Friday, 27 March 2015

Why should we be interested in urban-ecology?

Melbourne cityscape, image via iStock
by Tatjana Milosevic, International Development professional and the Director and Co-Founder of Noesis Advisors. 

Two years ago I moved from an outer suburb, in which I lived for nearly eight years, to inner city Melbourne. It takes me about 20 minutes to walk to the CBD. I can also ride a bike, which takes about 10 minutes. The nearest shop is two minutes away by foot. I love where I live and life is great. This was not always the case though.

A decade ago, I moved to Melbourne from Europe with my family, and we happened to settle in an outer suburb of Melbourne. It is located about 27 kilometers from the inner CBD and I struggled to accept this new reality. Having been raised in a small apartment, in the middle of a city in Europe, I found large amount of space around me quite overwhelming. I felt isolated and lonely. The train station was some 15 minutes bus ride, which only operated every half an hour and the train ride to the city took some 45 minutes. Add the same for coming back home and the last bus ride from the train station was scheduled at 8.05pm. You can imagine what consequences this had on my social life.

Wait, the worst part is about to come; for one reason or another-unknown to me till this day-the bus schedule never aligned with the train schedule. This meant that most of the time, just as I was arriving on the bus to catch the train to the city: yes, you guessed it - the train was just leaving. I, and other frustrated commuters, had to wait about 20 minutes for another train, which is normal in non-rush hours. It was during these fine hours that I also noticed youth hanging around train station that appeared very bored and frustrated; most people in the outer suburbs were overweight or obese; the roads were filled with cars and in peak hours, all the roads were congested and it was very unpleasant to walk in this setting. Sometimes you could see people walking around parks in the evening but this was a rare site and not plenty in numbers.

I asked myself at that time-without knowing what sustainability really meant: is this sustainable? Is this way of life good for us? Do we have to have large houses and large backyards that we do not have the time to garden or attend to, or entertain in, because we spend so many hours a week sitting in cars, buses or trains? Is there another way to live?

Melbourne is currently one of the largest sprawling cities in the world. With a population of four million people, Melbourne has one of the largest urban footprints of any city in the world. This continuing sprawl demands more resources, more water, more energy and a greater need for transportation. I am concerned about the future of our city - my adopted home - and I want to be a part of the discussion on how to improve not just our environment, but also our well-being. How do we sustain a growing population? Where will my children live? What kind of environment will they live in?

What is Urban Ecology and what can you do about it?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics expects that Australia’s population will grow by 60%, reaching nearly 35 million people by 2056. Most people will choose to live in large, capital cities, which means nearly 85% of our population will be concentrated in urban areas.

The burning question is-what can we do about it?

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that we live in an environment in which there are limits to resources. Human activity has caused biodiversity loss, ozone depletion and deforestation. At the same time, the fast pace of technological change; geopolitical instability; water shortages; and environmental damage pose a significant threat to Australia’s national and regional economic stability on an inter-generational basis.

Second, we also have to understand that not all is bleak: solutions exist and they are to be found in nature. This is what Urban Ecology is about: it is the development that allows us to live within environmental limits of resource use. We are able to achieve this by changing our behavior throughout six major areas of life: Energy, Urban Planning, Transport, Health, Food and Circular Economy.

RMIT UrbanEco Symposium is a platform that provides an opportunity for us to come together and participate in discussion on how to shape our way of life. Change is possible. Let’s start now.

For more information visit:

Friday, 13 March 2015

‘Not a lot of people read the stuff’: how planning defies good theory

Urban policy practitioners are not engaging with applied urban research outputs. Image via iStock

By Joe Hurley, RMIT University and Elizabeth Taylor, University of Melbourne

Research into the way cities do – or do not – work can make a critical contribution to urban policy and practice. Yet our recent research finds that urban policy practitioners rarely engage with applied urban research outputs. This is despite practitioners identifying research as an important factor in good practice, policy and professional development.

In related disciplines such as urban health and natural resource management, the role of research in policy development is more accepted and embedded. But in planning policy the research-practice disconnect is large and entrenched.

There is no shortage of applied urban research that seeks to influence practice – for example, the State of Australian Cities conference series. Recent research on community engagement in plan-making processes and planning policy mechanisms for affordable housing provide examples where a significant contribution to practice could be made. We argue that engagement with such research is often critical for good practice outcomes, but find there are systemic barriers to this.

Many of these barriers stem from the nature of urban scholarship in Australia. Here, critical theoretical scholarship, published in high-ranking international journals, is most rewarded by institutional settings.

In the case of applied research, the task of communicating findings to professional audiences is not easy or particularly well rewarded institutionally. Researchers lack the drivers and often skills to disseminate their work. Outlets such as The Conversation are starting to break down this barrier, challenging academics such as ourselves to communicate better to a wider practice audience.

There are similarly significant barriers on the practice side. Professional planners are time-poor when it comes to engaging with research outputs. In a minefield of gruesome-sounding mixed metaphors, planners we interviewed described themselves as working in “sausage factories”, with “cookie cutter” outcomes and surviving “in the trenches with the bullets over their head”.

What information do planners use?

Much of the research base that could inform and improve practice is locked behind fee-for-access paywalls and rarely accessed by professionals.

Even when easily available, research outputs are often written in ways that make distilling practical and localised implications difficult or time-consuming. Practitioners reported being intimidated by academic language, preferring succinct and targeted information with which to navigate the practice landscape.

So where do urban policy practitioners get their information from? In the words of one respondent:
Well, Google is a good place to start.
Common sources of information mentioned included mainstream media, issue blogs and professional publications and networks.

