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Education, ownership and solutions: the role of community involvement in achieving grass roots sustainability

Adam Beck and Cathy Crawley

Arup Sustainability


Defining the concepts

Community participation is fundamental to achieving sustainable development. Whilst community participation and sustainable development are concepts regularly mentioned in legislation, public policy, town planning objectives and other strategic documentation, there are wide-ranging interpretations of the terms.

In 1992, both terms received international and national recognition with the endorsement of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development in Australia and the global adoption of Agenda 21. It is in these two documents that the terms of community participation and sustainable development are defined for this paper.

Community participation and sustainable development are often separated in discussion. We often practice community participation yet have little thought to its contribution to the objectives of sustainable development. This may be attributed to the fact that sustainable development is often not well understood, and we cannot see a direct link between or evidence of community participation in achieving sustainable development.

Community participation

The terms community involvement, community consultation and community participation are often used interchangeably with little thought to the subtle and not-so-subtle differences. Community involvement or engagement, as Roberts (1998) discusses, is the over-arching concept of involving the community. The degree of involvement offered through various activities can range from consultation to participation. The key parameters used to differentiate between the two are the ability of the community to influence, share and/or control the decision-making process.

Many Queensland government departments require projects to include community consultation processes. Traditionally, these processes have focussed on community education, information sharing and request for feedback. As a result, the community is fairly restricted in establishing ownership of problems and gaining opportunities for greater participation and implementation of solutions.

The other degree of involvement is community participation, where, through the range of activities and methods employed, the community is more directly involved in the decision-making process. This enables a feeling of empowerment and ownership for the community. It is this degree of community involvement that provides opportunities for collaboration and partnering between government, industry and the community.


The concept of sustainable development was first formally introduced to the world in 1987 when the UN World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future. In the report, sustainable development was defined as:

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In 1990 the Commonwealth Government suggested the following definition for Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) in Australia:

using, conserving and enhancing the community’s resources so that ecological processes on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased.

Following a national consultative process in 1992, Australian federal and state governments adopted the principle of ESD as a national strategy. At its 1992 meeting, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the ESD Strategy.

Local Agenda 21

Agenda 21 was developed at the Earth Summit as a blueprint to aid countries around the world to implement sustainable development. Local government is one of the nine ‘major groups’ named in Agenda 21 as being fundamental in working towards sustainable development. Agenda 21 recognises that most environmental challenges have their roots in local activities and therefore encourages local governments to promote local environmental, economic and social sustainability by translating the principles of sustainable development into strategies that are meaningful to local communities. This process is called Local Agenda 21 (LA21).

A LA21 program comprises systems and processes to integrate environmental, economic and social development. Founded on a strong partnership between local government and the community, the progress towards local sustainable development is guided by the preparation of a long term strategic action plan that integrates existing policies and programs and an agreed future direction. LA21 provides the basis for debate on and awareness of sustainable development at the community level.

Trends in community participation that support sustainability

In Australia and New Zealand, community consultation, has become a common practice in the drafting of legislation. Underpinning this process is the principle that the public should have the opportunity to voice their opinion on policies and practices that are likely to affect them.

Community consultation for many years has thus been made a statutory requirement in many areas of local, state and federal government jurisdiction. Further, the planning and development processes contained within these legislative frameworks, whether health, environment or planning-related, often requires ‘statutory consultation’, or the consultation that we have to do.

In Queensland recently, the Community Engagement Division within the Department of Premier and Cabinet was established. With the vision of ‘Involved Communities — Engaged Government’, the Division intends to work with government agencies to enhance engagement with citizens and communities so that better policies, programs and services and that better outcomes and a better quality of life for Queenslanders are achieved. The Sustainable Industries Division of the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency is also currently working with business, government and the community to achieve more sustainable practices throughout Queensland.

As stated previously Council’s were given the role of being a leader in sustainability at the Rio Conference. However, in Australia there has been reluctance at all levels of government to take the lead. In some states local government take the lead role, whilst in others the state provides direction. The Federal Government is also playing an active role in promoting involvement in sustainability at the state and local level.

At the LA21 stakeholders meeting in Canberra in 1999, it was discussed that if sustainable outcomes are to be achieved, LA21 needs to be the responsibility of all Council staff and integrated into Council’s corporate strategies, business plans and policies. However, at the same meeting, terminology was discussed and it appears that there was nervousness over use of the term ‘sustainability’.

Sustainability outcomes for community participation

LA21 challenges people to come up with their vision of a sustainable future and going through this process is as important as and fundamental to, the outcome. Establishing the effectiveness of community participation in achieving LA21 outcomes involves an understanding of what LA21 is trying to achieve. Broadly, LA21 processes are built on Rio principles of co-operation, building local capacity for change, equal rights and empowerment. More specifically, LA21 involves:

  • managing and improving the local authority’s own sustainability performance;
  • integrating sustainable development aims into local government’ policy and activities;
  • awareness raising and education;
  • consulting and involving the general public;
  • partnership; and
  • measuring, monitoring and reporting on progress towards sustainability.

