risk were Ann McAfee’s carefully crafted visioning processes for neighbourhood plans under CityPlan. Now local people felt that EcoDensity would destroy their communities.

 

Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV)

 

EcoDensity had a strong effect on organising and uniting neighbourhoods and the modern wave of Vancouver community action (described recently by eminent Vancouver journalist, Frances Bula as “a peasant revolt”) we see today around Community Plans and rezoning was reborn at this time. In 2007, Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) was established. It was the first time in the City’s history that neighbourhood groups from across the City had come together to protest. There were concerns about weak leadership in planning and a flawed engagement processes that allowed visions and local area plans to be overridden. More than anything, people were concerned (as they are today in Vancouver) that EcoDensity centralized implementation away from the community.

 

Effects on existing CityPlan processes

 

Until the arrival of EcoDensity, density discussions in Vancouver were proceeding amicably. One of the big differences between EcoDensity and earlier densification programs (like False Creek North, Yaletown and Downtown) is that the latter occurred in brownfields sites rather than in existing lower-density single-family neighborhoods. The earlier effects were not felt in low-density residential neighbourhoods. The City Plan Vision framework, approved in 1995, envisaged “A City of Neighbourhoods” and “community involvement in decision-making”. The community visioning process took CityPlan to the neighbourhood level, with communities developing detailed

local vision directions. With EcoDensity, these initiatives were ignored. The new language of EcoDensity was seen as undermining both CityPlan community visions and residents associations. Not surprisingly, community members questioned: Was this policy a continuation of CityPlan (city visioning processes) – or a disruption? Proponents of EcoDensity, including senior planners, marketed it as a continuation; opponents clearly experienced it as a disruption.

 

The tragic legacy of EcoDensity is a governance one. It undermined the effectiveness of CityPlan, whose artful design and implementation had had the effect of de-politicising the planning process. Now the Vancouver planning process is fully politicised. Decades of work by the previous two highly skilled City Planners was eroded. And the firestorm that we see in Vancouver today is the direct result.

 

Protests at Vancouver City Hall, September 2013

Protests at Vancouver City Hall, September 2013

 

The current situation in Vancouver regarding EcoDensity

Widespread opposition to EcoDensity-spawned top-down Council planning continues to grow. Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) is running a candidate for the 2014 mayoral race, as well as candidates for the Council, School Board and Parks Board.

 

In 2013, the “Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods” (CVN) was formed to establish a “new planning paradigm. The CVN is currently questioning the City’s inflated population projections, demanding that community planning processes return to the CityPlan practice of public workshops and surveys to consider and select among various options for housing density − not single options seen by community members as created in back rooms by the developer-influenced City administration.

 

It’s a great tradition that is set to continue: it is widely accepted that Vancouver’s liveability was founded on opposition to planning experts. EcoDensity has been continued only half-heartedly by the new Council, which now boasts the “Greenest City Initiative”. The current Council is also beholden to real estate development interests because of huge election campaign contributions (with no controls in British Columbia). They avoid the term EcoDensity because of its wide unpopularity and partisan rivalry. However, EcoDensity continues to be cited in staff reports and some EcoDensity policies continue to be implemented by the current Council.

 

In summary: Why EcoDensity is a failure?

 

  1. It arose from a top-down public relations initiative and never had widespread popular or Council support.
  2. The way it was initiated led to initial mistrust and the ways it was implemented continue to contribute to mistrust.
  3. It promised much more than it delivered.
  4. It did not make housing more affordable.
  5. It did a poor job of improving social equity.
  6. It did not provide enough new housing units to satiate the demand.
  7. It contributed to a breakdown of trust between communities and the Council.
  8. It re-politicised the planning process and destroyed social capital and relationships established through the extensive CityPlan processes.

 

What can we learn from this – in Australia?

 

This is a cautionary tale that we ignore at our peril – as communities, planners and governments. First, let’s learn from our own experiences, do the relevant research – here and abroad – mine the archives, refresh the institutional memories and learn to think for ourselves.

 

Second, let’s respect our overseas colleagues and engage with them – but as equals, not as supplicants. The City of Vancouver has made many mistakes, as have our larger cities. But it’s only a small place with 600,00 residents. We have larger cities and bigger problems – and many smart people to address them.

 

Third, let’s fearlessly face “the cringe” and vow to create our own planning solutions. We can learn from others. Yes. And we can come to our own decisions.

