Building e-communities: community development and the changing nature of neighbourhoods

The Inaugural Annual Marg Barry Memorial Lecture, 2005

Andrew Jakubowicz, Historian, heritage consultant and author

This City Space

The land of what is now the City of Sydney has been contested space for over two hundred years. Here Pemelwuy led the Cadigal clan of the Eora people in resistance to the European invasion of their lands, until their defeat, but not capitulation under the barrage of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction deployed against them. As the British crown populated the land with a mixture of military guards and condemned criminals, a certain view began to establish itself among the settlers about the way land should be used. Over the following generations, Sydney, David Williamson’s Emerald City, played out in physical space the political struggles between classes, religions and ethnic groups that would define the city and its neighbourhoods.

When I first became aware of inner Sydney, I was a youngster hanging around my father’s dry cleaning business in Taylor Square. His plant was in a lane behind Kinsela’s funeral business, and I would watch the comings and goings of the hearses and the men who worked them lounging about, smoking and telling tales of the lives of those whose corpses they handled. The streets would be full of colourful characters, from every corner of the world, though the politics of the area were firmly in the control of the Irish Catholic community whose churches and pubs seemed to catch my eye wherever I turned. I guess I would have been about five then, a time that the Australian Census tells us most of the inner city was made up of tenants living in decaying terraces rotting in the lea of decades-old rent control. Less than a decade after the end of the WW1, my refugee parents had established themselves in the heartland of an old Australia, albeit one experiencing the first surges of both the non-Anglo European immigration and the local baby boom.

Over the next decade or so, until he moved his business to Bondi, my father and I would share my Saturdays and holidays working in the shop, and watching the face ofAustralia change before our eyes. Across the road the barber was Greek – the café we ate at was Czech, while the fruiterer was, of course, Italian. The employees in the business were mainly itinerant east coast Aussie drifters, some Aboriginal, straight out of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, salt of the earth blokes. Later one was revealed in dramatic circumstances as the self-proclaimed Fuhrer of the Australian Nazi Party. He had been holding branch meetings upstairs after work, behind the back of his own favourite Jew, my father, whose parents had been annihilated in the Lodz ghetto in 1942. Australia harboured its own contradictions.

Thirty years ago

I returned to the inner city in my university years, living in Balmain as it first tasted gentrification, then in Redfern where Marie Bashir was the local community psychiatrist trying to manage the impact of urban poverty and dislocation on the now crowded tenements, with their sleeping shifts of immigrant factory workers and their shell-shocked young brides. It was during this period that I first met Marg Barry. I was working on a community development project exploring the use of the new medium of potable video, using South Sydney Community Aid as a base, and making local contacts through the Settlement. She was a home owner in Waterloo who had just come face-to-face with the redevelopment zeal of the NSW Housing Commission under its crusading Chairman, Jack Bourke, and its very efficiently bureaucratic secretary, David Richmond (later a Health and then an Olympics bureaucrat).

The politics of the inner city were never simple – this was a period of Robin Askin as one of the more corrupt Premiers in Australian history, funding vast redevelopment plans in conjunction with many of the post-war immigrant entrepreneurs, drawing on funding from the Moscow Narodny bank, and being opposed by the unions led by new Communist leaders such as Jack Mundey. The old Irish Catholic Labor branches still ran the City, until Askin replaced them with administrators and then re-gerrymandered the boundaries to produce a right-of-centre council, led in those days by the maverick Lord Mayor, Nick Shehadie (Marie Bashir’s husband).

Throughout this process old communities were fragmenting and new ones emerging.

Then, as now, the politics of the city were about power – of capital over labour, of the Whites over the Blacks, of the old Australia over the new Australia, of men over women. Marg emerged as a leader of a new type, one of a number of women who were blooded in the resident action movement (like Carol Baker in North Sydney and later Genni Macaffrey) and proved to be relentless foes of the developers and demolishers who were seeking to remake the city in their interests. CloverMoore is the most recent and arguably the most sophisticated of these. They occupied a niche that had not existed prior to the mid 1960s – tertiary educated home-owners drawn to the inner city by its Victorian architecture, village topography and appearance of communal solidarity. They were informed by a unique combination of feminism, popular mobilisation experiences, middle class expectations about quality of life and control of one’s space, and a passion for their own home (and a detestation of the mundanity of suburbia and the advertised Australian dream). They nudged their way between the old power players – Labor machines representing Anglo-Australian tenants, who had campaigned for public housing throughout the fifties and sixties; state bureaucracies mandated to push over the old urban form and replace it with acres of modernist high-rise into which the welfare state would shoe-horn its clients; and the developers freed to package the sky under the Strata Title Act, devised by one of them (Dusseldorf of Lend Lease) in order to produce profit, quite literally, out of thin air.