Planners rely extensively on practice networks, which are valued for making connections and for finding out “what other people are doing”. Professional planners value “accepted knowledge” and the views of experts.

In this context, experts are most often identified as professionals with significant practice experience. While not wanting to dismiss the value of such sources, the lack of engagement with urban research is notable.

Communities may have to live with the consequences of poor, and poorly informed, urban planning for a long time. Flickr/LydiaCC BY

Planners pay attention to the politics

The bias toward popular media is partly a product of planners having to be accountable to public and political viewpoints:
It’s important for us to know the rubbish as well, if it’s influential.
In this, the significant consideration for the practitioner is seemingly not what is written but that someone else – their councillor, minister, client or community – will have read it.

It is important to acknowledge the political nature and participatory environment of planning practice and the limitations this can place on research engagement. As a local government planner said:
My client is my councillors. I have a brand-new market every three years.
In this environment of politicised consensus-driven decision-making, the role of research is not straightforward. However, politics alone cannot excuse overlooking evidence and scholarship.

Our research reveals a lack of resources to help interpret research and adapt findings to local practice needs. While consultants and some arms of government undertake this task, it is not widespread.

One means of helping to bridge the divide is to invest in making research outputs more accessible and targeted to a practitioner audience, via dedicated research-practice exchange forums and vehicles. This would require better communication between key organisations in the sector, such as university research centres, industry peak bodies and government agencies.

Exchange between research and practice in urban policy and planning is, in our view, inadequate. A culture shift is arguably required in both researcher and practitioner communities to better understand, value and facilitate effective information exchange.

Cities matter. For better cities, there is a pressing need to bring academia and practitioners together in the urban policy arena.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Bali two: politics, not culture, divides us

by Professor Jeff Lewis  and Dr Belinda Lewis

There are many public officials and citizens in Indonesia who support the capital punishment of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Most commonly, this support reflects doubts about the character of the two convicted drug smugglers, as well as deeper anxious about law and the contamination of Indonesian culture and sovereign integrity.

We first met Chan and Sukumaran in 2005 while conducting research into the role of terrorist organisations in the South East Asian narcotics trade. The trail of these studies led us to Bali and Kerobokan Prison. At the time of the Bali Nine’s arrest and incarceration, we were conducting interviews with wardens, inmates and their families.

Far from a clutch of hardened criminals, the Bali Nine appeared blundering and bewildered. Even Chan and Sukumaran , the nominal ring-leaders, were foppish. They were more like tragic fools than the gangster fantasies which had nettled them into a dark world they had barely penetrated let alone understood.

Of course many Indonesians—and Australians for that matter—reject the idea that the narcotics trade is better treated as a matter of social health and personal vulnerability, rather than criminal disposition. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they believe in the inherent value of draconian legalism and punishment as the answer to the rising problem of drug use, particularly among youth.

And while we have personally witnessed the recovery and redemption of Chan and Sukumaran during our work in Kerobokan over the past 10 years, many people remain convinced that their punishment fits the crime. They believe that a merciless and rational state represents the most powerful bulwark and deterrent to drugs-related crime.

The argument, which is being made in the face of increasing pleas and protests from Australia, is that law is sacrosanct and that Australia needs to respect the sovereignty and cultural integrity of Indonesia.

And yet these laws are themselves an effect of complex and often inconsistent political and legal processes. In fact, the harsh penalties for drug crimes were introduced by former dictator Suharto in the early 1990s, largely as a means of appeasing religious conservatives and shoring up his own presidency.

The current president, Joko Widodo, remains captive to the same forces and political intrigue. Widodo’s resistance to clemency is as much a symptom of these precarious political conditions, as they reflect the new president’s inexperience in international relations.

Moreover, and as most visitors to Indonesia appreciate, law enforcement, the judiciary and rule-of-law more generally are being exercised through uneven and sometimes corrupt processes. While Indonesian democracy is making enormous strides forward, it remains uneven and far from universally rational or just.

To some extent, members of the Bali Nine are victims of this uneven delivery of justice, a point being made through the final appeals of Sukumaran and Chan’s legal team.

In this context, there can be no justification for the execution of the two Bali Nine inmates on the basis of cultural integrity or difference.

Indonesia is a complex and extremely diverse cultural assemblage in which the majority of citizens continue to struggle for economic survival and development. It is, in fact, primarily the wealthier middle classes and political élite who are genuinely engaged in the fate of these two young Australians.

And in this class of people, there are increasing numbers who oppose the death penalty and who recognise that drugs are indeed a matter of social health and management. These modern, liberal thinkers are themselves engaged in a political struggle against the religious conservatives, who are so deeply suspicious of western modernism, its pleasures and fallibilities.

Thus, the more belligerent pleas and exhortations of the Australian government are not only fatuous, they are actually counter-productive. No-one likes a nosey neighbour, particularly one that has unilaterally pursued antagonistic policies like ‘turn-back-the-boats’—policies which convert a common problem into Indonesia’s problem.

As much as Chan and Sukumaran were nettled into the international drugs trade, they have now also been tragically ensnared into these complex political issues. They do not deserve this fate. And we would add our plea to the many voices who are calling for clemency. We call on friendship and a common humanity, on the kindness and warmth we have personally experienced in our many years of living and working in Indonesia. We now call on that love and beg for mercy.

Professor Jeff Lewis is co-director of Human Security and Disasters Research Program at RMIT University. Dr Belinda Lewis is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Health at
Monash University.