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.





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The proposed NSW planning reforms are apparently modelled on the now out-of-date, irrelevant and (for our State planning purposes) discredited “Vancouver model” of community engagement…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






















NIMBY Psychology: What Can a Planner Do?


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.




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.




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.


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


And it never obfuscates.





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…



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?

Reflecting on EcoEnco, Environmental Ethics and Deep Ecology

Happy campers Photo: David Deeley 2013

Happy campers                           Photo: David Deeley 2013



Recently I spent a wonderful week at the EcoEnco retreat in south-western Western Australia with an intergenerational group of passionate, green, committed, like-minded people.



The forest Photo: David Deeley 2013

The forest                     Photo: David Deeley 2013


The focus of our work for that week was Deep Ecology.


As our work deepened and our friendships strengthened, I realised that not all of us had had the luxury of a full-time PhD  in environmental ethics. I did mine back in the early 1990s at Murdoch University in the “salad days” when interdisciplinary teaching and learning still existed there. I was blessed with the supervisors from heaven: Patsy Hallen and Peter Newman. What a beautiful and heart-warming experience it was.


Thinking about the EcoEnco retreat made me want to dust off some of my writing on environmental ethics. So here it is, for all to ponder and enjoy.



Walk in the forest   Photo: David Deeley 2013

Walk in the forest           Photo: David Deeley 2013


Environmental ethics

In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.

Human beings are not prepared intellectually for the extension of the social conscience from people to land.


Roderick Nash, The Rights of Nature, 1989.


Assaults on the rational comprehensive model of planning mirrored wider societal changes. By the middle of the Twentieth Century, it became clear – to philosophers and environmentalists alike – that the main approaches of traditional Western moral thinking failed to recognise the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world or Nature. Many identified a need for a significant overhaul of the philosophical tradition. The dominant Western view, they argued, unjustifiably discriminated against those who were outside the privileged class of humans. This Workbook’s contents to this point reveal that most mainstream ethical thought is primarily anthropocentric, that is, it focuses on ethical relationships between human beings and ignores the nonhuman or greater than human natural world. By the early 1970s, environmentalists and philosophers began to identify the entrenched human-centredness (or human chauvinism) of mainstream Western ethical thought.


Environmental ethics seeks to redress this omission. According to Timothy Beatley, author of Ethical Land Use (1993), environmental ethics is the most fundamental aspects of the relationship between humanity, other life forms and the Environment or   Nature, as well as the moral obligations of humanity to the Earth community. It is the discipline in philosophy that addresses the moral relationships of human beings to and the value and moral status of the environment or Nature. It is a set of principles, values or norms relating to the ways we interact with our physical or `natural’ environment that should not be seen as a set of invariant moral principles for all dilemmas.


Because anthropocentrism is the default ethic in traditional Western ethical thought, it has been a challenge for environmental ethics to carve out a distinct discipline within philosophy. And, as environmental ethics has progressed, it has developed many sub-disciplines with distinctive characteristics and views.

Emergence of the field of environmental ethics

Environmental ethics has been around for a long time. It is not a new development in the history of philosophy. There has been sustained philosophic reflection since the 1970s, with some important influences decades earlier. Early influences were scientists like Rachel Carson, who called for a restraining device on `technological man’, claiming that Nature does not exist for the convenience of `man’. From the first Earth Day in 1970, environmentalists continued to urge philosophers to consider philosophical aspects of environmental problems. Two seminal papers encouraged the development of environmental ethics: Lynn White, Jr.’s `The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’ (1967) and Garrett Hardin’s `Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968). However, one highly influential early book, Aldo Leopold’s classic, Sand County Almanac (1949), is credited with bringing the philosophy of environmental ethics into the modern world. That book explicitly claimed that the roots of the ecological crisis were philosophical (1949). This was a radical departure – both for philosophers and for environmentalists.


Aldo Leopold: father of recent environmental ethics

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was just the type of man who could tackle the project of building a bridge between environmentalism and philosophy. He was an American author, scientist, ecologist, forester and environmentalist, as well as a professor. The Land Ethic (1949), a highly popular book, examined in a holistic way the inadequacy of moral individualism in light of ecological interdependence. It also confronted the inadequacy of sentientism.18 Leopold’s clear views were expressed in deontological terms. An action is right if it preserves integrity and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends otherwise.


These views were strongly linked to Leopold’s view of interdependence. He argued that, `All ethics rest on a single premise: the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts’. Further, `A moral being respects a living thing’.


Approaches to environmental ethics: different philosophical and political stances

Over time, environmental ethics has developed diverse philosophical and activist qualities. Radical environmental ethicists seek to reinvent and change our perceptions of our relationships with and responsibilities to Nature. Those of a more Reformist bent seek to adapt and extend conventional ethical frameworks. Many other views comprise the philosophy of environmental ethics, including Deep Ecology discussed later in these materials. One philosophical position unites all, however: humans are not simply individuals but are connected to, embedded in and in relationship with Nature.

Fundamental principles of environmental ethics

American planning academic, Timothy Beatley, captured the essence of the new field of environmental ethics from a planning perspective when he contended that, `all land-use decisions invariably involve ethical choices’. His work is an examination of the ethical dimensions of land-use decisions and policy, on the premise is that all land-use decisions invariably involve ethical choices. Decisions about land use raise fundamental and complex moral and ethical issues. Yet, claims Beatley, the existing normative ethical framework traditionally used to guide such decisions is narrowly economic and utilitarian. Further, the deeply anthropocentric underpinnings of planning make ethical decision making difficult. His work, as educator and activist, seeks to expand the ethical foundation for land-use decisions by proposing a set of tentative principles for ethical land use.



Timothy Beatley

Timothy Beatley

Environmental ethics addresses the ethical issues covered poorly by traditional ethical approaches. It explicitly addresses the value of Nature, the rights of the nonhuman (or greater-than-human) world and our relationships with and responsibilities for Nature. Among environmental ethics’ important contributions is a recasting of the `value’ of Nature, especially with respect to other people and cultures.


Different kinds of value

Understanding value is very important in environmental ethics. Its Latin meaning is `to be worthy, to be strong’. Thus, environmental ethicists ask what something is worth to us. Does it have intrinsic value – the value of an object independent of the presence of the valuer? Alternatively, does it have inherent value, which requires the presence of a valuer who can appreciate object or experience? On the other hand, is its value (as with most anthropocentric approaches) instrumental: the value of object or experience serving as means to accomplish a goal? Appreciating the nonhuman world in terms of its intrinsic value is a radical shift from the deeply anthropocentric philosophical formulations of mainstream ethical thinking discussed above.