Whilst there are tools emerging that enable the measurement and monitoring of sustainability performance of a project or program (such as SPeARTM Arup), the specific assessment of the community participation element in achieving sustainability outcomes is often lacking. The following outlines some potential measures of sustainability:

  • level of engagement (involvement, consultation or participation);
  • discussion and education in the area of sustainability and the project/program in general;
  • community vision vs. polarised views within the community;
  • how equity was achieved in reaching the diversity in the community;
  • nature of the decision making process i.e. announce and defend vs. engagement on alternative scenarios;
  • integrated approach to decision making involving consideration of environmental, economic and social outcomes;
  • legacy of the project/program i.e. is the community left to deal with the outcomes or have they been empowered to continue the process with lessening support from government;
  • community’s ability to positively influence the process;
  • active project monitoring through independent surveys; and
  • variety of mechanisms for community involvement in order to reach as broad an audience as possible.

How community participation is achieving sustainability


The following chapter of this paper provides a case study that demonstrates how effective community participation is playing a key role in the sustainable development of Nundah Village, a relatively small community-business precinct in one of Brisbane’s northern suburbs. This chapter comprises two major sections being the Planning phase and the Implementation phase of the Nundah Village revitalisation.



Sandgate Road is an important arterial road carrying approximately 32,000 vehicles per day. The section through the Nundah Village between Buckland Road and Bage Street had been a well known traffic bottleneck for many years, with attempts to resolve the problem dating from the mid to late eighties. Congestion during peak periods caused significant delays to traffic (including public transport), caused severance in the main business centre, deterioration of the local environment due to noise and air pollution and led to motorists ‘rat running’ through local residential streets in an attempt to avoid delays.

In July 1991 a decision was made to examine short term solutions to traffic problems and long term planning for Sandgate Road in the Nundah area. A Local Area Consultative Group (LACG) was established by Main Roads to collect views and information from the community. A focus group meeting was held to allow public input into the selection criteria to be used in evaluation of the 60 suggested long term route ideas.

Using the selection criteria, the 60 route options were reduced to 3 possible options and, in October 1995, a report detailing the three options was produced.

Solving the problem

Arup were commissioned by Main Roads in 1996 to undertake an Impact Assessment Study (IAS) of the options. In addition, a public consultation program (which involved the public in the preparation of the Final Terms of Reference) was also to be undertaken. The IAS was to identify a preferred option.

Assessment of options for the alleviation of a ‘bottleneck’ on Sandgate Road involved the use of Arup’s Significance Criteria methodology for impact assessment, the first time it was used in Queensland.

The IAS study involved many elements including engineering design, European heritage, social history, socio-economic assessment, traffic impact assessment, town planning and urban design, visual assessment, environmental assessment of noise and air quality issues and community consultation. The community consultation element employed a variety of new methods to ensure adequate communication with and feedback from the community.

Consultation approach

The approach to the study was unique to the particular challenges of the study area, with some new methods developed to more effectively address certain aspects of the project.

Arup’s approach to deal with these issues was:

  • to implement of the concept of procedural justice which presented an open and just process of assessment and consultation to the local community;
  • to provide full information about the project so the community could make informed decisions;
  • to allow the community to express a full range of views (without forcing consensus);
  • to involve the community in the choice of a preferred option;
  • to establish a Community Reference Group (CRG) of local residents and business owners involved in all aspects of decision making with representation on the project Steering Committee; and
  • to employ a wide range of consultation techniques including one-to-one discussions with affected property owners; a shopfront, surveys, media releases, newsletters, workshops and open days. The Nundah Bypass project was the first IAS project in Queensland to make use of the Internet.

The following were developed to facilitate the consultation process:

  • Citizens Reference Group;
  • community survey;
  • web site;
  • community input to the Steering Committee;
  • politicians’ briefings;
  • shopfront; and
  • client and media relations.

IAS outcome

The Draft IAS report made the recommendation for a bypass of Sandgate Road to the west, under the Nundah Memorial Park, in the form of a cut and cover tunnel. Community acceptance of this solution was high, and can be attributed to the high level of community participation during the project.


Bypass construction

As the IAS predicted, the construction of the Nundah Bypass altered local traffic movements and parking within and around the village. Customer parking was reduced and the Bypass construction site was noisy and dusty and often detracted from the local amenity around the village. As well as these new influences, there was the existing problem of Nundah Village being divided by four lanes of traffic. For these and other reasons, some businesses struggled to survive and closed down. These impacts on businesses were predicted in the IAS.

