Facilitating contested issues on the urban rural interface

Many communities located on the fringe of major cities are experiencing increased community conflict brought about by encroaching urban development and the resulting changes posed to traditional land-use patterns, land values, and the natural environment. Future management planning in these areas is typically contested, with disagreement over what is best for the community.

The Situation

The City of Whittlesea, located in green wedge land on the northern fringe of Melbourne is an example of a community that is experiencing these changes. Kimbra White was appointed by the City of Whittlesea to facilitate two meetings of concerned local landowners and interest groups to discuss these issues and to consider the future management of the area.

The Challenge

Effectively managing conflict within green wedge communities that are undergoing change brought about by urban development is complex. People often feel that their way-of-life and their values are being threatened. However, communities are frequently divided on the best way to manage the change and this is often reflected at local meetings organised to discuss these issues, where tensions and conflict are often high.

The City of Whittlesea has undergone rapid population growth and is one of the fastest growing municipalities in Victoria. Many landowners have been farming the land for several generations and are now facing increasing land values and a corresponding increase in Council rates. Land that was once remote is now being developed for new suburbs and the surrounding natural wildlife, vegetation and waterways are also being impacted.  People are divided on the best way to respond to these changes. Some are angry that increases in land values and rates are forcing them off their land and are a threat to their livelihood, while others see increased land values as a financial opportunity. People are also concerned at the impact to the natural environment of an increase in dogs, cats and motorbikes.

Our Work

Two evening workshops were organised to discuss people’s concerns and ideas about the best way to manage the future planning of the area. The workshops consisted of about 20 people representing a range of landowners and interest groups.

Due to the emotional context of the issues being discussed, as well as the contested and diverse nature of opinions represented by participants, Kimbra utilised graphic and narrative methods to begin the workshops. Participants were asked to bring a favourite photo of the area to the first workshop and Council provided an additional selection of local photographs. Each person was asked to introduce themselves and talk about the photograph they had selected. Participants were then divided into smaller groups to discuss a range of issues effecting them.

The photographs elicited a range of stories and vivid descriptions of local geography. These descriptions had the effect of focusing people’s attention upon the shared values and sense of place that connected them, and was an effective method of diffusing and managing initial tensions. The images and the stories generated had a powerful impact that was sustained across both workshops. They acted as a symbolic touchstone identifying a sense of place that reflected a set of fundamental values that people shared about the area in which they lived and worked. The use of these  methods contributed positively to the tone of discussions throughout both meetings, allowing for the simultaneous expression of diverse and contested opinions from participants.

The Result

The two evening workshops were successful in creating a positive environment in which diverse and contested voices could be heard. This was achieved through the use of graphic methods that acted as a powerful reminder of the fundamental values that connected people to each other and to a shared sense of place. By diffusing tension and continually recalling the connections between people, the workshops were able to generate constructive discussion and allow people to express their point of view with a sense that they were in a room of people who shared the same fundamental values. The two community meetings provided the City of Whittlesea with valuable insights into the concerns of landowners and local interest groups, as well as generating constructive feedback to assist with managing urban development and change in the future.