Urban struggles and social change

The coalitions that emerged from these changes were nothing if not self-serving, though they claimed and indeed often produced socially beneficial outcomes. Through the 1970s, urban battles raged across Sydney– in the Rocks, in Woolloomooloo, in Surry Hills, in Glebe, in Ultimo, and in South Sydney. In the midst of these struggles the Federal government changed – Whitlam with his Urban Affairs Minister, Tom Uren, swept into office on the promise of a new deal for cities.

At the time, the language was all about participatory planning – even developers sought to co-opt resident groups to devise frameworks for development that would avoid the feared call for a Green Ban. And indeed by the late 1970s though the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation had been tamed, the nature of local politics had been changed forever. There was widespread recognition of resident rights and an emerging strategy for consultative local planning.

In the midst of the turmoil the Federal government created the Australian Assistance Plan (an idea borrowed from Canada as were so many other innovations of the time), an attempt to develop a participatory social planning model that would bring together communities, local government and regional planners to devise programs that would help alleviate poverty and disadvantage, through empowering local people to contribute to the planning process. Across the country, some twenty five or so regional councils for social development (‘RCSDs’) were instigated, funded by the Commonwealth and requiring collaboration between local government and local communities.

For many local Councils, these RCSDs with their paid community development workers and organising resources, were anathemas. They destabilised local power by enabling voluntary action groups to participate more aggressively, and to undertake research into community issues that were not directly defined and controlled by the old regimes. They also fostered the leadership skills and aspirations of people who were not tied by loyalty or business to either Labor or commercial interests (such as real estate agents). Moreover, the implicit muscle in the new equation came at least early on from the militant unions and their real capacity to interfere with the development agendas of major bureaucracies or corporations.

It was in this environment that the Inner Sydney RCSD was established and Marg Barry, by then a well-blooded activist inWaterloo against the Housing Commission, became its Executive Officer. It is a strange irony that this talk is occurring in the week following the Housing Minister’s announcement that the rules are changing, the old certainties of public housing tenancy have been terminated, and a new era of public housing as welfare housing (rather then working class community building) is firmly on the page, guaranteeing that the capacity for community leadership will be reduced.

Communities in the 21st Century

While the context of how we reached where we are today provides a useful starting off point, it can only provide a very broad indication of the dynamics at work in 2005 – an amazing thirty years after those first meetings of the Inner Sydney RCSD in the halls of Surry Hills, Leichhardt and Redfern.

We are still facing the same broad issues in terms of urban power. While we now live in a period of neo-liberal free-market ideology (though my memory of the 1970s under Askin suggests it was hardly different then), the class politics has changed a great deal. Trade unions are not nearly as strong as they were, and a much greater part of the population has no organised representation of their interests.

Fewer people belong to political parties (though many more support civil society organisations such as Amnesty and Greenpeace). Far more households have female heads, more children live in poverty, and there are many more single people, often with serious impairments trying to survive in an environment that intensifies their disabilities. Chronic illness is more widespread and a far greater part of the population depends on the disability support pension. Indigenous communities are more self-aware, but still very marginalised. Drug abuse and alcoholism has intensified, and people feel far less safe in their neighbourhoods than they used to do. Many more people have been in gaol, or are under the surveillance of the criminal justice authorities.

Turnover of population is accelerating and as new housing developments bring thousands of new residents into the inner city, few structures exist to build community networks and create what is today fashionably known as social capital. As Emile Durkheim the French sociologist recognised in a similar period in Europe over a century ago, these conditions are classically those associated with rising anomic alienation, a state of disengagement from society that can intensify psychological anguish and social breakdown.

We are seeing in the city new forms of social networks, often facilitated among the young or more affluent through use of new technologies such as the internet and mobile phones (especially SMS). As the city is transformed we find new commercially-provided communal centres, especially fitness clubs and coffee shops, where people with disposable incomes can link up with like-minds, or check their emails on wireless laptops or multifunction PDAs. Yet for those who are, in the inimitable words of Rupert Murdoch, neither cyber-natives nor-cyber immigrants (I guess cyber waifs might be the most appropriate alternative), cities are becoming more expensive, less hospitable and more dangerous.

So for many people, the urban centres, with their promises of diversity and their capacity for creativity, have failed to deliver. It is no secret that Sydney is in the midst of a cataclysmic planning crisis, with social statistics from suicide to asthma out of control, and the sustained run-down of social infrastructure revealing a crumbling edifice beneath. There is not a single social service that can meet the demands of its clients, while an ageing population creates ever-greater pressures for support and quality of life improvement. After decades of tax cuts and privatisation, we have a social framework that leaves many of our most vulnerable citizens stranded, and powerful economic forces feeling quite capable and justified in running them over on their way to greater ‘shareholder value’. On the way antiseptic housing estates pop up like instant stalagmites.

