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Working paper

Residential involvement in urban development in Sydney: the new politics of the city

Urban planning Community participation Community organization Sydney

This Blue Sky study explores a new conceptual approach to community involvement in planning that responds to contemporary critiques of participatory planning. Blue Sky projects are focused on exploring innovative ideas and concepts . This research explores a new conceptual approach that rethinks how local citizenries are involved in the politics of urban development.

We focus on the New South Wales (NSW) planning system to explore five key research questions: (1) What are the structural constraints of the NSW state government’s planning systems that prevent people from getting involved in urban planning? (2) What does the community know about the planning system? (3) Do members of the community want to be involved in urban planning and development matters? (4) How do people actually participate in urban development and the planning of their city? (5) How should we design community participation in the planning of the city in light of the previous four questions?

In terms of individuals, the findings demonstrated a general lack of knowledge about the formal planning system. Many people get their information from local government and local newspapers and tend to focus on local-level urban development issues and concerns. While individuals in Sydney often focus on local -level urban development, some see a role for metropolitan -level planning in urban development. Individuals reported that gaining media attention, attending public meetings and even engaging in public protest s were the most effective means of influencing planning and government decision -makers. They also preferred to use traditional rather than social media to engage with urban development issues. People in the east and in the west of the city had similar views and concerns about urban planning and development.

In terms of local resident action groups and other community organisations, we found that these groups locate critical social, political and urban knowledge with a few key individuals. Transferring knowledge between members and across the generations, and bringing younger people into the se groups, was a problem for succession planning and management for these groups. Different rhythms of membership affect the efficacy and long -term viability of resident action groups and other community organisations. Retirees were over represented as stable members of these groups, and younger person membership was less stable but important for long -term political viability. The groups we re also important political training grounds for future community leaders, including the next generation of young community leaders. Therefore, these groups and organisations are important sites for building future cultural and political capital within the city.

Drawing on these findings, this study builds on critiques of the Habermasian consensus politics that currently frame contemporary models of citizen engagement. We explore alternative ways of thinking about community engagement in urban development. Unlike consensus politics, we argue that recent work on agonistic pluralism acknowledges the enduring disagreement of different stakeholders, and accounts for the unequal power relations that underpin moments of agreement. It therefore provides an alternative way of conceptualising the conflicts that exist in the urban environment as ongoing agonistic politics, which might prove to be more responsive to changes throughout the development process in the long -term. Thus, the three key political ideas explored in this report are:

  • Consensus Politics – Working toward a general agreement through engagement
  • Antagonistic Politics – Active hostility mobilised through opposition
  • Agonistic Politics – Agreeing to disagree through action, dialogue and debate

We show that different strategies and tactics are utilised by individuals and resident action groups in their attempts to influence planning and urban development processes. We outline the different levels of success of these approaches, and the ways these informal processes might better interface with the formal planning system. The groups that networked and brought together smaller short -term 'single -issue' groups reported that they were more effective political actors when they operated as 'multi- issue' and 'big -picture' groups.

We conclude the report by providing an alternate conceptual pathway that might be pursued to create more meaningful community participation in the planning and development of the city. We set out a suite of conceptual issues by asking how we might account for the fundamentally different goals of individuals and groups in the urban development process. In particular, the data from this study shows that the actions of urban citizenries are motivated by the values they bring into their urban political projects. However, for a shift from a rigid antagonistic stance to be moderated , the urban actors and politics groups have to shift from a rigid and non - negotiable set of values that are guiding and informing their action. They need to be open to a wider range of ways to understand how they and others value their city.

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