Community engagement or community capture

21 May 2015 | Posted In: #125 Winter 2015, Community Engagement, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Michael Darcy

In Sydney’s current frantic urban redevelopment scene we are hearing the word ‘community’ used very frequently. Michael Darcy warns of the limitations of community pr ofessionals.

gumbiesMany years ago, as a young Social Work student, I learned about two distinct types of community work. ‘Community Development’ focussed on collaboration between agencies and residents, building local networks to identify needs; ‘Community Organ­ising’ was far more political activity based on the prescriptions of Ameri­can urban activist Saul Alinsky, where residents recognised the conflicts of interest inherent in urban develop­ment and confronted landlords and developers more directly.

In Sydney’s current frantic urban redevelopment scene we are hear­ing the word ‘community’ used very frequently by local residents, govern­ment agencies and developers alike – ‘community renewal’, ‘community building’, and ‘community engage­ment’ are the buzz words of the indus­try. In an apparent victory for localism and citizen participation, it seems as though nothing can happen without attending to the needs and views of the community. But despite this very few community activists feel that any progress has been made or that they can relax and wait to be engaged.

Behind the flurry of effort by govern­ment and commercial agencies to develop new skills and techniques for community engagement lies a very different agenda. In my view there are a number of elements of this agenda which militate directly against both of the ideas of community that I was taught all those years ago. The first is the emergence of a whole new class of professional ‘community builders’ employed increasingly as or by private consultants. These professionals move from place to place where they roll out a range of pre-packaged techniques designed to elicit participation and articulate ‘community’ views. More often than not of course, the most important elements of a redevelopment are not negotiable and the danger is that participants have unwittingly been recruited into taking responsibility for a plan which is not of their making.

The largest threat to inner city communities posed by redevelopment is loss of affordable housing, includ­ing public or social housing. Yet while development and other government agencies claim to be searching for ways to preserve diversity in renewed urban areas, housing policy is actively seeking to make the most afforda­ble housing less secure for tenants through its ‘pathways’ approach where tenants are expected to aspire to leave social housing for the private rental market. As any experienced community worker knows, the group least likely to be able to make a stable contribution to community networks and organisations are private tenants. The push to make public and social housing even more ‘transitional’, outlined in the NSW government’s Social Housing Discussion paper released late last year, undermines any claim to being concerned about maintaining and involving diverse communities in urban development. Alongside the ‘pathways’ approach sits the so-called deconcentration agenda. This has been used to argue that relocating public housing tenants into more mixed neighbourhoods will make them better off. While the current sell-off in Millers Point exposes the reality of this excuse, the fact is that destroying, or even threat­ening, lifelong connections amongst friends and neighbours in places like Glebe, Waterloo and Erskineville is hardly evidence of a commitment to community building or community engagement.

Not all community engagement strat­egies are cynical, and not all consultants are simply paying lip service to commu­nity ideals – but community organisers and activists need to recognise clearly the contradictions and vested interests that can underlie engagement strate­gies. At the same time, Alinsky-style rent strikes and other local actions can only take us so far in the face of the global forces of urban change. Commu­nity activists in the twenty first century need to move beyond the local. Our communities of interest are increas­ingly global and the issues in Millers Point, Glebe and Erskineville are echoed in parts of London, Chicago and many other global cities. Community building and networking needs to be interna­tionalised just like the market forces driving urban redevelopment. Finally, as government concedes its place as democratic arbiter to become a part of the development industry, new inde­pendent partners need to be recruited to support international community work. Primary among these should be the universities who have the technology and the public charter to truly protect, connect and build communities.

Associate Professor Michael Darcy, is an inner Sydney resident, researcher and is Director of the urban Research Centre at the university of Western Sydney.