A plan for a sustainable Chippendale

2 August 2012 – Now that the City of Sydney Environment and Heritage Committee has recommended public exhibition of the Sustainable Streets and Communities Plan for public comment, the advocacy campaign to have the plan adopted should move into phase two.

The recommendation came at the July 2012 meeting of the committee, with a report to go back to council within three months. Phase one of the advocacy campaign was to have the plan exhibited after what many of its supporters saw as a far-too-long period of inaction by the City.

Tactical urbanism
The Sustainable Streets and Communities Plan is an example of what is known as tactical urbanism—small scale, local initiatives that, collectively, add up to a strategic approach to sustainable urbanism.

They offer new avenues of cooperation for citizens and councils including social and economic actions as well as those to do with the physical infrastructure of our cities.

The plan deals mainly with the latter although the financial rewards it would offer in some of its waste reduction and other proposals takes it into the realm of economic initiatives.

These would be more of a challenge for the City as they are something completely new from well outside the local government box. Although not been involved in its formulation, the Sustainable Streets and Communities Plan is a model of something my colleagues and I have discussed for some time as the potential to transfer of the idea of whole farm planning to the cities in the form of whole-of-precinct planning. The plan is the closest that’s come to this and my support for the project is based on the hope that it will serve as a prototype.

I trace my interest in schemes of this type back to Buckminster Fuller’s concept of “whole systems planning” and it was that, among other ideas, that inspired my work in assisting councils and communities in developing policy and practice in community food production.

The plan proposes the bringing together of already deployed installations and technologies with the intention of the Chippendale precinct, around Myrtle and Shepherd streets, becoming an urban sustainability educational showpiece.

There is much to recommend this. Some of its proposals have already been implemented – the footpath community gardens, rain gardens to filter runoff from roads before discharging it into natural systems and London plane trees to reduce the urban heat island effect and its associated energy consumption for building cooling and heating and which make the area walkable and cyclable.

Power problems?
At a recent public event, an advocate for the Sustainable Streets and Communities Plan described how the plan got started in 2011 with a community consultation — four meetings organised around food and waste, energy, water and transport.

These were set up by the City to harvest ideas to go into the plan drawn up by Chippendale sustainability advocate, Michael Mobbs, who for some years has exhibited his retrofitted sustainable house on Myrtle Street.

I  know about these projects from my time working at the City of Sydney where I was involved in assisting the Sustainable Chippendale crew’s work in footpath food gardening and in assisting with the four community consultations. But it was something else that advocate told the audience – that  the City of Sydney had been sitting on the plan and delaying its release because they didn’t want to hand over power to local people. Let’s call it handing over management of elements that councils call the “public domain”, the roads, footpaths, parks and other public areas of our cities

I’ve two comments about this. The first is, during my time in the council department where Michael’s report came to rest some time ago, I never heard any mention of power or discussion about the fear of handing it over. If this went on then that happened at the senior management level and never trickled back to me.

My second point is that the speaker’s comment raises the issue of council willingness to hand over power because to hand over management of public domain is to transfer some level of power to a community group.

Council already does this with community gardens, which successfully invest in community organisations the management responsibility for patches of public land.

Council would never hand over full power for a precinct because it is legally liable for safety in the public domain and for the works that go on there, and is answerable to the city as a whole for works and expenditure in any part of it. My understanding, coming from reading Michael’s report to council, is that he is not asking for full power.

Too long awaiting
It was hard not to agree with the advocate that the Sustainable Streets and Community Plan proposal had become a rather drawn-out process. As I no longer work with the City I have no investment in defending its actions. However, there are possible explanations for its dithering over officially responding to the report.

The first is that councils are busy places with staff responding to public demands as well as doing all the other things expected of them. This means new things, like Michael’s recommendations, do not always get immediate attention because there are other things demanding attention ahead of them. Add to that staff focusing on developing a number of plans and policies at the time the plan report was received and you can appreciate that time was limited.  Then add the reality that the management of the department was rather overworked.

There’s a bigger challenge presented by Michael’s report, though. It is this: the range of recommendations spans the jurisdictions of a number of council departments. To understand why this matters you have to understand that councils are structured into a number of departments with specialised responsibilities — what people like me call “silos”.