Digital city

Given that even Rupert Murdoch has noted the critical importance of digital technologies for the future of human communication and well-being, it is worth turning our attention to what has been described as the digital divide, that chasm in the quality of life opportunities generated by the space between those who have and those who do not have access to the internet and related technologies. At a time that government has announced its desire to shift its service delivery to cyberspace, and Bill Gates has visited Australia to sprinkle Microsoft Foundation dollars on the fertile ground of the Commonwealth’s national IT policy, we should be exploring the gap between what we have and what we might usefully mobilise if the traditional inequalities of power are not to be massively enhanced by the new digital landscape.

Information technology theorists talk about two sorts of IT community. On one side lies the community of interest in which people are liberated to communicate and build relationships amongst themselves, exchanging information, strengthening their capacity to operate in the ever-growing challenges of contemporary society. In this perspective community is about self-awareness and active engagement. Thus, we find here everything from Yahoo! groups to closed societies organised around hobbies, political interests or philosophical discussions.

On the other side is the commercialisation of community, the creating of groups that are not self-aware, but are nevertheless linked because some government or corporate body wishes to see them as a group with common characteristics – as clients, customers or consumers. Here we find the increasingly omnipresent Alpha practices of companies such as Amazon, that track individual Internet search patterns and feed back to them appropriate behaviours for people like them – usually purchase behaviours.

Back in 1997, the NSW government created connect.nsw, a plan to make the state a leader in the use of electronic networks. Of the five initiatives, one focussed on building networked communities; the plan set up the following goals:

  • Networked Communities Initiatives
    • Ensure Community Needs and Service Requirements are Incorporated into
  • Service NSW
    • Improve Regional and Remote Equity of Access
    • Establish Regional Electronic Communities”

The Reference  Group established for the project was restricted to government members, though an Advisory Committee was to involve non-government representatives. One of the outcomes has been the creation of Community Technology Centres (‘CTCs’) – ‘Getting Communities Online’.  But only some communities are actually connected in this strategy – in the regions. As the connect.nsw 1997 report noted: “There is potential for the establishment of other regional and area homepages, eg.Western Sydney, Suburb web sites or Neighbourhood Watch web sites”. There has been little action in this regard.

In NSW the local government IT project to build local government websites has taken such a perspective, though in a far less sophisticated form. While “Local-e-Online action for NSW”, funded by the Commonwealth’s Networking the Nation program, identifies community participation and enhancing democracy as two major goals, the primary focus appears to be delivering council information to the community. The sites are designed to facilitate the business of local government, not the development of local community activism, and there is no clear sense of how the sites actually enhance democracy (other than through a fairly undeveloped identification of the role of community publishing).

Only in the rural and regional CTCs (developed in part to address the alienation of rural communities and their political drift to One Nation) do we find some idea of access to technology as a strategy for facilitating social participation, and yet increasingly these CTCs are being driven to cover their bottom line through small business activities. There are apparently no inner city initiatives; no need or desire to enhance democracy or encourage community participation as government priorities. A systematic exploration of the City of Sydney website also reveals no such public commitment, nor any framework for activism, other than a listing of neighbourhood groups and contact phone numbers. Among the groups, Ultimo and Darlinghurst have active local networks, with functioning websites.

In addition, the NSW Community Builders website has tried to facilitate communication about community development (links on ‘how to’), but it has no sense of activism nor does it exude a philosophy of participatory democracy. So as with most things in the inner city, it has been left to community activists to try to develop ways of resisting the marginalisation of local people. A 2000 report on IT and youth in Australia noted that: “The South Sydney Youth Services is establishing a Helping Early Leavers project which offers free Internet and multimedia courses and free access for their clients (27% are indigenous and 32% non-English speaking background). They are currently setting up a web cafe that will be run by young people”. Well, there is no South Sydney Youth Services website, so another hopeful plan awaits realisation.

The only community building websites in South Sydneyare being developed by local communities – not by government as elsewhere. Thus, Newtown Neighbourhood Centre offers a local information service, though not a community network, while REDWatch offers a running commentary on the State government’s activities in the Redfern area. As many critiques of e-democracy have noted, most governmental activity has focussed on telling people what government wishes them to hear, read or see.

The Victorian government has taken a rather different direction from NSW – establishing VicNet as a free environment for the building of communities of interest. As VicNet has grown it has enabled hundreds of social groups, some locality based, some built around shared interests, to set up networks that allow information exchange and mobilisation in the non-cyberworld.