Moral or ethical considerability

Another aspect of environmental ethics, related to the ethic of caring is the subject of considerability. Moral or ethical considerability asks the radical question, Who or what deserves consideration? Who or what should be `counted’?


Further, it proceeds to define the criteria of deservability. This approach invites us to see the scope of our moral relationships as greatly broadened to include the following categories of beings:

  • Fellow human beings throughout the world;
  • Future generations; and
  • Nonhuman or greater-than-human life or beings.

At one end of the considerability spectrum, you could argue that only people deserve consideration. At the other end, you could argue that any organism with an interest in its own preservation and which makes plans for the future is deserving of consideration. Environmental ethicists ask how far we can defend moral or ethical considerability. Should ethics be only human-centred, animal-centred, life-centred, everything-centred, or should it extend to the biosphere as a whole (ecological holism)?


The considerability spectrum, shown below in the table below, is one way of depicting who or what could be worth of moral or ethical consideration as part of our moral or ethical `community’.


Only Humans

Human beings at the centre of one’s worldview (anthropocentrism)
All sentient Beings

Who have the capacity to suffer(feel pleasure or pain)
All biotic entities

Who are alive

Inanimate entities





“¢Beauty in


All entities

“¢ Wildness

“¢ Aesthetics

“¢ Ecosystems and species

The Considerability Spectrum:

Who or what is worthy of consideration as part of our moral or ethical community?

Deep Ecology


Deep Ecology is one of the principal schools of contemporary environmental philosophy. Its founder, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, intended it to be a call for a fundamental rethinking of environmental thought that would go far beyond anthropocentric (human-centred) and reform environmentalism. Instead of limiting itself to the mitigation of environmental degradation and sustainability in the use of natural resources, Deep Ecology is self-consciously a radical philosophy that seeks to create profound changes in the way we conceive of and relate to Nature.

Three meanings of the term `Deep Ecology’

The term `Deep Ecology’ has three distinct meanings:

Meaning 1: A deep questioning about environmental issues, probing the fundamental causes of environmental problems and the underlying worldview of environmental policies. It reflects critically on those fundamental assumptions and refers to any environmental philosophy that critiques deep-seated worldviews and proposes a radical alternative.


Meaning 2: A platform, first formulated as eight principles by Arne Naess and George Sessions in 1984:


  1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
  2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
  5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
  7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
  8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.


This platform aims to articulate Deep Ecology’s central views and values, based on a common philosophical core while remaining open to a plurality of worldviews and policies.


Meaning 3: A philosophy of Nature.

Deep Ecology and shallow ecology

Arne Naess distinguished between two forms of environmentalism: (1) the `long-range deep ecology movement’ and (2) the `shallow ecology movement’. Philosophically, `deep’ referred to the level of questioning of our purposes and values; it involves deep questioning, right down to fundamental root causes. The short-term, shallow approach stops before fundamental change, often promoting technological fixes based on the consumption-oriented values and methods of the industrial economy. The long-range deep approach involves redesigning our whole systems based on  values  and  methods  that  truly preserve  the  ecological  and  cultural  diversity of  natural systems.

The Better Planning Network Community Forum on NSW Planning Reforms

A Full House!

A Full House!

Community Planning Forum, NSW Parliament Theatrette,   Monday 20 May 2013, 10am-3pm




On 20 May 2013, the  Better Planning Network  hosted a forum on the NSW planning reforms attended by 150 people at NSW Parliament House.

It was co-hosted by the Hon. Brad Hazzard, Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, the Hon. Luke Foley, MLC, Shadow Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile, MLC, Mr David Shoebridge, MLC, and Mr Alex Greenwich, Independent MP for Sydney.


Speakers, including myself, were Marcus Ray, John Mant, James Ryan, Ian Sinclair, Van Le, Nicole Gurran and David Logan.


Quentin Dempster facilitated the event.





Presentations by a range of speakers can be viewed at:


A video of my presentation is at:


And here’s my PowerPoint presentation:


Sarkissian Better Planning Network Sarkissian May 2013_NOTES

What an event!


What an event this was! Activist street theatre in Parliament House!


I sat there for hours (between rushing away for media interviews with the ABC and with the Herald),   watching as the Minister for Planning sat (also for five hours) in the front row listening to community concerns about the proposed planning legislation.

I had never seen anything like it!

Panel discussion in the afternoon

Panel discussion in the afternoon

It was by far one of the most professional events I have ever attended.

The facilitator and meeting planner in me was really impressed. Everything about it was perfect — and went seamlessly. The team from the Better Planning Network (all consummate professionals in their own rights) did a stellar job.


And the results: lots and lots of support for dramatic changes to the proposed legislation.


For my part, I spoke about the appalling weaknesses in the proposed community engagement processes. It’s the second time I’ve taken on this subject with the Minister sitting in the front row. And it’s yet to change. But with recent events (and revelations such as the recent admissions by NSW Planning supremo, Sam Haddad, that the processes are deeply flawed), we might just be making progress.


It was exciting: a full house! There were numerous stimulating presentations and discussions – inside the theatrette and in the foyer. Significant concerns were raised regarding community engagement, environmental and heritage protection.


I know that the BPN looks forward to meeting with the Minister and the Department of Planning and Infrastructure to achieve a more balanced planning system acceptable to ordinary residents and communities across the State.


I was impressed by the words of my old friend, John Mant, who said:


The exhibited White Paper and the draft Planning Bills are an incompetent mishmash of the past complexities and free market ideology.


Among concerns, also raised by the Greens and other parliamentarians (including Mr David Shoebridge), are the following concerns that these reforms will:

  1. Hand over the key planning decisions on land use to unelected regional bodies dominated by Ministerial appointees.
  2. See up to 80% of development approved in 10 to 25 days without any community notification or contribution.
  3. Force local councils to deliver unpopular planning decisions made at a state and regional level.
  4. Further reduce heritage and environmental protections.
  5. Take the democracy out of planning by removing elected councillors from most decision making on developments.
  6. Let developers off the leash by “letting the market decide” where new housing and development will occur.
  7. Introduce new taxes so that new in-fill development subsidises unprofitable and damaging urban sprawl.
  8. Expand the use of developer-paid private certifiers to assess and approve the majority of developments.