The changeability evident in today’s world makes that tired old model sluggish and subject to the law of diminishing returns. There is a degree of cross-silo collaboration in council though in my opinion, not enough. Michael’s recommendations would require considerable cross-silo cooperation that might present something of a challenge. A challenge, that is — not necessarily an insurmountable barrier.

My third point is that the idea, the concept, of a whole-of-precinct sustainability makeover is one of those new ideas that hierarchical, silo-structured organisations have difficulty in dealing with. This is not the fault of individuals in the organisation but of the organisational structure itself.

There’s something else that may be at play in this: the plan was placed online well before the City started to consider it. It may be that the City saw this as a breach of protocol as clients, such as consultants, do not usually release their reports to those commissioning them until they have been considered by the client.

Could it be that this, to resort to the cliche, put a few council noses out of joint? As a tactic, making the recommendations public might better have awaited a more strategic moment. I understand that it was frustration with the City’s perceived slowness in considering the report that might have stimulated its release and the associated social media campaign that included the online petition that councillor Irene Doutney cited at the July council meeting.

So, where now?
The City is to release the Plan for public comment. This is the usual process that precedes a decision to proceed, or not to, with a proposal. Council staff would now go ahead, set up and announce the exhibition probably via a media release, then accept comment.

At the end of the exhibition period council staff would tabulate and classify the responses, work out numbers/percentages for each type of response and write a report to council with recommendations on what to do next. Something to keep in mind is that the report will be going to a new council, post-election. Because of the cross-silo nature of the recommendations in the Sustainable Streets and Communities Plan, and because the plan is to be released for public comment, I think a useful approach now might be:

•                for the Sustainable Chippendale team advocating the plan to develop a phase two advocacy program to further popularise it and assist people make clear, concise, constructive comment to council

•                at the end of the public comment period and if the Plan is accepted by council for implementation, form a working group of City staff, Chippendale people and Michael Mobbs as a steering team

•                to develop a timeline for the makeover starting with the easy things that can be done within two years, then five, then 10 and beyond

•                to recruit and educate a community organisation of local people to do what works they can

•                for council to make provision in its annual budgets for the work;

•                to develop an education program around the Plan and its works for the benefit of local government elsewhere and for the public

What have we learned?
It’s a good idea to look back over something new and see what we can learn from it. Here’s my observations looking back over the Sustainable Streets and Community Plan process so far.

A first learning, and this one is mainly for local government, is that in an environment permeated with social media, councils (and corporations and institutions) has effectively lost control over its public image, the way people see it.

Decry it as public relations departments might, those organisations are largely what people say they are and their image is that painted by people on social media and on the World Wide Web.

This is a reason that councils should engage constructively in the public conversation that is social media and identify knowledgeable staff trusted to participate without the delaying burden of oversight.

This loss of control over corporate image is reality and there is nothing councils can do about it. The conversation over the plan shifted from a potential engagement with council to the public engagement of social media, and it is this that has influence on the City of Sydney’s public image.

Another learning — the public expects rapid response to proposals that may be difficult for councils. The only solution I can offer is that councils form teams to address such matters or bring in someone from outside to work on them as first, a feasibility study, then within a project structure.

Third, groups and individuals trying to get new ideas accepted by councils could get tactical advice on how to proceed.

Understanding how councils work is a good first step because that will disclose intervention points in the system. Knowing what to do and when is important and avoids impulsive action. They also need patience.

Finally, ideas like that of the Sustainable Streets and Community Plan whole-of-precinct makeover recommendations are new and require nurturing through council. Here, a collegiate relationship with council staff and councillors might pay off as would building community support for the proposals through education.

A good relationship between advocates and councils requires the willingness of both parties. Council and the sustainable Chippendale community might say: Let’s look on the plan as the starting point for something new and adventurous in urban planning; let’s define what is achievable and what’s not.

Then let’s work out a timeline in which initiatives can be taken. And let’s adopt a structure that makes sustainable Chippendale a positive example of community-council cooperation to local government nationwide.

Russ Grayson consults for local government on community food systems and placemaking. He is media liaison for the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, was urban agriculture adviser to the Callan Park Masterplan and until March 2012 was community garden and landcare coordinator for the City of Sydney. He is also a member of the TerraCircle Inc consultancy engaged in food security and rural livelihood training in the South West Pacific.