This content forms a part of our issue briefing on sustainable cities and communities.
SDG 11.3 By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.
SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “Urban planning is considered only partially effective because of a lack of coordination and integration.”
Although participatory planning processes vary greatly between urban municipalities and state governments, online technologies and platforms are rapidly transforming the possibilities for increased transparency and community input into urban planning and decision-making processes.
Ranging from feedback and community engagement sites such as Participate Melbourne, to the ACT Government’s Freedom of Information Online document release portal, to the regular live-streaming of council meetings, the increasing involvement of community members in city-scale sustainability initiatives through virtual modes of communication is enabling much more direct and rapid engagement of community members across Australia.
Local councils in Australia play a critical role in urban environmental management. Of Victoria’s 79 local councils, 26 have specific Special Committees to address planning and environment issues, with community representation, submissions, and the capacity for Freedom of Information requests providing a key avenue for ensuring urban governance takes into account environmental and sustainable development concerns. Innovative use of technology, such as the City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Portal, has also demonstrated the potential for heightened engagement of citizens with their urban environments. The issuing of individual email addresses to more than 77,000 significant trees across the city has received international acclaim, allowing urban inhabitants to express their own connections with nature.
Despite these positive examples – and the critical role of local government in sustainable urban development more generally – a recent Victorian Ombudsman’s report into the transparency of local government decision-making shows substantial variation in participation levels across different local government planning processes, with the ability of members of the public to provide input into ordinary council meetings shown in Figure 5.
Wider issues relating to transparency of commercial decision-making processes and business interests, issues with record-keeping, and conflicts of interest between council staff and elected officials were also highlighted in the report, with local council related submissions making up 25 per cent of all jurisdictional complaints to the Victorian Ombudsman in 2015.
Many of the referenced conflicts and complaints relating to over-development and land development processes, reflecting the importance of such avenues for citizen input into urban planning processes.
These aspects of built environment governance need to be substantially improved if Australia’s urban planning and management is to be considered properly inclusive and participatory.
The privatisation of many key state-owned urban assets and corporatisation of design and assessment processes for urban infrastructure development have significantly reduced transparency and public accountability. This has occurred in many of the more substantial development projects and utilities across Australia over the last three decades.
Complex subsidy payments, ranging from cross-subsidies of toll-road extensions, to ongoing support for public transport services, reduce the capacity for assessing the true costs of both new and existing infrastructure. At the same time, effective monopolies in areas such as energy supply allow for market manipulation and have seen significant increases in household costs disproportionate to those of retail providers.
The tendency to propose technocratic solutions to urban problems, such as the Australian Government’s “Smart Cities” and “City Deals” policy initiatives (noted in the SoE 2016 report as the primary mechanisms for addressing Australia’s urban futures at a federal level), is largely consistent with earlier approaches favouring private sector and market-driven solutions over government intervention.
While harnessing new technologies does present novel approaches for improving urban sustainable development, it is widely acknowledged that without active and participatory citizen input, and transparency in decision-making, wider social and environmental responsibilities are often disregarded.
While not specific to cities, the Commonwealth Government’s Open Government National Action Plan 2018-2020 is the second such effort to drive government transparency standards nationally, for the first time including initiatives to engage with the state and territory governments that control much of the decision-making, legislation, and administration of urban development processes.
The Centre for Local Government found that more than 51.3 per cent of Australians surveyed strongly believe that they should be involved in decision-making about services in their local area, with a further 42 per cent agreeing with the statement.
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