 

And finally, let’s beware of the spin-doctors. One recently told an Australian audience packed full of activists and planners that planners and governments need to “be more creative now about how you `brand’ ideas.”

 

The spin-doctors have all but ruined planning in Vancouver. Let’s not learn from them how to do that better.

 

Because if we want learn how to do spin doctoring better, Vancouver is definitely the place to go.

 

 

Selected sources:

 

Brown, Ryan C. (2008). Reconciling Ecological and Social Sustainability: The Case of the EcoDensity Initiative. Research Report, Vancouver Island University, 30 May 2008, https://newcity.ca/Pages/ecodensity.pdf, accessed 19 December 2013.

 

Bula, Frances (2012). “Vancouver city planner sees term ended by Vision council,” State of Vancouver, 31 January: https://www.francesbula.com/uncategorized/vancouver-city-planner-sees-term-ended-by-vision-council/, accessed 19 December 2013.

 

Condon, Patrick   (2013). Blog: “Whose City is it Anyway?”, The Tyee, https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2013/08/26/Whose-City-Is-It/   26 August, accessed 19 December 2013.

 

Eggleton, Crystal and Peter McMahon (2013).What is EcoDensity?“ Clayton Utz Insights, 23 May, https://www.claytonutz.com/publications/edition/23_may_2013/20130523/what_is_ecodensity.page, accessed 19 December 2013.

 

Pacheco-Vega, Paul (2009). “Laneway housing, affordability and EcoDensity: Preliminary thoughts,” 4 August, https://www.raulpacheco.org/2009/08/laneway-housing-affordability-and-ecodensity-preliminary-thoughts/, accessed 19 December 2013.

 

Rosol, Marit (2013). “Vancouver’s “EcoDensity” Planning Initiative: A Struggle over Hegemony?” Urban Studies 50 (11), August: 2238-2255.

 

Sarkissian, Wendy (2013). “EcoDensity,” The NIMBY Clearinghouse, https://thenimbyclearinghouse.wordpress.com/tag/eco-density/, accessed 19 December 2013.

 

Sham, Fred (2012).   The urban political ecologies of Vancouver: Sustainable development and affordability. Unpublished Master of Science in Planning thesis, Columbia University, May. https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/catalog/ac%3A147370, accessed 19 December 2013.

 

Sullivan, Sam (2013). “How Vancouver’s EcoDensity Ideas can Help Sydney”, 20 April 2013. https://www.samsullivan.ca/vancouvers-ecodensity-ideas-sydney/, accessed 19 December 2013.

Honouring the legacy of Mandy Press

 

 

Mandy Press (1947-2013)

 

On Sunday 13th October, we will remember the life and passion of the indefatigable and incandescent Mandy Press.

 

Mandy died in her sleep on 1 October 2013 at home at Yarambat, Victoria.

 

Mandy’s husband, Gerry Morris, provided this obituary.

 

Mandy was born in on 7 December 1947 in Brighton, and apart from three years working in New York, lived in Melbourne all of her life.

 

After training as a Social Worker at Melbourne University where she was inspired by the lectures on urban history and renewal (from Professor Renate Howe) she worked with disadvantaged people at the Clarendon clinic, and then at a centre for disturbed children in New York. She was a founding staff member of the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s experimental Family Centre Project under Connie Benn.  She then became a lecturer for the new Social Work degree course at the Phillip Institute (now RMIT) for 8 years — working with Viv McCutcheon and Wendy Weeks.   Each of these women demonstrated their vision and commitment to human justice through advocacy in the demanding of society equity and justice and introducing women’s studies.

 

Mandy’s focus then switched to policy, planning and community development through action research in local government.  She was foundation Director, Community and Cultural Services (1984-94) at Eltham Shire, including a brief period when she swapped roles with the Chief Engineer to create new approaches to resident issues.

 

Mandy then moved to the City of Port Phillip as a Senior Manager specialising in the `wicked’ problems which confound policy makers. “Sex, drugs and  parking” was her description of one part of her role.

 

Mandy managed the Port Phillip council’s community housing program for eight years and was involved in establishing 120 community housing units through four different projects, all of which were hotly contested. She wrote her Master’s thesis: Planning contested ground: place, voice and governance in local government planning – based on this experience (Melbourne University, 2009).

