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Environmental risk assessment as a tool in Local Agenda 21 partnering

Garry Smith

Principal Environmental Scientist, Sutherland Shire Council

The Local Agenda 21 call from the United Nations in 1992 for a consultative process between local authorities and their communities implied that communities would embrace sustainability. Experience in many local authorities since that time has demonstrated that problems arise, particularly in affluent countries, when ESD appears to conflict with individual development rights or local lifestyle choices. This is well demonstrated in current community reactions against any aspect of urban consolidation, including the few well planned and communicated aspects.

An important step identified in Local Agenda 21 was the need for formation of partnerships between the local authority and community.

Involvement of the community in planning has always been fundamental to successful plan development. However, Local Agenda 21 recognised a need to move beyond community consultation into community partnering.

One popular dictionary describes a partner as ‘a person associated with others in business of which he shares risks and profits’.

The complexity of ecologically sustainable development at the biological and land use levels, and the need to integrate environmental, economic, and social planning components, makes genuine community partnering vital to ecologically sustainable development. Despite this, genuine partnering is only rarely achieved today, and consultation is a poor working alternative.

What do Citizens want?

In 1999 we undertook at Sutherland Shire Council a citizens panelling exercise to assess citizen perspectives on plan alternatives for a large local government area of 200,000 residents south of the Sydney Central Business District.

A clear message from this panelling process was that citizens are prepared to undertake genuine partnering, including personal involvement in understanding information related to constraints on lifestyle. However such willingness is subject to being provided with adequate information and with a genuine government commitment to take action.

Our response to these needs has been adaptation of international risk assessment procedures to local planning in order to inform citizens about local environmental risks and to demonstrate government commitment to openness and factual plan-making.

Risk assessment

Risk assessment involves the following steps:

• Description of a hazard which may be, for example, a chemical pollutant for human health or habitat loss for biodiversity.

• Description of the potential for exposure to the hazard, which may be estimated using extrapolation or modelling approaches or by direct measurement of an existing situation.

• Estimation of a risk, the likelihood of a negative effect, based on the hazard and exposures.

• Consideration and discussion of uncertainties which may be inherent in arriving at the risk estimate.

Environmental risk assessment in community partnering and planning

Human and ecosystem hazards for Oyster Bay, a local community south of Sydney, were identified from first principles by assessing air, biodiversity, land and water hazards. For simplification, representative indicators of human or ecosystem health were selected for analysis. For example, vertebrates were chosen as the indicator species for biodiversity, and impervious surfaces chosen as the indicator for land use. The key biodiversity hazard was loss of habitat, particularly by clearing residential land for development.

In order to include social, economic and environmental considerations in the risk assessment, hazards such as traffic safety and congestion were also considered.

Following the consideration of hazard, consideration was also given under each environment category to the potential exposure of humans or the ecosystem to the hazards.

A risk, categorised as high, moderate or low, was assigned to each hazard/exposure outcome.

Uncertainty was assessed for each risk.

Individual risk reports for the different environmental components were published together with a summary risk assessment. This was done in order to provide full public information on the risk assessment methods and results.

Following the risk assessment a ranking of both citizen and Council actions required to address environmental risks was performed based on a prioritisation step measuring the scale of the risk (e.g. wide geographic significance, large population impacts) and quality of the risk (e.g. well-researched databases, corroboration by independent experts). This prioritisation step was undertaken independent of, and subsequent to the risk assessment so that the two processes would not influence each other, consistent with good international risk assessment practice.

The risk actions required for Oyster Bay are as follows:

Higher priority

• reduce large habitat loss

• reduce car ownership and use

• decrease microbials in water

• impervious surface reduction

• avoid waterfront habitat loss

• decrease sediment load in water

• avoid linkage habitat loss

• decrease chemical pollutants in water

• improve local air quality

• avoid soil destabilisation

• avoid climate changing activities

• manage contaminated sites

Lower priority

A summary risk assessment and accompanying risk reports are accessible on the internet at, under ‘Risk Assessment Report’ in the A–Z index. 1

What about planning?

The risk assessment process and the planning process were integrated in several community workshops with Oyster Bay residents. The risk assessment was published on the internet, to enable detailed examination by residents, and summary documents provided by mail prior to the workshop. The workshops identified and discussed the environmental risks affecting Oyster Bay and sought suggestions from citizens on how these risks could be managed. The outcomes were used in the preparation of planning controls that contribute to long-term environmental quality and sustainability for Oyster Bay.

The planning outcomes from the risk assessment-based workshops included:

• Council planners reported the risk assessment approach as very useful with respect to Council and community understanding of environmental issues and any implications of planning choices.

• the citizen-identified risks for Oyster Bay showed a good correlation with the Council-identified risks.

• a significant proportion of citizens expressed a willingness to consider lifestyle changes which could be reflected in local plans, consistent with the risks identified by Council and the community.

Opportunities provided by a risk assessment approach to Local Agenda 21

The local opportunities identified by the pilot exercise process and the workshop outcomes include:

• enhanced equity for the community in the planning process.

• better understanding of planning options and pathways in light of risk information.

• enhanced trust between the local authority and citizens based upon clear discussion of risk and planning issues.

• enhanced capacity for committed partnering between community and the local authority with respect to planning options.

One of the most valuable outcomes for a partnering approach was an identification and acknowledgement that Council and citizens shared sometimes unique roles in addressing local risks. The roles identified in Oyster Bay were:

Relationship between risk actions and community/council activities

Community-based action

Council-based action

Higher Priority


    • Reduce car ownership and use

    • Impervious Surface Reduction

    • Waterfront habitat loss avoidance

    • Decrease sediment load in water

    • Avoid linkage habitate loss

    • Decrease chemicals in water

• Reduce large habitat loss

• Decrease microbials in water2

Impervious Surface Reduction

Waterfront habitat loss avoidance

Decrease sediment load in water

• Avoid linkage habitat loss

• Decrease chemicals in water

• Improve local air quality3

Avoid soil destabilisation

Avoid climate changing activities

Manage contaminated sites

Lower Priority


Our view is that an understanding of the local risks by a community is a fundamental step in establishing and encouraging a local government and community planning partnership. We are now using the risk assessment approach in other local community planning projects.


The contributions of Ian Drinnan, Ingo Koernicke, Sally Perry and Darren Ikin to the risk assessment, and the contribution of Sutherland Shire Council’s Environmental Planning Department in undertaking the workshops, are gratefully acknowledged.

About the author

Dr Garry Smith is project leader of the Local Agenda 21 Project for Sutherland Shire Council which was awarded the Local Government Excellence in the Environment Award in 1998. He worked on decontamination of the Olympics 2000 site undertaking human health and ecosystem risk assessments. Garry is currently Honorary Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Wollongong and was the Australian member of an ICLEI international team which developed the ‘Lisbon Protocol’ in 1999 as a basis for a new global water management campaign.

1 The direct URLs for the Oyster Bay risk assessment are and

2 Includes State Government responsibilities

3 Community may minimise solid fuel heater impacts

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