See also:


26 June presentation by Corinne Fisher, including a summary of the White Paper and the planning bill:


Here is Corinne with the Minister:

Brad and Corinne







Please comment on this blog…

Banging on about Bang the Table

Comic book - door knocking

A couple of times recently, I’ve heard Australians complain about the Australian online engagement firm, Bang the Table (BTT) (see   I’ve done their training and greatly admire their work, which I see as directly complementary to my more “hands-on” approaches.


I decided it was time to sort things out in my own mind, so I spoke with Crispin Butteris, one of the Directors, last week.


This blog reflects my own thoughts and some ideas that came out of our conversation.

In one of my recent conversations, a resident complained about the “thin” website that Bang the Table had prepared for a local council in Western Australia. I explained that BTT (like my own firm) has many options to offer.

When a client chooses the weakest option in the catalogue, there is little we can do.

We have the same problem all the time: the good parts get defunded before we even begin a community engagement process.


In another conversation – at a public rally, actually – a disgruntled resident complained about the very small sample in a survey of attitudes toward a medical facility in Sydney. Again, the “reach” of the survey would have been a matter for the client, again, a local municipality.


That got me thinking about my own experiences with community engagement. The appalling things people have said to me in public forums:


  • We know you’re a spy from HomesWest [the state public housing authority]”. We have that on good authority/


  • Or: You’re just another hired gun, paid to do what the council wants you to do. You have no integrity.


  • Or: We’ve heard from a reputable source   that you’re being paid by Developer X. We have spies in high places.


And so forth.


Both Crispin and I have had to grow thick skins to take the abuse that flows in these situations.


Because (and here’s the rub), we have to keep our gloves on, while members of the “public” can take theirs off. It can be very challenging and frightening (especially for young professionals).


The more I think about it, the more I felt that we needed a good conversation – maybe at an IAP2 conference or a PIA conference – about these matters.


Consider the following:


It is not without precedent for one individual or a small group of highly activated community members to attack us. It seems to happen when they feel threatened by the transparency created by an open online process. Or, for that matter, by any authentic process, online or embodied. In those sorts of situations, people who aim primarily to disrupt lose their ability to frame and control the discourse around an issue.


Crispin and   agreed that what we do can be very disruptive to “activist practice.” Both of us have been roundly condemned by a small group of residents when their position was exposed as being unrepresentative of broader community interests. We know that our other colleagues in their field have similar experiences. Sometimes we have these encounters with the same people over the same planning matters over many years.


Crispin also explained that by taking the engagement process online (and adequately publicising opportunities to get involved), the frame of reference for the discussions is expanded beyond those with an immediate interest. It puts their interests and their scale into a much broader context.


At this stage, there are a number of different possible outcomes:


(1)     The activists are proven correct. The rest of the community rallies behind them, both in terms of numbers (lots of people express their interest) and sentiment; or

(2)     the activists are proven wrong. The rest of community rises up to oppose them, a great tidal wave of alternate opinion washes them away; or

(3)     the activists are proven to be lone voices in the wilderness. Nobody else cares about the issue. We agreed that this is as bad an outcome for the activists as being proven wrong. Community ambivalence kills the issue.


Of course, the client (the consulting organisation) needs to do a good enough job of publicising the engagement process. If not, all bets are off!


I am an activist myself and involved in a number of campaigns in New South Wales – from opposition to coal seam gas mining to keeping hospitals in Sydney’s northern beaches, to trying to reform the reform of the NSW planning system. (OMG, that’s a job and a half!)


Wise ones among us admire the work on Deep Democracy: accepting the will of the majority along with the wisdom of the minority.

Coming to Public Judgment

For my part, I’m leaning strongly in the direction of “Coming to Public Judgment”.

I’m currently reading Daniel Yankelovich’s classic text on that subject (see


That’s different from “public opinion”.

Daniel Yankelovich Photo: Matthew Septimus

Daniel Yankelovich                                                           Photo: Matthew Septimus

Yankelovich’s makes a salient point early in the book: an informed citizenry is not all that we need. We need people genuinely to understand what’s being discussed. An engaged citizenry is a good start.


So, I say, stop banging on about Bang the Table.


And bang on instead about the content of what’s being discussed.


Let’s get educated.

Let’s build and strengthen our communities’ capacities to understand – really understand – what’s happening in our communities.


And let’s stop shooting the messengers.



An Expert Blind Spot: Fear of Falling

Back in the 1980s…


Back in the mid-1980s, my social planning firm did a roaring trade in ageing. Every Sydney developer fantasized about making a fortune in retirement housing. We were a small firm of social planners – trying variously to dissuade them or help them. Most were beyond help: so gripped by greed that they could not discuss matters as banal as gerontology. Blessedly, the fashion passed and we returned to homelessness and poverty (not ours – our subject matter).

Seating Design

Seating Design


The good thing was that we learned so much about the physical and psychological factors associated with ageing. Then in my forties, I could not imagine my own elderhood; it was a distant reality. My most brilliant employee, in her early twenties, was a young architecture graduate.

Together we trawled through volumes of research and crafted detailed site-planning and design guidelines for older people’s housing. Tromping around retirement villages, cursing their failings, we became experts in non-slip surfaces, sheltered seating, walking circuits, natural surveillance, ramp design, handrails… And, considering the older residents themselves: limited visual acuity and peripheral vision, susceptibility to glare, inability to hold a mental map, disorientation in space and, most emphatically, fear of falling.


Falling down

Recently, a dear friend of mine fell and broke her hip (she’s 79). She was squatting to inspect a cupboard when a mouse jumped out and startled her, causing her to fall backwards. She spent a month in the hospital and is recovering well. But now my feisty friend (who walked the width of England in her early seventies) emails to say she’s afraid of going out for a walk on crutches.




Once I might have found that hard to believe.


But now I understand.


Not paying attention

A few years ago, not paying attention (actually peering somewhat rudely at a building under construction), I slipped on roadside gravel and dislocated my shoulder. It hurt a lot. I was terrified of falling again; I began to feel fragile, old and crippled. A wise friend instructed me to return and walk confidently past the house. After I did that repeatedly, my fear abated. To combat my fear of knocking my shoulder, our compassionate local hospital nurse recommended a sling when I travelled by plane. Who would be mean enough to knock a nice old lady with her arm in a sling? It worked a treat. (As did the odd pre-booked wheelchair for long air journeys.)

