As the world passed a momentous milestone in March – the average temperature in the northern hemisphere rising two degrees Celsius above “normal” for the first time in recorded history – people in Sydney took to the streets to fight against legislation that will hamper their right to protect their land, water, food supply and community.

Two seemingly unrelated events but in fact they are intrinsically linked.

One is a sign of the rising wave of community dissent regarding the impact of government decisions and the other is the new context in which governments make these decisions.

Welcome to people power 21st century style – a world where if governments ignore the evidence of climate change and environmental destruction and put mining or other corporate profits ahead of people and civil rights, the people are more than likely to take action. Sometimes it is civil protest. Increasingly, it is legal action.

The battle to protect environment and community is no longer seen as isolated and localised but is operating in the context of climate change and a sense of irrevocable and escalating global calamity. This has brought together previously unaligned groups regardless of their political bias – farmers with greenies, middle-aged WASPs with student activists, right wing with left wing voters.

Social media has also taken civil protest to another level. We have never been more globally connected, never so instantly informed. And consequently, never before so empowered.

In Australia, where big business is the god of planning, state and federal governments are attempting to stop dissent by changing the law. Last year the federal government under then prime minister Tony Abbott introduced a bill to change environment laws to prevent groups taking court action against mining companies.

Last week the NSW government successfully passed legislation aimed at clamping down on protests against coal seam gas projects in NSW. Other states have introduced similar legislation, in Tasmania aimed at protecting forestry companies.

The NSW legislation could see farmers and other protesters jailed for up to seven years. Fines for illegal entry to mining and CSG sites have increased tenfold from $550 to $5500. At the same time, fines for mining companies acting illegally have been dramatically cut.

Lawyers have strongly criticised the legislation. The Law Society of NSW said in a statement that the new laws were a serious incursion into the common law and human rights of people in NSW.

It all feels a bit desperate – like trying to hold back the tide. Hardly a shining example of democracy in action.

Children are suing the US governments for inaction on climate change

Civil protest and legal action by citizens against government is hardly new. But suing governments over climate change is. In the US a group of teenagers is currently attempting to sue the US government for failing to do enough to protect them against the effects of climate change.

The courts are still deciding whether the case should go to trial. The 21 young people, aged eight to 19, say they have a constitutional right to life, liberty and property, and this is being violated by the US government’s support of fossil fuel.

This follows a successful lawsuit by another group of children and teenagers against the state of Washington, in which the government was ordered last year to evaluate its action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As a result the state’s governor, Jay Inslee, directed regulators to cap emissions and cut them by 50 per cent by 2050.

The groups are both represented by Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that has spearheaded similar lawsuits in all 50 states against the federal government. The Washington lawsuit was the first to succeed.

The lawyer representing the group, Andrea Rodgers, said in a statement that the decision was groundbreaking: “For the first time in the United States, a court of law has ordered a state agency to consider the most current and best available climate science when deciding to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.”

Just a month earlier similar groundbreaking legal action by a group of 900 people in the Netherlands resulted in the government being ordered by the courts to cut emissions more quickly – by at least 25 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, the amount the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is needed if the world is to avoid warming of more than two degrees Celsius. The Dutch government had been planning to cut emissions by up to 17 per cent over the next five years.

Previous similar legal action around the world has been less successful, largely due to the courts deciding there was not enough evidence to prove climate change had caused harm.

In 2005, for example, the Inuit Circumpolar Council filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming that global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions from the US violated the Inuit people’s right to sustain their traditional ways of life due to destruction of the Arctic environment. But the commission dismissed the complaint due to lack of sufficient evidence.

In 2008, the village of  Kivalina, Alaska, sued 22 energy companies, claiming that global warming had diminished sea ice formation, forcing the village to relocate. The case was dismissed in 2012, the court saying levels of permissible greenhouse gas emissions should be determined by legislative and executive branches of government rather than the courts.

But the times they are a-changing and with solid climate change evidence mounting and governments around the world committing to cut carbon emissions, the courts are increasingly viewing such cases as human rights issues.

As the legal counsel for the Dutch court case, Dennis van Berkel, put it: “Our case lets politicians know that they can’t let climate change happen. They have a duty to act, be it legally or morally.”

Stuck in a fossil fuel groundhog day

Infrastructure, in particular the construction of major motorways through the centre of cities, is another key area of protest in Australia. At a time when many countries are winding back their construction of major roads, instead focusing on modernising public and active transport networks, Australia is stuck in a fossil fuel-based groundhog day.

In Victoria the Melbourne East West Link road project attracted widespread criticism and public outcry. The project was terminated in June 2015 with more than $1.1 billion paid, or expected to be paid, by Victorians for little tangible benefit.

An audit by the Victorian Auditor-General’s office found that the EWL business case “did not provide a sound basis for the government’s decision to commit to the investment and that key decisions during the project planning, development and procurement phases were driven by an overriding sense of urgency to sign the contract before the November 2014 state election”.

In Sydney, the $16.8 billion WestConnex road project has brought ordinary people out onto the streets, protesters regularly picketing the project’s work sites where they claim activity is illegal because not all of the project’s construction stages have yet been approved.

Local councils impacted by the project are fighting against the road, some such as Marrickville Council refusing to give permission for preliminary drilling and other work on public land.

An independent report by SGS Economics and Planning commissioned by the City of Sydney found that “WestConnex is not a holistic solution to Sydney’s growth challenges, and it fails to respond to key employment and transport trends”.