Building digital neighbourhood

Studies of digitally interlinked communities in North America reveal some interesting trends – showing quite striking social benefit from wiring living environments (or these days wirelessing them). In a study of a new Toronto community in the late 1990s, where some homes were electronically linked by high speed broadband and others were not, researchers found that wired households were more likely to know their neighbours, and more of them, more likely to interact with them socially and visit them, and more likely to share social tasks, thereby building social capital. Wired communities were felt to be safer and more supportive.

In reflecting on the Toronto research in 2003, the researcher, Keith Hampton argued that collective action depends on a dense network of weaker ties – in fact, very strong emotional ties may limit collective action. Wired residents, connected to a local neighbourhood email list (about 50-60 families) are part of a dense but weak network – exactly the conditions necessary for collective action to be facilitated.

Hampton found that the capacity for collective action was dramatically enhanced through the sharing of information – in his case by frustrated homeowners whose early experience of the estate on which they lived was not up to expectations. Developers normally expect about 5% of new residents to take up complaints – in the case of ‘Netville’ the proportion was 50%. Moreover, the difficulties in organising and the reluctance people have to participate were very much reduced – as everyone could see how many of their neighbours were worried about issues and realised they were not alone. But, Hampton concluded that activism can cease very quickly too, if people feel no-one else is participating. The critical insight from the work relates to the role of ICTs in helping establish networks early in the period of neighbourhood development, best achieved through a local email list to which everyone is connected, now possible through Yahoo! groups or similar services.

The other side of this process relates to how people in local areas, potentially isolated from wider social interaction, can be ‘knitted’ into more dispersed communities of interest across the city or even further afield. Despite the fears of some that the new ICTs would isolate people further, locking them into an individualised relationship with anonymous cyber-mates, evidence suggests that for many people the net opens up possibilities for interaction. Indeed it seems to work best for people who in other situations might be least willing to engage in social interaction. By allocating control of the situation to the participant, individuals can move into relationships at their own pace, taking time to reflect on and interpret new information and make conscious decisions about their next step. For urban residents seeking to locate themselves socially and feel out like-minded people, to associate themselves with relevant activities and so forth, the internet can act as a ‘bailey bridge’, with sections being laid and tested for weight, before the next span is lowered into place.  Where there are differences of culture and religion, these sorts of bridges can be fragile, but may be one of the few ways of tentatively moving across social divides.


When Keith Hampton moved to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the USA (where I interviewed him), he took with him the lessons of Netville.  At MIT he created I-Neighbors, a huge project that enables anyone in the USA or Canada to join a local virtual neighbourhood. Built around postcodes, Hampton and his students have created circumscribed electronic communities that are open to anyone living within the local area.

Joining the neighbourhood is simple. You log-on to, through entering your local zip code (postcode). Then you fill in an online form with as much or as little detail as you wish. Once entered you have available the resources of the I-Neighbourhood, including the ‘matches’ function, which identifies people who are similar to you in the neighbourhood – potentially available to share in like-minded activities. Neighbourhoods can create polls to test local reaction to issues. You can decide to join (and leave) the local email list, and use the GovLink function – to send faxes (better than emails) to government officials and politicians, including those identified by local residents as important.

As people act on GovLink they build a ‘trust score’, showing each other whether their information is accurate and dependable.  In addition other rules apply: “It is a violation of the Terms of Use to use this service to sell products or services, express bigotry, racism, hatred, or profanity and to transmit material that is libellous, defamatory, obscene, threatening, abusive or hateful”.


While governments have identified ICTs as providing critical pathways towards more efficient governance, pathways to advance participation and democracy are less apparent on their agendas. Activist networks and websites now abound, though they tend to attract the already committed individual. Community development requires us to move beyond that notion – and recognise that advocates can too easily lose their legitimacy if they are not closely connected to their constituencies. It is hardly in the interest of those with power in this city to empower those whom they wish to roll over; or to put it more crudely, it is unlikely they will go out of their way to help trouble makers make trouble. If we look at the City South project site we can see that the flow of information there is all about the government agenda – nothing there facilitates the building of community networks. The site does allow the authorities to communicate directly to internet users, bypassing community organisations and limiting communal debate and discussion.

The challenge for community development remains as always, how to empower those without voices, enable those marginalised by social change and encourage those devalued by the wider society. The digital world remarkably can help to do these things and build on the struggles of the past in the process. Over the next few years community organisations will have to take on these challenges or find themselves digging weeds from the verges of the information superhighway. ICT is only a means to the goal of social justice, but increasingly it is a necessary means.