Boston Sunday Globe storm_crop_small

The Blizzicane

Recently, I spent a month teaching at Harvard: the highlight of my career. And a shocking and salutary experience for a person turning seventy.

I feared my boots (from Myers department store in Adelaide) would not pass muster but my Boston host thought I might survive February.

How wrong she was!

A week into my visit, the fiercest blizzard in 57 years blanketed Boston.


A Blizzicane. Nearly a metre of snow fell in a few hours.


Outside my friend's house

Outside my colleague’s house after the blizzard and before the snowplows arrived to bank the snow

After we dug ourselves out, I took my credit card to Eastern Mountain Sports in Harvard Square but fear had me in its grip. Now I had warm boots with good tread but I was absolutely terrified.   Terrified of the footpaths at night (our classes ended at 6 pm; taxis were out of the question).


Not surprisingly, every path on the campus of America’s premier university was plowed within seconds.




All clear at Harvard!

All clear at Harvard!

That wasn’t my problem.

My problem was low-density suburbia.

Despite Boston’s admirable transit network, suburban Boston is crap for pedestrians.   Everyone drives gigantic cars with snow tyres. There I was in my overpriced `showerproof’ down coat (bought in Melbourne in January) and new boots that weighed a ton. And a backpack full of books and a laptop.

My nightly walk home from the Harvard bus was six long blocks along poorly lit and partly plowed footpaths (and out into the street at the unshovelled patches). Sharing the carriageway with the cars – all of us skeetering between high snowbanks through rutted snow.



All I could think of was my dislocated shoulder. And my fear of falling.


Actually, that’s not true. My shoulder worries paled in comparison to Fear of the American Medical System! Even with travel insurance, I imagined myself chained to a hospital bed, held to ransom with a broken arm, leg, shoulder, hip . . . you name it . . . in a hospital charging a trillion dollars a day.

I’d taken an elderly Canadian friend to hospital in Honolulu five years ago and she’d barely escaped!


Meanwhile, my younger colleague completely discounted my fears. The same fears we’d researched decades earlier.


What’s your problem? The snow will melt. It’s only six blocks. You’ve got boots. You’re sorted.

Femme devant paper-board


Raffi to the Rescue

My Armenian cousin, a long-time Boston resident (and my age) was my saviour.  Before the snow melted, he took immediate action to avoid my melting down. Brooking no interference, he moved me – coat, books, boots, laptop and decaf tea bags – into his apartment in Charlestown (a dense inner city neighbourhood with well-lit streets, plowed and navigable). Close to the subway and with caf©s and pubs to die for.


Raffi's street in Charlestown

And there I stayed for several charmed weeks, happily travelling about Boston on public transit. Grateful for the blessings of his generous hospitality.

(Maybe blood is thicker than water?)

The take-home messages from my story?


I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that this experience had a profoundly unsettling effect on me.

I cried a lot.


And then (finally), I got to thinking. What can I make of this?

What can I learn? What can we learn?


First, as our Baby Boomer generation ages, we need to understand mobility – and immobility. It’s not just physical; it’s also psychological.


Second, we’d better start talking openly about these matters and not be afraid or ashamed. (What’s there to be ashamed of, in any case?)


We're going to have learn how to ask for help

We’re going to have learn how to ask for help

Third, we’ll need supports. And we’d better get them in place before an emergency. We need to know how and where to ask for help.

My friend with the mending hip is well networked into her community where she’s lived since 1974. She’s having gourmet meals delivered and local people come to clean her house as part of a community program. She’ll be fine.

The age-friendly neighbourhoods initiative is a good way to start. South Austalia has made a good beginning:


Fourth, we must accept that some of our younger colleagues are firmly in denial about ageing – ours and theirs. You know the types: the cyclists, yoga enthusiasts, marathon runners, extreme athletes”¦ (Please pass the chocolate”¦)


As an example, take my younger colleague. She has a lot to learn.


Sad but true: ageing is an expert blind spot.


By speaking out about our fear and demonstrating our resourcefulness, we can teach her.


So that she can teach her students.


And we all can benefit.


I guess, in the end, that it’s all about care. (Didn’t I write a PhD thesis about that?)



Blogs for the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, Adelaide, June 2013

Why Not Vancouver’s CityPlan as a Model for Community  Engagement?



Nimbin, Monday morning June 3

The CityPlan as a Model for Community Engagement in South Australia?


I don’t think so!


During my week in Adelaide, I was dismayed to hear people talking in adulatory tones about the Vancouver CityPlan community engagement model.

I’ve been worrying about this since it was first mooted in NSW last year. See:

Trust me, the 1990s Vancouver CityPlan model is completely inappropriate for a State planning and engagement strategy. In October 2012, I participated in a hard-hitting symposium in Vancouver to unpack the CityPlan model and its relevance for Australian planning and community engagement.

The `Vancouver model’ (CityPlan) of community engagement occurred  twenty years ago  and has now been  completely eroded. There is widespread disquiet about community engagement in the City of Vancouver. A product of 1980s reform movements, it cost millions of dollars. The City of Vancouver has promoted this model widely and senior consultants travel internationally speaking about its benefits.

My main issues are the following:


1. COST: Initiated in the early 1990s, CityPlan was ambitious, visionary, inclusive, time-consuming, and expensive, and the Vancouver citizens who participated–estimated to have included about twenty per cent of City households–value the visions and plans they produced and fully expect to be involved in their implementation. Indeed, as part of CityPlan, Vision Implementation Committees (VICs) across the City received funding to continue to meet and work with City staff to discuss ways to put the visions into action.

In its two stages, in the 1990s, CityPlan cost about  $CAD10 million in 1990s dollars, not counting the salaries of scores of seconded staff over many years in two stages.

Do we have that sort of commitment, resources and staffing to roll this project out on a State-wide scale many times the population of the City of Vancouver?

: CityPlan was for the  City, not the region – or the province– so it was applied to an area that currently has only 583,000 residents. In 1992, the Vancouver population was 472,000.

It is not a `state-wide’ model.


3. WEAK OUTCOMES: The results – in the longer term – are not of a high quality. I have personally witnessed three Vancouver City Council-led community engagement processes (in 2007, 2009 and March 2013) on high-profile projects (Safeway supermarket expansion in Marpole, 2009, Neighbourhood Energy Utility, False Creek South, 2007 and the Marpole Community Plan, 2013) that were woeful.

