Response to "Not in My Backyard"

Why is there such strong community resistance to proposals for higher density housing in Adelaide’s suburbs? Australian social planner and ethicist, Dr. Wendy Sarkissian argues that we need a “more sensitive and emotionally intelligent” approach to city planning. This is a summary of her presentation on Wednesday 29th May. The presentation is available online.

A large audience of planners, politicians, academics, students and residents attended this forum, including Planning Minister John Rau.

44 years ago Wendy migrated to Australia from Canada. She is now an Associate Professor at Curtin University and Bond University. Her association with South Australia began in the Don Dunstan era. She said that this “transformed her life”. It was a heady time with a new style of Labor government, feminism and other social movements.

There is “an honourable tradition of speaking out in this city” she said. Wendy said that she herself lived in an eco-village in Nimbin. In this community some people are angry about a proposal for extending houses. Wendy referred to “the turbulent river of opposition to increased density”. There are two tributaries to this river (a) insensitive housing design and (2) insensitive community engagement. We’re in a difficult situation, she said, opposition to higher density is alive and well everywhere, for example, in Vancouver.

Derogatory terms which are applied to this phenomenon include NIMBY, BANANA (Ban any New…) and NOMTO (Not in My Term of Office).

In terms of the design issue, people experience denser development as happening in their backyard. The difference between what is proposed and what is there already is a crucial issue. What if the new residential development was really homelike and fitted in?

Wendy recently taught and lived in Boston. There was a brutal forced eviction of a multi-ethnic community in the west end of Boston in the 1960s due to a densification project. A study was made into the long-term displacement of these people. Over 90 per cent of the people displaced showed symptoms of depression. “Forced relocation.. breaks you, breaks your heart.”

Peter Morris’ work Loss and Change said that you shouldn’t vilify and ridicule communities opposed to change. You should give people a lot of advance notice. The Australian urban geographer Leonie Sandercock has done work in this area. Finding Our Way is about indigenous displacement. In Australia tearing down public housing and destroying communities, including mental health communities, is a “national disgrace”, said Wendy.

“We must relearn these lessons” she said. On the “psychology of place there is A Humanistic Design Manifesto by Donald Appleyard et al. These “lessons seem to have sunk from sight, at least as far as government planners are concerned”.

In planning the 1960s, 70s, and 80s were better than what we have now, she said. We’ve lost the “basic fundamental building blocks which just might just allow higher density in existing neighbourhoods”.

In terms of community engagement there is “a shallow meannesss” in local government and other spheres of government. “The risk-managers and spin doctors are in the ascendancy”, she said.

“Loving attention can help us to overcome these problems. In terms of planning practice, what’s love got to do with it?

“Love is listening, openness, validity and education. It is a huge mistake to try to educate people without first listening to them,” she said.

Wendy’s latest book is Kitchen Table Sustainability – Practical Recipes for Community Engagement with Sustainability.

A series of slides showing new and bleak infill developments in the City of Adelaide were shown during Wendy’s talk. She commented that these were “woeful and look like offices or factories, barely fitting in. There were problems with overlooking and overshadowing.
It does not look like the sort of thing I would want in my backyard”, she said. “They are bare, harsh housing.”

An overhead slide was shown of Christie Walk an Urban Ecology multi-storey apartment complex in the City. This was much more sympathetic. It was built using recycled materials, captures stormwater and is generously landscaped with vegetable gardens and foliage.

Wendy spoke about her membership on the SA Housing Trust Board in the mid-1970s when the Board though a lot about density. It is essential that children grow up near to nature (open space, trees etc.) Parents must be able to see children playing.

“Home and territory are hard-wired into us” she said, “The house is a mirror of the self.”
Leonie Sandercock spoke of “the chemistry of attachment”.

Wendy said she supported housing densification. It was an environmental imperative she felt. 25,000 people live in residential tower blocks in Vancouver.

Planning Minister John Rau spoke briefly after Wendy’s lecture finished. He said that he is committed to “high quality design”. This made us wonder why his Department has written to the Norwood Payneham and St. Peters Council asking them to remove the words “high quality development” from the council’s draft uplift Development Plan Amendment on the grounds that these words are vague and unenforceable at law. Clearly Minister Rau is not up to date with what his Department is doing. But the Minister only took a few questions and we were not able to put this question to him.

Evonne, the SPRA spokeswoman, did ask Wendy how would she suggest that 10-storey flats proposed to be introduced into the inner suburbs close to single-storey residential areas be designed well and sensitively. There was a long silence before Wendy spoke. She said there needs to be guidelines and criteria to protect neighbourhoods in terms of ovderlooking, traffic etc. There are several volumes of guidelines for buildings on Wendy’s Website. You should not debate individual sites, she said, you need general criteria.