Urban planning and community engagement: the historian’s role

This post is a personal reflection by Ian Willis about his involvement in a community consultation on the Camden Town Centre Enhancement Strategy.

The strategy involves a number of elements: a decked car park; traffic lights; additional street lighting; new street furniture; and landscaping, signage and footpath development. It has produced a problematic consultative process with fractious relationships developing between principal stakeholders and strident responses from the community.

The issue of the decked car park has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. This was proposed in the 1990s and eventually voted down by council in 2006, after a short and bitter campaign against it. I wrote a paper that summarised the issues around that controversy in 2007 and it has surfaced in the current debate.  The article has provided a historical context about one of the most controversial planning issues in Camden  in the last 25 years. At the heart of the issue was the compromise of the historic vista of St John’s church from the Nepean River floodplain.

The experience has prompted me to think about the historian’s role   in public debate about community development.

I have asked myself some questions. What skills does the historian bring to the table in this type of debate?  What practical contribution can a historian make?

I am not the first to ask these types of questions.

Other historians have presented their views on these issues at the 2014 Australian Historians Association Brisbane Conference in a plenary session called ‘Big Questions in History: How Can Historians Influence Public Policy?’  Iain McCalman called historians ‘moral and cultural agents for public good’; if they want to influence society they need to get involved with communities.  Tom Griffiths noted the role for storytelling, which created clear pictures of the relevant past. Thus, the historian has the ability to expand the present moment.

One PHA NSW member, Katherine Knight, connects past and present on her blog Western Sydney Frontier, most recently around the NSW government proposals for the historic Parramatta Female Factory precinct. Katherine has provided a platform for an open debate about a highly sensitive heritage issue of national importance.

I too attempt to do this, through my posts on Camden History Notes, by writing for the local press and with my contribution to the local debate (for example, an item in the Camden press) around the community engagement with the Camden Town Centre Strategy.

These platforms provide an opportunity to explore the issues, keep the planning issues in front of the public, provide a context and a wider perspective on the issue and encourage debate that some vested interests attempt to shut down.

Although urban planning and community engagement can be tricky, as the Grattan Institute maintains, early community engagement in the urban planning process is international best practice. It is about citizen participation in our democratic processes.  The state government has recognised this by putting community consultation at the forefront of the new planning bill currently before parliament.

The public debate around the town centre strategy in Camden has generated more smoke than heat. Parochialism and localism have surfaced—again. Unfortunately both factors have had a long history in Camden.

As I see it, the role of the historian in this debate is to shine some light into some dark corners by bringing the past into the present. The historian can create a story that allows a complex issue to become accessible to the average intelligent citizen. This may encourage more active engagement in the democratic process as more citizens are able to put issues in the broader context and thus make a more informed contribution to the planning process.

As a member of my community I have an ethical responsibility to do what I can to strengthen our democracy by using the historian’s tool box of writing

Welcome to 2015


…and to Samantha Leah, a PHA NSW member from regional New South Wales. Samantha is an historian and heritage consultant with nghenvironmental, based in Wagga Wagga but travelling far and wide!

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

My Pop was a pilot with the RAF in Bomber Command during the Second World War. Whenever I asked him about his experiences, he would always say ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older.’ He died suddenly of a stroke when I was 15; all my questions were unanswered. I originally went looking for the answers to those questions, but fell in love with the other aspects of history − the weighing of evidence, investigating sources. I love to read, and there is a lot of reading in history! I was fortunate to have some great history teachers in high school. It all came together from that point.

I was extraordinarily fortunate to be a Summer Scholar at the Australian War Memorial after I had finished my Arts degree, and before commencing honours. After that experience, I’ve never wanted to do anything else.

Who is the audience for your history?

Mostly I write reports for government agencies, but occasionally I get to produce public history that has an interest beyond the approval process. It sounds a bit mundane, but I love it. I never quite know what I will come across. In an assignment or individual project, I can change my approach if I have difficulties finding evidence, but don’t have that luxury with a report. That has really honed my research skills, not to mention perseverance!

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

Too hard to pick just one! I love the Australian Dictionary of Biography. It is such a great reference tool. One of the best engineering history reference books I have read is Don Fraser’s Bridges Down Under. It’s a history of railway under bridges of New South Wales, but he ties the engineering developments to the social and political context. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of day-to-day life. He captures the energy of innovation, without becoming sentimental.

For fun I love to read Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution. There’s a way he writes the narrative that builds the story that grabs me every time.

But there is no book as good as the archives.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

Provided I could keep my head, the French Revolution. To see and be a part of that process of massive change and upheaval, and to try and understand the period before would be amazing.

Also, if I could stroll through the 1960s, that would be an adventure.

Why is history important today?

History means different things to different groups and different people, and I think it is important to keep rewriting old stories by incorporating new perspectives. Every generation rewrites history in its own image, and this is not a bad thing. It is important to allow those new ideas to come through.

In heritage planning, which is most of my work, history is crucial, as it is used as the justification for preservation or demolition. Getting the historical background right is important to make sure the limited resources available for heritage preservation are used in a way that keeps the important relics.

History is also important because so many people find it enjoyable − either in researching family history or watching a documentary or visiting a museum. History allows people to engage with the world around them in these different mediums, and to come in contact with different ideas and ways of living. It’s important to encourage the simple enjoyment of this experience.