Absolutely woeful.

Marpole Community Plan Open House,Vancouver, 4 March 2013
Marpole Community Plan Open House,Vancouver,   4 March 2013

I highlighted one of the workshops as a `bad’ example’ in my book,  Kitchen Table Sustainability  (2009).

At the last Council-run Open House I attended, I was told by organisers that only 20 people had come through the door in the first two (of three) hours.

I cannot imagine that we would ever undertake such weak processes on high-profile projects in this country.


4. DOWNSTREAM EFFECTS:  The predicted loss of later community engagement opportunities (if this is actually intended) is a mistake, in my view – and will not wear well, especially with activist and educated communities in South Australia.


5.  EXCELLENT COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT MODELS IN AUSTRALIA: We have great community engagement models (with international awards and recognition) and excellent practitioners in Australia – who hold many international awards. Why do we need to cringe away from our own expertise and seek the Visiting Overseas Expert (VOE) and apply overseas models when we have excellent expertise in Australia to guide such a program?



The section of the 2011 Grattan report (Cities: Who Decides?)  on Vancouver’s community engagement processes is not accurate, in my view, about engagement in Vancouver as it is CURRENTLY practised.


The Vancouver sources for the Grattan Report do not reflect the range of opinions in the current discourse in Vancouver around community engagement.

I have reviewed the Grattan report in detail and know some of the cities it reviewed.




What has happened to the Community Visions that CityPlan produced?

And what has happened to the implementation program to realize those visions?

The answer, in a nutshell, is  politics. More specifically, a City Council that many feel has been unduly influenced by development industry campaign contributions, and a City bureaucracy that has returned to an earlier era of top-down decision-making: this threatens to undermine years of goodwill built up through the dedication and enthusiasm of residents who contributed thousands of volunteer hours to the development of guiding principles and visions for the future growth and development of their communities.

In 2009, the City initiated a review of the CityPlan Vision Implementation Program (VIP).


It subsequently eliminated budgets for all Committees.

The review said the Community Visions were outdated and limiting, advocates a more robust and inclusive community involvement model and replaces neighbourhood-based Vision Community Action Plans with a city-wide Action Strategy.


Ongoing commitment?

There has been widespread questioning of the City’s on-going dedication to CityPlan. Activists and other concerned citizens are urging Council to affirm its commitment by re-endorsing CityPlan as the primary planning and development policy for Vancouver’s neighbourhoods.

Our 2012 symposium showed that. See the video we made of it:



So, what does this say about CityPlan, especially for another government that might be contemplating adopting it as a model for state-wide community planning?

While the original 1990s CityPlan process itself was exemplary and the goodwill it created between residents and the City was valuable, the real challenge has been in the implementation.

Part of this problem is owing to changes in local government and its priorities, but it also has much to do with a need for a real transformation in how decisions are made in the City.

Two decades ago, the City of Vancouver had a commitment to genuine inclusiveness in community engagement. That commitment is no longer evident to an expert observer.


What Can We Do in South Australia?




Lenswood, Saturday evening June 1


I did run out of speaking time on Wednesday night and I wanted to share my final comments in this blog.


The whole lecture is available at:


Here’s the rest of what I said about what we could do in South Australia:

*   *   *

Above all:


(1)     We must take action on these matters without delay.  Inclusion  is at risk here.


THIS MEANS   that we must support affordable housing and ethnically and culturally mixed communities, as effective so-called NIMBY-type strategies work to defend neighbourhoods against social and tenure mix and other forms of integration and inclusion.

With respect to Tributary 1: housing design:



The turbulent river of so-called NIMBY responses

A turbulent river”¦


(2)     We must be more curious about and respectful of the deeper messages about home and territory that so-called NIMBYites are communicating.


THIS MEANS  deep listening, keeping our cool and not labelling, vilifying or jumping to conclusions about people’s motives.


Place-protective behaviour
Place-protective behaviour, not NIMBYism

(3)     We must retrieve and embrace our lost sociological and psychological wisdom about what makes for good housing and good neighbourhoods.


THIS MEANS  that we need more responsible respect for place attachment and human ties to place and territory. We need to understand better the dynamics of place-protective behaviour.


(4)     We must work to create more sensitively designed higher density housing – as if it were going into  our own  backyards.


THIS MEANS  using guidelines based on evidence-based research about what works in higher density housing and using those guidelines that guide our design to assess the effectiveness of the result – from the residents’ and the neighbours’ perspectives.


The fine grain of housing matters − to all residents: here's our new house
The fine grain of housing matters − to all residents: here’s our new house


(5)     We must pay careful – and loving – attention – to the  fine grain  of housing design.  The divine dwells in the details.  


THIS MEANS  that, while we must work effectively at all scales to achieve what residents and neighbours experience as “good design”, tiny details matter greatly. In a high-crime neighbourhood, if I can see who is at the door before opening it, it’s a great boon. It won’t cost more, but it needs forethought.


With respect to Tributary 2: community engagement:


(6)     We must transform our weak, shallow and inexpert community engagement processes into leading practice.


THIS MEANS  paying specific attention to the principles of loving attachment and  LOVE:  listening, openness, validation and education.  South Australia has more wisdom in this regard than any place I know. Let’s tap into it.


There are some very hopeful new signs with the proposal from the State Government for a Community Engagement Board.


(7)     We must evoke the memory of Boston’s West End and remember what happens when we mess with the fundamentals of housing and neighbourhoods.


Boston's West End: this once was a vibrant, multi-ethnic neighbourhood
Boston’s West End: this once was a vibrant, multi-ethnic neighbourhood

THIS MEANS  that we need to be very,  very  careful about how we do urban renewal anywhere – AND in the City of Adelaide.


It’s a very delicate matter and we must proceed with the greatest of care. We need to ask ourselves, what messages are we sending out, particularly to vulnerable public tenants?


We’ve avoided the worst urban renewal mistakes of the other states for decades – let’s not turn back the clock now and start making those obvious mistakes that others now deeply regret.


A beautiful inner city 1970s public housing site: Save Manitoba!
A beautiful inner city 1970s public housing site: Save Manitoba!


In general:  if we are to develop higher density housing that is inclusive and welcoming, we must take decisive action. And quickly.