 

Professor Carolyn Whitzman (Urban Planning Melbourne University) remembers her thus:

 

When I first met Mandy Press, soon after my arrival in Australia in 2003, she was already sick with the cancer that would take her life. She was presenting at a conference on community safety, and her story of the transformation of Talbot Reserve was an immediate inspiration to me. Talbot Reserve is a small park, cialis generique adjacent to the National Theatre in St. Kilda. As Manager of Neighbourhood Development for the City of Port Philip, Mandy could have responded to concerns of some residents about alcohol use and prostitution in the park by bringing in police, increasing lighting, installing CCTV, or some other simplistic and ultimately ineffective approach.

 

Instead, and with the help of Andrea Cook of Red Road Consulting, she took the difficult option of treating everyone as having a legitimate voice. Together, the representatives of the `parkie’ and sex worker residents, along with other residents, worked out a partnership approach that sought to decrease anti-social behaviour while improving social inclusion. Today, Talbot Reserve is not without problems, but it is a much more used and loved public place. That was typical Mandy.

 

Mandy left full-time work in November 2005 to pursue a more relaxed lifestyle on 5 acres of bush — part of the Plenty Gorge Park at Yarrambat. This included writing her thesis, being a custodian of the flora and fauna on her (temporary) land, further research and writing, constant activism on local issues and singing in the local Hurstbridge community choir – the Chocolate Lilies – for which she always arrived late.

 

Mandy was co convenor of the Nillumbik Women’s Network, a local advocacy group which aims to further the interests of women through local action and working against violence to women.   One much loved project was the documentation and publishing of the stories and achievements of hundreds of local women.

 

Mandy was awarded the Selena Sutherland International Women’s Day award on 13th March 2013.

 

Mandy was honest about her struggles with cancer, but always maintained she was not a victim and was not “fighting it”.   At the onset of her third bout she said: “Well, I’m definitely dying this time, but the good news is, I’m not depressed about it”. Like Dorothy’s companions in Oz, she sometimes doubted her possession of a sharp mind, a big heart, and the courage of a lion. But she did possess that remarkable trifecta, and that is what made her an effective advocate for people’s rights to justice, consideration, housing and public space.

 

Mandy is survived by Gerry (Kevin) Morris, her loving and loved husband of 42 years, siblings Jeremy and Georgina, children Morgan, Magnus and Tilly, grandchildren Zoe, Atlas, Imogen and Phoenix, in-laws Brian and Renate Howe, best friends, including Gay Bilson, Tracey Naughton, Viv McCutcheon and Susie Forbes, and her beloved multi-doodle, Miffy.

 

Mandy was a strong-willed and determined person. She was still planning projects and research even as her body collapsed. She will be missed by the many friends, colleagues and organisations to whom she was a constant inspiration.

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


I have my own recollections of Mandy.

 

My first encounter with Mandy Press was in the late 1980s, working together (with the late Kevin Taylor) to develop a new plan of for Eltham Town Centre. She was a gorgeous, red-haired, dynamo with a strong “alternative” streak and flowing, silky clothes. She became my client again at the City of Port Phillip, as Kelvin Walsh and I co-designed with her a manual of community engagement processes. I had never met such a passionate and collaborative manager! I know that the Kennett years almost broke her heart. She told me it nearly killed her to have to ask her librarians to tender for their jobs. And she felt that one cause of her cancer might have been her anguish at having to do things — as a manager — that she did not believe in.

 

Recently,

I reconnected with Mandy and spent a number of memorable evenings with her – and Gerry – in Melbourne, hearing about her creative exploits and marveling at her ability to “soldier on”.

 

Mandy’s approach to her illness was to keep it from getting in the way of her life – or her friends’ and family’s relationships with her.

 

So she danced the last steps of her remarkable life to the fullest – savouring the last drop of her life.

 

And we all delighted in dancing with her.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

A memorial gathering for Mandy will be held at the Eltham Community Centre, 801 Main Road, Eltham at 2 pm, Sunday 13th October.  

 

All her friends and colleagues are welcome.

 

Let’s give our “darling girl”, our beautiful Mandy, the send-off she deserves!

 

 

 

 

All Hell Breaks Loose with Proposed Housing Density Increases in Vancouver!

 

Vancouver protestsAll hell is breaking loose in Vancouver.

I wish I were there to watch it.

 

For decades, the so-called Lotus Land has prided itself on its premier status as the most liveable city in the world.

 

 

Etc.

 

And so on.

