News

Planning on good faith



29 May 2008

On Tuesday night I attended the Camden Council meeting at which local government representatives voted unanimously to reject a proposal by the Sydney-based Quranic Society for a school.

On the way out I listened to a man imploring the reporters gathered outside. "We're just middle-class Aussies trying to protect our way of life," he said. "Just because we don't want a Muslim school in our area, that doesn't make us racists."

That scene, and numerous others like it depicted over the course of the Camden planning debate, are a valuable reminder. Despite repeated attempts by Camden's mayor, council members and planning officers to convince everyone that the decision on the Islamic school would be made "on planning grounds alone", in situations such as this where a community is characterised by deep divides in world views, ethnicity, religion and social status, decisions are never reducible to traffic flows, zoning and heritage vistas.

While it may be easy to single out its planners, council or community for the rejection of the school, Camden is only the latest venue in a list of planning setbacks for mosques, Islamic centres and schools, all denied on planning grounds.

This is despite the fact that almost half of Australia's Muslim population lives in Sydney. With continued globalisation and the need for skilled migrant workers, the influx of diverse populations to our cities will only continue.

This presents new challenges for Sydney's urban planners with regard to the provision of support services, housing and, increasingly, religious and educational institutions.

Since the 1970s, the greater numbers of immigrants of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist faiths has led to numerous planning requests for worship and educational facilities. Multiculturalism policy in Australia has made much of its engagement with religion, including an initiative to foster interfaith dialogue and one aimed at addressing issues of Islamophobia.

Yet despite commitments to multiculturalism at the federal, state and local level, local governments' attempts to embrace it have been spotty and often non-existent.

Local governments have an important role in facilitating social engagement as the conveners, collaborators and observers of their communities. This engagement is increasingly taking place in the built environment as diverse groups encounter each other in schools, religious institutions, ethnic business precincts and housing.

However, this requires that planners be able to do two things. First, they must be able to approach land-use planning procedures critically, not as completely neutral instruments.

In the case of Camden, as in most land-use planning cases, planners are quick to assert that land-use planning legislation, such as the documentation used to assess the development application in question, is value-free and does not involve prejudice on their part or the council's.

However, the choice of one type of housing over another is reflective of a preference for a certain type of family, while a preference for the preservation of certain types of heritage and streetscapes gives privilege to certain cultural values.

This is not to say that this is a bad thing, only that it is impossible to have a value-free planning enterprise, and disingenuous not to admit that it is so.

The current regulatory land-use system also has the potential for people to mask subjective objections to development such as racial prejudices or fears of extremism and terrorism as concerns about amenities, traffic, parking or noise.

Land-use planning instruments must be made flexible to deal with the realities of shifting cultural demographics that represent communities whose values, religious and educational concerns, and food or social customs may need to be represented in the built environment.

Second, planners and councils must be able to engage meaningfully with diverse communities in collaborative negotiation. Passion, deeply held values and entrenched differences can be acknowledged, but if the other side is less powerful, less articulate or less networked, then the local government body has an obligation to engage that group.

In the case of Camden, an atmosphere of fear and intimidation was constructed in which anyone who spoke in support of an Islamic school would have been taking a risk. Of the two public meetings held regarding the school application, neither were organised or supported by the council, and neither invited members of the Quranic Society to participate. Although Camden Council was under no legal obligation to conduct public forums about the issue, a community meeting of democratic discussion and debate (or at least rumour squashing) would have gone a long way.

Camden clearly shows us that deep divisions exist, particularly in the fast-growing fringe areas of Sydney in which most of the encounters between diverse groups in the built environment will be taking place. Planners and councils must be equipped to make sense of these divisions and find ways to move communities beyond entrenched positions.

The question is no longer whether planners must be aware of or consider different cultural communities, but how they should consider their needs.

Dr Laura Beth Bugg is a postgraduate student in the faculty of architecture at the University of Sydney, researching multiculturalism and urban planning.

This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Heraldtoday.

Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 02 9351 2261