THIS MEANS  our state and local governments need to work together. We’ve had enough rhetoric. We now need practical advice.


My Commitments and Suggestions




Lenswood, S.A., Sunday morning June 2


This is the last part of my lecture that I did not get to on Wednesday night.


Here are my commitments and my suggestions:


We have a huge responsibility here.


These are urgent matters of direct relevance to everyone who cares about planning and community engagement in our cities today.


We urgently need cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary collaboration on these urgent matters.


Could there be a role for our Adelaide universities in this work? I’d eagerly participate, coordinate, collaborate”¦


I am eager to pursue this work in practical terms and to collaborate with other scholars, researchers and practitioners in all the land professions.


Offer of a short course


I would be willing to offer a short course on the social design issues raised in this paper at any university (or universities) that would like to have such a course. Perhaps a summer course sponsored by a number of Adelaide-based universities and the Government of South Australia in collaboration with the  Curtin University Sustainability Policy  Institute in Perth, where the Director, Professor Peter Newman, is a passionate advocate for housing density increases.

Professor Peter Newman
Professor Peter Newman


I am an Adjunct Associate Professor there and would certainly try to make something creative and relevant happen.


I know from decades of teaching that there is a great hunger for this learning and that, once it is offered, it is readily embraced.


We could call the course:


Housing Density and Social Factors for Planners and Designers



How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love High-Density Housing.


Is anyone interested in working with me? Let’s talk later.


The NIMBY clearinghouse


NIMBY Clearinghouse blog
NIMBY Clearinghouse blog


I am also in the process of setting up an online NIMBY psychology clearinghouse and am looking for student researchers to work with me.


This is unfunded work but I already have three overseas postgraduate planning students signed ready to begin work with me in June.


Please let me know if you’d like to participate or offer an institutional home for this work.

* * *


I am honoured to be speaking at the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre today in what I regard as my Australian home town. Thank you, again.


A dear, wise friend


I have a dear, wise friend who grew up in public housing in South Plympton. Her mother worked in a factory and her father was a bartender.


She’s taught me a lot about housing, responsibility, relationships and place attachment over the 39 years I’ve been her friend.


Old friends, 1978
Old friends, 1978


I close with her words – my friend, Adelaide born and bred, planning theorist, Professor Leonie Sandercock – from her recent article on loving attachment:


The chemistry of attachment

is relationship

The ethics of attachment

is responsibility.




Source:  Erfan, Aftab and Leonie Sandercock (2012).   “Plato’s Lacunae: On the Value of Loving Attachment in Community-Based Planning Research and Practice” in Libby Porter, Leonie Sandercock and Karen Umemoto, eds. “What’s love got to do with it? illuminations on loving attachment in planning”,  Planning Theory & Practice,  13(4), December: 593–627.


Real Community Engagement




Lenswood, Sunday afternoon June 2

Over the past week, many people asked me to describe authentic community engagement, especially in light of my concerns about some of the policies being proposed in South Australia.

Some of my views on leading practice are here:

Community visioning and guided imagery

I love community visioning.


But not the way you’d imagine it: not that emasculated, pale version much loved by local government–in this state and throughout Australia.


I love the REAL THING. Here are some excerpts from a recent article:


Sharing my vision for Bonnyrigg, 2005
Sharing my vision for Bonnyrigg, 2005


My approach to community guided imagery builds on Clare Cooper Marcus’ work and the work of many practitioners and theorists and reflects years of experimentation.


The method I use is a variation of  guided imagery, an approach widely used in management, therapeutic and sports psychology contexts.  I use a carefully crafted script to take a group on an imaginary passage into the future. People make themselves comfortable, close their eyes, clear their minds and, at my instruction, either recall and experience the past or imagine the future.


Setting the Scene


Guided imagery is a right-brain activity that forces people to break out of analytical thinking patterns, which may be exactly what critical thinkers need to solve their problem. There are ways to reach an understanding of a situation through guided imagery that are not possible exclusively via rational thought processes.


The beginning of the script must be well thought-out. Many proponents of guided imagery emphasize the importance of  preframing.    It’s wise to prepare participants for the  intensity of the process  they are about to experience and to explain that guided imagery is not a strange “way out” experience but is used often, especially in sports psychology, and increasingly in business and organizational development, to help people improve performance and achieve clarity about their goals and plans.


Sophia van Ruth guiding the visualisation, Bonnyrigg, 2005
Sophia van Ruth guiding the visualisation, Bonnyrigg, 2005


The  wording  of the script is critical to success. By paying attention to careful wording, we can ensure that we prompt only in a  generic  sense. Rather than guide participants into a bus station or a train, we can ask them to visualise the transport interchange and they can work out for themselves what the mode of transport might be. The key is to cue for a response but keep it generic while stimulating participants’ unique intelligences, communication and learning styles.


The nature of the guided imagery is largely determined by the needs of the planning project. What is important is that the participants’ privacy be respected (they can sign forms to allow us to use the material if we need to) and that all their material is analysed in the most respectful and thorough manner. Drawings may be copied and themes and qualities drawn out for further analysis. We try to return the drawings as soon as possible to participants, so it’s helpful to have a colour printer or photocopier on hand. Where permission is given, all contributions must be acknowledged in reports.


Participants may feel a strong attachment to the product of a deep process and may be unwilling to have their drawings reproduced.


I strongly believe that  genuine  community visioning – using principles of guided imagery – can help people tap into their heartfelt hopes and dreams for the future of their communities. In forty years or using this approach, I have found that it can be used in any setting.


Sharing our dreams is part of the work of progressive planning. It’s one place with a level playing field – anyone can dream! Working with the sophisticated and tested methods of guided imagery, we can help bring about the future that is waiting to be born.


It’s difficult to capture the quality of a guided imagery experience when participants seem to align with a common desire to create a happy future for their community. That’s very different from a common vision – and it’s very powerful.


Listening to people share their images often brings me to tears.


Save Manitoba!



Lenswood, Saturday afternoon June 1


After a lovely sunny week in Adelaide, I’m spending the weekend in the Adelaide Hills – blessing the softly falling rain – reflecting on my week of meetings and tweets – and my Hawke Centre lecture on Wednesday night.


I did run out of time during my talk AND I was delighted to be able to share my time with the Deputy Premier of South Australia, John Rau. I felt his presence at the lecture supported my views.