 

 

Visiting Overseas Experts

Its retired or retrenched planners (those Visiting Overseas Experts) frequently visit this country as speakers and consultants and evoke images of delighted citizens embracing planning reforms — including (especially) housing density increases.

 

The proposed NSW planning reforms are apparently modelled on the now out-of-date, irrelevant and (for our State planning purposes) discredited “Vancouver model” of community engagement…

 

… which in NSW turns out to mean proposals for no substantial or authentic engagement about what matters when it matters.


What’s really happening in Vancouver?

 

The Vancouver vision is one of peaceful acceptance of housing density increases. Hmmm.   Nothing could be further from the reality!

 

stop marpole rezoning placards

A basic Web search will reveal that community activism is alive and well in Canada’s Evergreen Playground — and the residents of ordinary suburbs (such as Marpole) are up in arms about rezoning.

 

And have a look at the ages of the activists.   They remind me of the H.E.A.L. professionals in their sensible shoes in Sydney’s Northern Beaches protesting against the closure of the Manly Hospital.

 

The Mayor of the City of Lotus Land (oops, Vancouver) seems to keep backing down.

 

Ugly scenes occur as hundreds of protesters rally outside City Hall (just last week!).

 

And yet the juggernaut continues.

 

 

The word on the street is that the community planners ARE listening to the community — but (comme toujours), back at City Hall, they’re being rolled.

 

 

But ordinary citizens are saying that they don’t accept that “You can’t fight City Hall.”

 

They say it’s a vicious rumour spread by City Hall!

 

You can't fight city hall rumour

Video demonstrates this so well.

 

Take a look at this:

 

 



A Warning

 

Let’s be careful in Australia not to be seduced by the Lotus Eaters from the Lotus Land. It’s a powerful drug: denial.

 

In another life, decades ago, I was a scholar of Victorian poetry. I wrote a thesis on Robert Browning’s long poem. A thesis about truth.

 

And I also read Tennyson.

 

Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters is salutary reading at this time, especially for our Australian politicians and planners who have inhaled deeply of the exotic fragrances, eaten the poisoned fruit and fallen for “Vancouverism”:

 

But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song

Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong…


The mariners (aka our Australian planners and ambitious politicians) have been entranced by the “mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters,” who approach them bearing the flower and fruit of the lotos.


Those who eat it feel as if they have fallen into a deep sleep; they sit down and can no longer hear their fellow Australians speaking to them.

They have succumbed, hearing only the music of their own heartbeats.

 

I say: Let’s wake up.

 

Inhale the fragrance of the lemon-scented gum.

 

Listen to the kookaburras.

 

And let’s stop this nonsense!

 

For more video from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), see:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons from a deaf brown chook

It’s always interesting living in the bush!

 

Our enterprising neighbours have turned their half an acre into a hive of activity. WWOOFERS are everywhere (see https://wwoofinternational.org/). After decades of inaction, the community agriculture lot is thriving.

 

Karl is preparing his garden for viewing next weekend in a Nimbin House and Garden Tour fundraiser for the sustainable living project at Sibley Street (https://nnic.org.au/) sponsored by the Nimbin Neighbourhood

and Information Centre where he volunteers.

 

Meanwhile, the neighbours’ chooks are destroying things as fast as he can plant and mulch them. It’s a battle of wills, as Karl’s flower garden looks prettier without a fence.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Both of us have undergraduate minors in psychology so we are trying to use classical behavioural psychology on the chooks.

When we chase them and yell at them, we loudly ring my workshop bell.


Classical conditioning for chooks

We’re hoping that — as in the case of using classical conditioning with Pavlov’s salivating dog (see https://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html) — eventually the mere sound of the bell will make them scurry away.

 

We really dislike throwing stones at Ben’s chooks.

 

All of this is working pretty well — from our anthropocentric points of view.

 

However, we’ve noticed that the brown chook is immune to our manipulative efforts at social control.

 

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Further, she appears to be immune to the rooster.

 

She’s not part of the harem.

 

AND (even more interesting), she forages for insects and worms in other places– not Karl’s garden. She’s always alone and apparently doing fine — on the eastern boundary of our property under the trees whose fallen leaves have formed a thick mulch.

The brown chook is an independent actor in our garden.


She seems to be getting enough to eat, lack of sex does not seem to worry her, she makes no sounds (none of this monstrous clucking all the time) and she walks her own path.

 

Maybe she’s a lesbian chook? A feminist chook?

