One of the things I love most about my home town of Brisbane is its ‘green heart’ – a patchwork quilt of parks and nature reserves spread throughout and around the city. However, it is also one of Australia’s fastest growing cities (by about 16,000 extra people per year). Consequently, Brisbane City Council’s development policy is centred on high-density housing and transit-oriented developments (TODs) in order to minimise car dependency and the environmental impacts of urban sprawl. As argued by Hartz- Karp, however, “top-down” policy making is not enough to achieve long-lasting changes that benefit the community and the environment. Brisbane Council’s Green Heart program, which works directly with local citizens to “green” their homes, schools and businesses, is one example of how local citizens can be engaged in influencing policy and achieving environmental sustainability. Nonetheless, there is still much that could be done to improve community engagement and make the planning process truly participatory.
Brisbane City Council’s Green Heart program was launched in November 2009 at the Green Heart Fair in Mount Gravatt with the long-term aim to be a creative, thought-provoking program that invites discussion from the community, and acts as a catalyst for a greener city. The “Growing a Green Heart Together Plan” aims to make Brisbane Australia’s most environmentally sustainable city and carbon-neutral by 2026, and was drafted in consultation with community through meetings and community forums with a range of stakeholders (you can view a full copy of the Plan here). The plan inspires, engages and empowers residents, schools and students to adopt lifestyles and practices that contribute to sustainability, such as reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions, planting trees, or establishing a vegetable garden and compost heap. It is a “living” document, and as such community members are encouraged to give their feedback and suggestions to Council via phone or email.
According to a Council spokesperson, since 2009, more than 169 Schools have been engaged through the Green Heart Schools program with students or teachers participating in classroom visits, teacher workshops, parent sessions, competitions, events, online showcasing or receiving advice and resources. On a broader scale, citizens are also invited to participate in Neighbourhood Planning, which aims to bring together a variety of stakeholders to express their concerns about the future of their communities and the nature of development in their area. So far, more than 60,000 Brisbane residents have had their say on the future of development in their city. Through extensive community consultation, residents contributed to the creation of the Brisbane CityShape 2026, a blueprint for the future, addressing issues such as changing demographic needs and population growth.
Brisbane City Council should be commended for the efforts it has made to engage citizens in “greening” Brisbane and in having a say regarding the future of development in their neighbourhoods. Notwithstanding, more funds need to be invested in making the process even more inclusive and participatory. In the aftermath of the January floods, for example, a significant amount of Council funding to the community/social planning sector was understandably cut and reverted back to the traditional hard infrastructure of “rates, roads and rubbish.” In a democracy, an equal vote should mean an equal say, yet we know that in reality this is often not the case. It is often difficult and time consuming, albeit necessary, to engage with marginalised groups, including people with disabilities, indigenous groups and refugees. Furthermore, not all community groups feel comfortable with participating or having their voices heard, especially if coming from societies with deeply embedded power hierarchies or oppressive regimes. Participatory democracy also means effectively negotiating and managing disparate opinions and voices, and sometimes making decisions that are not necessarily popular with everyone (as can be seen at a federal level, for example, with the Carbon Tax – or at a local level, with the emphasis on high-density housing). As such, education, transparency and freedom of information play a vital role in helping to create informed and engaged citizens who would otherwise be in the opposing party.
Hartz-Karp argues that if we are to make the transition to a more sustainable world, it will require an enormous social and cultural shift in our attitudes, values and behaviours. For any policy directed at environmental sustainability to be successful, citizens must be more directly involved in the policy-making process. The challenge thus lies in turning “token” community consultation into genuine community consultation that actually has an impact on policy development. Community consultation (through what Hartz-Karp calls “deliberative democracy”) must be inclusive, deliberative and influential. For this to happen, governments must carefully listen to divergent voices (including minorities), via face-to-face consultation methods as well as virtual ones (such as those described at www.civicevolution.com) and be genuinely committed to embracing the outcomes of the process.
Brisbane City Council’s Neighbourhood Planning and Green Heart Programs should be commended for emphasising the importance of community participation and building on existing strengths and resources (such as partnerships with community groups), as well as education, in seeking to minimise the environmental impacts of population growth and preserving the ‘green heart’ of Brisbane that I cherish so much. For any policy aimed at environmental sustainability to be successful, it must be developed with and for the community. This is not necessarily an easy task, but a necessary one. For as stated by Gordon Price, past Councillor of Vancouver City Council, “Unless we get community acceptance we will fail.”