We need to listen to residents. Governments need to listen to residents.


Sneaking into Manitoba


Not wanting to disturb my new friends in the Manitoba development, I snuck into the site this morning to have another look at the shared open space and the elegance of Ian Hannaford’s design.

The simple but elegant site plan
The simple but elegant site plan


The simple beauty of the design is revealed in this site plan on a sign outside Manitoba.


Go and have a look for yourself!


The birds were singing when I arrived. Inside, standing in the shared on-site open space, I was aware that the sounds of Adelaide’s traffic were muted.


An urban oasis


It was a peaceful oasis.


This is what we dreamed of – on the Board of the Housing Trust over forty years ago.


We were ambitious and optimistic. Many of us were working on the topic of residential social mix. John Byrne and I wrote Masters of Town Plannign theses about it at Adelaide University.


Tenure mix was on everyone’s lips. We wanted to make housing in the City of Adelaide – our home patch – as fair, inclusive and equitable as we could.


The three inner city sites were our first initiative. And a very good one, at that.


Inside the shared on-site open space: Where's the slum?
Inside the shared on-site open space: Where’s the slum?

In the last week, meeting many people in the land professions in Adelaide, I’ve come to a sad but I think accurate, new assessment: we appear to have lost our corporate, cultural memory about the good and innovative housing initiatives that characterised the Housing Trust’s work in the seventies and eighties. That’s tragic – if it’s true.


I don’t want everyone to be singing songs about our glorious past. But we do need to remember. Maybe the powers-that-be in Renewal SA have forgotten – or never knew – how thoughtful and cutting-edge our humble and modest initiatives were.


A modest initiative


The General Manager of the Trust, Alex Ramsay, was a modest man so we didn’t do things with a lot of fanfare.

A.M. Ramsay
A.M. Ramsay


But we did do things that made a huge difference in the lives of people living in low-income households.


And the Manitoba development was one of the jewels in our humble crown.


Save Manitoba!

Where's the slum?
Where’s the slum?

Please Spare Manitoba!


Manitoba in the early days
Manitoba in the early days


What now?


I never thought I’d see the day! One of the best examples of medium-density housing in Australia is up for redevelopment! How can this be?


Where is our memory?


Is new always better?


Don’t we know what’s good when we see it?



One of my fears about the redevelopment of this site is that the shared open space will be lost.

It’s the heart and soul of Manitoba and it’s its best feature.

Removing shared open space: a fashion we’d be best to forget!

A fashion in the development nowadays, promoted by New Urbanists seeking to maximize developers’ profits, is to remove shared space from higher density housing. This is such a massive social error that it defies understanding.

The hierarchy of open space

It is generally accepted by social designers that there is a hierarchy of open space in any urban or residential area.


First, there is private open space (the balconies, yards, courtyards, terraces, decks, patios and other private outdoor spaces that are associated with a private dwelling).


Second is shared open space, the territory of a group of dwellings and the primary play space for pre-schoolers.


Finally, we have public open space, which can be accessed by anyone: parks, plazas, community gardens and any other pace that does not belong to a specific dwelling or group of dwellings.


For many years — decades, actually, New Urbanist designers and developers, bent on “neo-traditionalist” designs and grid road patterns, have sought to remove the central level of the hierarchy: shared open space. They argue that the function of shared open space can easily be taken up by neighbourhood parks. The reasons are clearly about profit maximisation, as there are not legitimate other reasons fro removing this space or violating the integrity of a hierarchy that has stood the test of time.


All the recent research on natural pay, child development and “Nature-Deficit Disorder” focuses on the importance of “near nature” in the early years fo a child’s life. And, with the increase in single-parent families and many parents experiencing post-partum depression and feeling uncomfortable about venturing into the the wider urban domain, this piece of nature is all the more important.

Ian Hannaford

One of the best examples of shared open space is the beautiful public housing estate designed in the 1970s by South Australian architect, Ian Hannaford: the Manitoba development. The care and sensitivity of this design have made it a popular site for visits by overseas planners and architects for decades.


Ian Hannaford
Ian Hannaford


The care with with Hannaford (and the Housing Trust planners and architects who assisted him) provided for natural surveillance (“eyes on the street”) from the neighboring  dwellings while allowing residents to maximise their privacy, spoke to a sensitivity that we rarely see in current housing designs.

The subtle but sensitive approaches to “cut-out” fencing allowed residents to add to their fencing and/or provide landscaping if they sought greater privacy chose not to participate in the chidlrne’s play in the central shared space.


Cut-out fencing allows views out or privacy
Cut-out fencing allows views out or privacy


Qualities of shared open space

Clare Cooper Marcus, a specialist in this field and now an Emerita Professor, argues that shared open space must have specific qualities. It   can be a highly significant component of the neighborhood landscape if it meets the following criteria:


(1)                 It is bounded by the dwellings it serves and is clearly not a public park;


(2)         Entry points into this space from a public street or sidewalk are designed so that it is clear that one is entering a setting which is not public space;


(3)         Its dimensions and the height-to-width ratio of buildings to outdoor space create a human-scaled setting;


(4)         Each dwelling unit bounding the shared outdoor space has access to an adequately sized private outdoor space (patio, yard, balcony) which forms a buffer between the residence and the common area;


(5)         There are clear boundaries and easy access between what is private (dwelling unit, patio, yard) and what is shared;


(6)         As much care is focused on the layout, circulation patterns, planting plan, furnishings, lighting, etc., of the shared outdoor space as is normally focused on the dwelling interiors. In particular, the design needs to focus on children (play equipment, paths for wheeled vehicles, areas for exploratory play, etc.) since research shows that children will comprise more than 80% of the users of such spaces if they are designed with the above criteria in mind.


(7)         The scale of such a space can vary from the urban, rectilinear courtyards of St. Francis Square to the more rambling suburban greenways of Village Homes as long as all the above six guidelines are followed, thus ensuring that the space is perceived as unambiguously neither private nor public, but shared.