 

Certainly, an independent chook.

And we think she might be deaf — and certainly deaf to the rooster’s haranguing   importations. (Deaf to the dominant paradigm?)

I already have a kookaburra for a logo.

 

But watch out, Guy!


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The deaf brown chook is nipping at your heels (oops, claws…)

 

 

 

STOP PRESS!!!

 

Sunday: Karl (legendary dog whisperer) has apparently fallen in love with the brown chook.

 

Apparently it’s mutual.

 

 

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Flight Poem

On 25 May 2013, I flew to Adelaide from the Gold Coast.

I associate Adelaide with hopefulness and opportunity. I was looking forward to basking in the pleasures of old friendships once again.

 

Twin griefs had distracted me for several months: the death of a dear friend and the loss of a longstanding friendship.

 

On the flight, I had a magical experience. Here is my poem.


landscape

 




window seat 16A

pale clouds streaming

soft eyes embracing grey, brown land

my wide, brown land

late afternoon forests dark like lakes

and inlets

tiny islands of brown within them

pale edges like beaches

 

cheek pressed to the window

I measure the land below

it folds itself onto itself

precise as origami

not gentle hill-folds

 

and

then it happens:

up floats this massive, folded landscape

and enters my heart

like posting a letter

 

I raise my hand to touch it

find it already inside


 

 

Wendy’s Blog: Bringing Planning to Life

 

Online Blog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wendy’s Blog: Bringing Planning to Life

 

This is my blog as an independent planner.

 

My aim is to bring planning to life.

 

And en route, to bring life to planning.

 

It has four components:

 

  1. Professional posts

  2. Personal posts

  3. Posts from the bush

  4. Links to the archive for Radio HashBrown blog

NIMBY Psychology: What Can a Planner Do?

logo_pia

Last night we had a lively discussion in Brisbane hosted by the Planning Institute, Queensland Branch.

 

Stephanie Wyeth, a highly experienced engagement practitioner and Director of Urbis, Queensland, and I spoke about the practical aspects of community engagement in a well-attended “How-To” seminar.

 

 

NIMBY psychology image

I spoke about NIMBY Psychology: What Can a Planner Do?

 

Here is a link to the paper that I prepared with Jim Beaudreau of the School of Community and

Regional Planning, University of British Columbia, Canada:

PIA seminar Beaudreau and Sarkissian 2013

 

And here is my PowerPoint presentation:

Sarkissian PIA How To September 2013 revised_PIA web version

 

The discussion was excellent. And we had very positive feedback, too:

 

A great coup to have Wendy here – a hero of mine – thank you!

 

Brilliant presentation

 

Great speakers and topic

 

Great, inspiring

 

Difficult topic to simplify, so good to hear of pros and cons of various approaches

 

Loved it!

 

Fantastic session

 

Love Steph – she’s awesome!

 

Many thanks to Jim Beaudreau for writing the paper with me, the Planning Institute, Queensland Branch, to Rosanne Meurling of Allens for gracious and generous hospitality and flawless coordination, to Peter Gill for stylish impromptu chairing, to Buckley Vann for sponsorship and to my co-speaker for a truly inspirational talk.

 

… and to Karl, my Beloved, for a second trip to Brisbane in two days!

Social Planner’s Distress Call: The NBN Information Session in Nimbin

 

Promise: Yes Delivery: Nada!

Promise: Yes
Delivery: Nada!





A vibrant community event!

A vibrant community event!

 




The inappropriate dress and exposed breasts of the woman from Ericsson were the best (or the worst, depending on your perspective) features of the NBN Information Session in Nimbin Town Hall today.

 

Oh dear.

 

Social Planner’s Distress Call.

 

Again.

 

It’s been a hard week and it’s only Monday.

 

I’ve already had a massive rainbow chuckle as the Queensland Government wheeled out an American consultant who’s supposedly an expert in “community visioning” to say how great their State Government community engagement has been.

Visiting Overseas Experts

These Visiting Overseas Experts (VOEs) are swarming all over the offices of right-wing governments in Australia at the moment. It’s a min-plague! We have Canadian planners from Vancouver crawling all over NSW and Melbourne.

And now the boy from Portland is in Brisbane. Offering his ‘testimonials’ for Campbell Newman. (I wish they’d keep their testimonials to themselves. They have NO IDEA of ow much damage they are doing to our fragile democratic fabric here.)

 

I am thoroughly sick of it.