The review also concluded there was a lack of rigorous and transparent vetting process prior to entering into contracts for construction. Despite this the NSW government is forging ahead, roads minister Duncan Gay regularly regaling media with the benefits the project will bring to commuters and residents alike.

Apparently it will cut six minutes off a trip from western Sydney to the CBD.

All this against a background of governments’ obligation to reduce carbon emissions, not to mention their stated commitment to create more sustainable cities.

The NSW government’s myopic approach to the WestConnex flies in the face of the Greater Sydney Commission, a body it created to help make the city a better place to live.

Putting community at the heart of planning

Other cities have taken a markedly different approach, often as a result of activism. Protests against motorways are hardly new. New York would be a very different city today if the Lower Manhattan Expressway had gone ahead in the 1960s. The 10-lane elevated highway was set to plough through lower Manhattan, in Soho and Little Italy, to facilitate traffic from New Jersey to Long Island. It was stopped by a group of New Yorkers who protested passionately against the destruction of their neighbourhood. Back then it was a downtrodden neighbourhood – now it is some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

On a recent trip to New York I was struck by how much the city had changed in the decade or more since my last visit. For one thing there were bicycles for hire throughout the city. A visit to the High Line, a converted goods line in Manhattan’s West Side, provided an elevated view of city streets that, while still full of honking cars, seemed more free flowing than I remembered from my earlier visit. That could have had something to do with the High Line’s oasis-like effect.

The High Line
The High Line

The High Line is a prime example of the power of residents to protect their city’s quality of life and heritage. Opened as a goods line in 1934, the train line closed in 1980 following decades-long growth in the interstate trucking industry. A group of property owners then lobbied for it to be demolished but local residents challenged the demolition in court. In the late ’90s Friends of the High Line advocated for the High Line’s preservation and reuse as public open space.

A study done by the group showed the High Line project was economically viable and the goods line was eventually handed to the City by the CSX Transportation Inc.

These days The High Line is a key New York attraction promoting the repurposing of industrial infrastructure as a public green space. It functions like a green roof – porous pathways contain open joints, so water can drain through and water adjacent planting beds, which also cuts down on the amount of storm-water that runs off the site into the sewer system.

On the other side of the US, Portland is testament to the power of putting communities at the centre of city planning. One of the fastest growing cities in the US, Portland is now home to four million people and has a similar housing shortage to Sydney. That’s where the similarity ends.

There is a strong emphasis in the city on public transport and affordable housing, with planners favouring increasing the density to prevent sprawl.

One of its key transport goals is to “improve and maintain a transportation system that reinforces neighbourhood and civic quality of life; reduces the pollution of air, noise, and water; supports community and individual health; increasingly relies on sustainable sources of energy; and reduces reliance on the private automobile”.

No new highways for Portland

Portland has not built a major motorway in 30 years. Public protest stopped the last attempt and instead a light rail system was built. It is now 85 kilometres long and growing, with strong patronage.

The state of Oregon also introduced a land use planning enabling act in 1973 that features 19 statewide planning goals. One of these requires every city to adopt an urban growth boundary to limit urban sprawl.

Portland took the lead, encouraging people to build additional dwelling units, also known as granny flats or ADUs. It did this by waiving development fees for these types of dwellings up to June 2016, saving homeowners up to $11,000 in costs. The maximum size allowance for ADUs was also raised from 33 per cent of the living area of the primary unit to 75 per cent, with a cap of 800 square feet (about 80 square metres).

According to Portland’s planning and sustainability department, the growth of ADUs now comprise around a quarter of all new single-dwelling residential permit applications in Portland.

Tiny house movement

The tiny house movement is also big in Portland with these mini dwellings squeezed onto available pockets of land.


Eric Engstrom, Portland’s principle planner for the city’s 25-year plan, The Portland Plan, says that in some inner city neighbourhoods as many as 10 to 15 per cent of new dwellings are these smaller homes.

“Since land is limited, one easy way to provide more housing options is just to start allowing more creative, infill types of housing,” Engstrom told the Bike Portland blog.

Engstrom says Portlanders’ desire for homes in walkable, bikeable, high-transit neighbourhoods has grown dramatically in recent years. This has seen the rise of builders and developers specialising in ADUs.

While visiting Portland I checked out some of the city’s tiny houses. They came in all shapes and sizes – some were even on wheels. Diversity and flexibility was the outstanding feature.

And in the end that’s what really stood out in Portland and no doubt is why the city is such a popular place to live. Citizens have real input on urban planning, development and major infrastructure projects.

Decisions not behind closed doors

Community engagement is big. Unlike Sydney, major roads and other infrastructure are not plotted behind closed doors and rolled out regardless of public protest.

Portland’s slogan “Keep Portland Weird” could be another way of saying “keep people at the heart of decisions about the city’s future”. That’s what keeps it vibrant and representative of the people who live in it.

Now that’s a novel idea Mr Baird.

Lynne Blundell is a freelance writer and journalist. She is a co-founding editor of The Fifth Estate and specialises in writing about sustainability in the built environment, and also writes about design, technology, health and finance.

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  1. You missed Adelaide’s dinosaur road project, the South Road elevated motorway, that is ploughing through the inner Western suburbs like a zombie remnant of the discredited 1868 MATS plan. That plan would have seen a motorway network smash through the Adelaide Parklands, the inner suburbs all around the place, with tentacles disrupting suburbs for miles out.