This blog was first posted on the Planning Resource website on 1 August 2011.
The Localism Bill in England is creating new Neighbourhood Development Plans. The bill will also provide powers to communities to bring forward a ‘community right to build’. So this is a good time to distil key messages from experiences with community planning, and an international perspective can help. Phil Heywood’s new book “Community Planning: Integrating Social and Physical Environments” is a good place to start. It includes a compelling case study of the practice of design-led local community involvement in Northern Queensland.
The book weaves together experiences from many different countries to provide some pointers to how to do community planning Heywood argues that planning has moved on from ‘the narrow logic of project implementation, and the self-assertion of architectural formalism’ to become a means of involving ‘whole communities in thinking about their futures’. For cooperation to work though, he calls for ‘honest realism and mutual acceptance of responsibility’. Of course there is no guarantee that these admirable qualities are always present.
One condition that Heywood lays down is that community organisations need to be accountable and transparent. He cites the example of the community boards in New Zealand. These are resourced by local government, who ensure that the methods of selection for board members are open and representative, though not every council has community boards. The community boards have statutory rights of consultation on development assessment and can also take some initiatives of their own. The community boards were established as part of a wider local government reorganisation in 1989. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that there was a further reform last year that amalgamated eight local authorities into a new Auckland Council, making it the largest in Australasia. A system of 21 elected local boards has been created within the new authority; amongst their responsibilities is provision of local inputs to region-wide strategies and plans.
Community Planning in Practice: The Atherton Tablelands
One example that Heywood describes and commends is the work of John Mongard in the Atherton Tablelands area. This is a tropical rural region in North Queensland. Mongard, a landscape architect, became involved in 1995, when he was invited to provide ideas for the main street of Atherton, which at around 8,000 people is the largest town in this area. The work then extended, taking in smaller villages nearby – Tolga, Tinaroo and Kairi. He worked from an empty shop on the main street, from where he was able to involve residents, councillors and planners. They focused on what made each place special, and how to enhance those qualities. As Heywood notes, ‘The excitement that this generated provided the springboard for over twenty other small plans that would, over time, rebuild each town. The place-making strategies for the original four small towns were embodied in community plans that created physical improvements to streets, parks and entry points and supported local trade and tourism. ’
A critical point is that these small communities lacked the funds to rebuild quickly. Mongard’s approach combined feasible incremental improvements with ‘big visions’ that could be the basis for bids for State and even Federal co-funding. Thus consultation with residents led to the development of detailed ideas which formed the basis for civic improvements that could be carried through on a piecemeal basis. So an overall strategy was broken down into smaller plans – e.g. for a park, or to enhance the main street, or for a development site.
Heywood says Mongard visited the area for four to seven days each month or two for a decade. In this way a strong relationship was built between the designer and the residents. Heywood describes the process: ‘The underlying motive was to give the local communities the processes, skills and confidence to evolve their towns in better and more environmentally sustainable ways. For example, when a new park at the lookout was to be planned, a rainforest verge needed re-vegetation, or when trees were proposed for the main street, the development team would meet with the council gardeners and a retired rainforest expert from the town. The local nursery would also become involved in the planning so the local and special trees would be grown years in advance of the civic improvements, with everyone knowing what would be needed. This allowed for resources to be both available and cost-effective’.
Lessons for localism and neighbourhood planning
Heywood describes in further detail just what was achieved in the Atherton Tablelands. But what aspects of this practice might contain messages for English endeavours to implement neighbourhood planning?
One was that the very local scale of design and implementation was undertaken in tandem with strategic planning, and as noted above, geared to the resources that were available for implementation. This is of fundamental importance. A hotchpotch of one-off projects is unlikely to be transformative and may even undermine strategic aims; however, long-term strategies will not mean anything unless residents can see some immediate improvements on the ground.
A second and related point is that the place-making activities and community plans fed into the statutory development plans. Equally important though was that, in Heywood’s words ‘a cultural process emerged which gave the community the confidence to express and create its own artistic vision. The four local village community plans aim to help foster local culture and the arts.’
This Australian example shows how localism could be used in creative ways to mobilise local enthusiasm and contribute both to economic development and environmental quality. Similarly, the experience over the past 20 years of New Zealand’s community boards would be worth looking at. Of course, care needs to be exercised in transferring experience and practices: what works in one place does not necessary succeed in another. Nevertheless, the English venture into neighbourhood planning and delivery could benefit by looking at practices in other countries and exploring some of the key messages. Is anybody doing this for the Department for Communities and Local Government?