 

But as a local and a businessperson who needs good Internet connection, I thought I’d better wander down to the Nimbin Town Hall and see how things were going with the ABN.

 

Oh dear.

 

Again.

 

My visit to the Town hall reminded me of a recent visit to Telstra in Lismore. When I complained, I was told that they weren’t actually Telstra at all – they were just a shop that sold Telstra things.

 

Something’s gone wrong in sales and service in recent times (if ever it was good). In Myers in Adelaide last year, when I spoke to the woman behind the greeting cards counter (in my distinctive Canadian accent-that-has-been-here-45-years), her first reply was “Well, you’re definitely not one of us, are you?”

 

Unreadable text

Today, in the Town Hall, when I asked the woman with the exposed breasts if she thought that the large blocks of dense text on the displayed AO panels were easy to read, do you know what she said to me?

 

Charts and tables -- designed to bewilder

She said, first, that she did not actually work for NBN, but rather for Ericsson, so she was not responsible. (That always comes first.)

 

And second (this always

comes second), she claimed that I was the first person to complain.

 

I am always “the first person to complain”.

 

Good thing I live in an anarchist community where complaining is always on the agenda.

 

The woman in the silly dress said that what was displayed on the easels was also in the handouts (nearly clipped together and sitting in tidy piles on the table).

 

I explained (oh, sigh, how many times have I explained this”¦?) that what you read in the comfort of your own tepee on an A4 sheet is different from what you read standing up in a group of people.

 

Easy-to-read and accessible information for all ages

Easy-to-read and accessible information for all ages

Dense text and complex graphics just do not do the job.

 

I asked if anyone had designed the panels and she told me that they were standard ABN templates.

 

I wandered out and had an ice cream across the road.

 

Too much for one day.

 



So why am I banging on about this, you might ask?

 

It’s because the panels – with their charts and tables and statistics and government disclaimers about EMR and so forth (just like Alice’s Restaurant) – are inscrutable.

 

And I expect that’s exactly how they want them to be.

 

To obfuscate.

 

No bugger can understand them (well, maybe that’s not true – there are some smart cookies in Nimbin who probably can”¦).

 

But they are far, far from user-friendly.

 

If I can't read -- or can't read fast -- a friendly facilitator will explain it all to me!

If I can’t read — or can’t read fast — a friendly facilitator will explain it all to me!

Far from it.

 

What we need in community engagement is an engaged citizenry. To get there, we need to come to public judgement. Not just atomised public opinion – with charts and tables and statistics you could shoot a cannon through. We need genuine opportunities to build and strengthen our literacy, knowledgeability and capacities, learn what we need to learn and have grown-up and authentic conversations about what’s proposed.

 

I want good Internet, don’t get me wrong.

 

And I’m frightened at where the technology seems to be going − very near my house.

 



But what I really want is a CONVERSATION.

 

Not to stand   bewildered and increasingly   dismayed– in front of sheet after sheet full of dense text and charts and tables.

 

I want to talk about things – not with a woman from Ericsson who’s not really responsible, in any case (and who is not even holding a piece of paper to record my comments).

 

I want to talk with my neighbours. And to people whose views I respect — about technology.

 

How about a few panels on the easels from the Nimbin Environment Centre?

 

I’d trust THEM.

 

But when you come right down to it, this is a political matter. Not a technical one.

 

I want a meeting.

 

A political meeting.

 

In the Town Hall.

 

And if we can’t have another of those, how about a properly designed and facilitated “Information Session”?

 

I know just how to do it.

It’s called a SpeakOut.

SpeakOut_Visuals_4cover



We have books, checklists, models and training available about this effective and innovative community engagement model.

 

And it never obfuscates.

 

See: https://www.sarkissian.com.au/publications/inspired-books/speakout-the-ultimate-workshop-guide/

 

 

I’m from Nimbin and I’m here to help you.

 

And Marnee has some nice, modest dresses in her Nimbin shop.

 

+++++

 

Finer professional process point:

In community engagement practice, we always make the point that dress is important.

 

It’s important to blend in with the local community. Don’t wear a suit in Woop Wooop, etc…

THIS IS MERELY A VERBATIM REPORT (not my words):

 

A member of the non-distaff side, reading the above, commented wryly, Well, if you’re going to let yer tits hang out, it might as well be in Nimbin.

Maybe this is company policy? A subtle attempt at fitting in with the locals?