The arguments in favour of shared open space can be summarised as follows:


Arguments for shared open space


  1. CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design): Capable guardianship possible within territory controlled by residents
  • Children are vulnerable users of residential environment


  • Do not always understand which places are safe for them to use


  • Can be victims of predatory practices


  • Parental fears can inhibit children’s use of the environment (Paul Tranter)


  • Attention to CPTED principles will reduce potential for limiting children’s independent mobility



  1. Education for sustainability: Microcosm of the wider environmental world: essential for child’s environmental literacy and ethical development


  • Diversity of urban environment: learning ground for children’s ecological values


  • Environments that communicate   sustainability are important


  • Educate children (and adults) to value sustainability


  • Valuing sustainability and intergenerational equity communicates that we value children and their futures


  • Children grow into ecologically literate and responsible adults


  • The environment is a communicating medium.


  • It communicates what we value.


  1. Child development and safety: Microcosm of the wider social world: necessary for child’s social and physical development


    • Shared space is microcosm of the wider social world: necessary for child’s physical and social development


  1. Equity and cultural diversity: Young children in some households (and some young girls) not permitted to go alone beyond sight and calling distance of home


Young children in some households (and some young girls) not permitted beyond sight and calling distance of home without an adult

  • Males tend to dominate outdoor play


  • Older boys and teenagers will dominate most attractive play areas


  • Girls play less often in parks than boys do


  • Girls tend to play significantly closer         to home


Children (especially girls) need opportunities for private social play





  • Clear sense of territory: what is private or shared (reduces excuse-making)
  • Recognising (and confronting) strangers
  • Expressing capable guardianship
  • Building a sense of community


  • Nature-deficit disorder
  • Learning and practicing ecology at home
  • Near nature
  • Personal health and ecosystem health linked
  • Cooler neighbourhoods (reduce heat islands)



  • Low-income people can’t travel far for outdoor recreation
  • Some cultures won’t let women and girl children go far for recreation
  • Without shared space, some young girls will not be permitted to leave the dwelling or the yard


We remove shared open space from medium-density housing at our peril.

Let’s keep the Manitoba development as it is.

The brilliant example of shared open space in the Manitoba development in the South-East corner of Adelaide needs to be preserved.

Let’s keep it for its architectural value, for its housing quality and for its residents, as well as an example of how to get it right in terms of design and sensitive provision of shared open space that can benefit all residents.


Access to "near nature" supports child development
Access to “near nature” supports child development



Root Shock: Grieving for a Lost Home

wilting leaves


Several years ago, I was managing the community engagement processes for the first stages of a large community renewal project in an Australian capital city. The State Minister wanted something to announce before Christmas and he wanted to tell this community of about 3000 public tenants   (half of whom did not speak English and were mainly from refugee communities) that their neighborhood was going to be rebuilt. We sent four delegations to the Minister’s office, asking that the announcement be delayed until February. We failed and on 13 December, I faced a room full of over a hundred weeping tenants.


I will take that terrible experience to my grave.


And now I wish I’d defied protocol, taken myself to the Minster’s office and laid down the law. Within days, there were reports from the local chemist of a dramatic increase in prescriptions for anti-depressants and basically, everyone fell apart for weeks until we returned in mid-February and started all over again. From scratch. All the residents could remember from that first terrible meeting was that their lives were going to change irrevocably. Some (particularly those who had fled repressive regimes in Southeast Asia) expected to be made homeless immediately. Others did not trust the government in any form.

It took months to put right that one insensitive act.


And for what? A Minister’s career? He was sacked shortly afterwards. There have been perhaps nine Ministers of Housing in that State since that time.


What we know from evidence-based research (and this applies specially to low-income people and marginalised people with multiple disadvantages) is that people cannot quickly reconcile themselves to the loss of familiar attachments when told that it’s for the “common good”. It takes time – more time than planners ever allocate – for people to come to grips with such shocking information. They were in root shock: grieving for a lost home.


It’s been called “Root Shock”. Plants die of it and so do people.


The intense grief and sense of loss caused by such a major disruption to social and family ties may never heal. The grief may persist for decades.


I spent February living in Boston, teaching planning at Harvard. One weekend, my cousin took me on a long walk to the “50 acres of emptiness” that is now the West End to visit the West End Museum so I could see “Boston’s shame” for myself. See:


Psychologist Marc Fried spent several years in the 1950s with West Enders researching the psychological effects of the forced dislocation of the whole of the West End’s multi-ethnic population as part of “urban renewal” from 1958 to 1960. In Boston, one of the country’s oldest cities, almost a third of the old city was demolished-including the historic West End to make way for a new highway, low- and moderate-income high-rises (which eventually became luxury housing), and new government and commercial buildings.

This came to be seen as a tragedy by many residents and urban planners. Me included. We studied it when I was a planning student. Now, not even the road pattern remains; it was completely reconfigured, as though the planners sought to wipe the memory of the West End from the map.

Only one original building is standing there.


More than 90 percent of those residents showed symptoms of depression. Fried concluded that cohesive neighborhoods provide residents with a feeling of rootedness that is essential in maintaining a sense of identity and purpose. The study also helped establish the notion that people can grieve for the loss of something other than a loved person.

As I shivered in the cold air outside the Museum, I struggled to breathe. I could hear the voices of the women – still crying. I could see them with their arms wrapped around themselves, rocking, keening”¦ Still grieving”¦






Half a century later”¦   I found it cold, windswept, drab, bare and I felt much, much more shock than I had expected – having read about this terrifying acts of violence as a planning student at Adelaide University in the early 1970s.   Since physically it’s gone, for the displaced residents who are still living, the old West End is now only a “neighborhood of the mind”: a landscape of memory.


And inside the Museum, I was reduced to tears. What a tragedy!



*     *     *

I’m sitting at my desk watching a mother wallaby and tiny, hesitant small joey eating grass and resting in the last rays of the fading afternoon sun. In a moment, the kookaburras will start laughing in that tree across the valley. A distant brushcutter whines. Clouds are scudding in from the east, presaging rain. I’ll need a cardigan as soon as the sun slips behind the trees in the woodlot.


How would I feel?   To be told that I would have to be torn from the core territory of my home – and all that it represents to me. I’m an animal, like the wallaby and her joey, who know where their territory is. I AM an animal and I’m hard-wired to protect my territory.


And believe me, it doesn’t matter if your name is not on the title. Tenants have “place attachment” too. I have felt as strongly about rental properties as I do about this one. My hopes and dreams live here with me. And the hopes and dreams of the residents of that small public housing estate lived there with them.


I hope that — as planning consultants — we did well – in the end – listening and responding to those precious dreams – and all that grief – and helping those gracious and fine people move into a new life.


But I wonder”¦ I wonder”¦ wonder I do”¦