Partnerships with local government

Brisbane City Council’s Life in the Suburbs (LIS) initiative was employed in Nundah. LIS is part of Living Villages, an initiative to strengthen local shopping areas economically, improve their physical appearance and ultimately assist in the transformation of business centres into vibrant living villages.

Initially, effort was focussed on business and in particular the strengthening of the local Chamber of Commerce. By building the local chamber into an organised and active association, business and the local community group (Nundah’s Organisation to Improve Our Neighbourhood (NOTION)) worked together in partnership to educate the community, disseminate information and bring about positive results.

Other efforts included forming a relationship with the local Quest Newspaper. Quest offered the NOTION-Chamber partnership free space every two months, enabling the local community and businesses to keep up do date with progress of the revitalisation of Nundah Village.

Planning for improvements

In early 2001, NOTION and the Chamber of Commerce engaged in discussion with council regarding the potential for implementing a Suburban Centre Improvement Project (SCIP) for Nundah. Brisbane City Council’s SCIPs are designed to make local shopping areas more attractive through physical improvements.

The process involved council advising local businesses and the community of the proposed SCIP process, and that a vote by local landlords would decide whether a SCIP would go ahead, as increased rates for land lords fund the SCIP. Information was provided by council to allow informed decision-making.

In mid 2001, Nundah Village was awarded a grant from council to create what is now known as Nundah .com is a virtual village, a website that takes you on a tour of Nundah and its surrounds. shares Nundah’s unique history and heritage, it showcases local business and is today a vital source of local information and events and avenue for communication.

Whilst was being developed, local land lords in Nundah Village voted for a SCIP. Immediately both community and businesses became involved in its planning. A survey was sent to every resident and business within the SCIP study area inviting comment on the SCIP proposal. A full day community meeting was held to introduce the project and workshop initial ideas. Registrations of interest were also sought from residents and businesses to participate on the Community Reference Group (CRG) that would regularly meet throughout the duration of the project.

A business development officer was assigned to Nundah for the duration of the SCIP planning process. This officer has been physically present in Nundah four days per week since October 2001 and has provided local businesses with an opportunity to plan and consider their future position in Nundah Village knowing that many physical improvements will be occurring and that the nature of traffic and pedestrian movement will be significantly altered.

Construction of the SCIP will commence in April 2002 with completion anticipated by November 2002.

Key outcomes

With the benefit of hindsight, community acceptance of the final transport and land use solution in Nundah can perhaps be attributed to the following:

  • A contained community with a singular cause, that is, solving the solution to the problem of traffic congestion which severed the main street of the community, caused disruption to their daily lives, and was a nuisance in relation to emissions of noise and air pollution.
  • A sense of community generated from the people within it. A community with a vision of their future and the outcomes and characteristics they wished to see return to Nundah. Many quoted the desire for the Nundah ‘village’ to return.
  • The community was inspired and encouraged with the potential implementation of a Brisbane City Council SCIP which it was felt could improve their local environment and help start the regeneration process following construction of the Bypass.
  • Engaging the community early and in every aspect of the study, giving them full information to allow them to also understand the issues and likely trade-offs with each of the options.
  • Honesty and openness from the consultant team and the client. This was evidenced by DMR’s acceptance of a CRG member at the Steering Committee meetings.
  • Valuing the contributions from the community and listening to their concerns and needs. Demonstrating that community input actually fed into decision making regarding the preferred option. Taking a holistic view of the project.
  • Involving the community in the determination of mitigation measures associated with the preferred option.

The commencement of the Nundah Village revitalisation is a recent example of how development ‘better meets the needs of the present community without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Community participation has been central to the success of sustainable development in Nundah because:

  • the community had a clear and shared vision and continually pushed its role to be more active.
  • government supported the involvement and empowerment of the local community in decision-making and in particular improving the equity of opportunity to participate.
  • government facilitated the education of the local community and local capacity building.
  • the community had access to relevant information.
  • partnerships were formed between government, business and community.
  • the concept of sustainability and LA21 was simplified to encompass key terms such as revitalisation, present and future communities and quality of life.


Trends in community participation and sustainability in Australia over the past ten years have improved. However, it can be seen from a small amount of research that the rate and degree to which this improvement has occurred is marginal. This can be attributed primarily to the current ad-hoc nature of sustainability implementation throughout Australia, role definition between levels of governance and the lack of education and participation of community in sustainable development. The reluctance of some levels of government to foster sustainability and LA21 principles has also slowed the progression to more sustainable practices. A lack of potential measures of community participation in sustainability performance was also identified. This provides opportunity for government (in partnership with the community) to develop new criteria for the evaluation of the effectiveness of community participation in achieving sustainability outcomes.

Recently, the Chairman’s summary of the second preparatory committee of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Environment Australia, 2002) stated that participants on the committee strongly favoured the involvement of stakeholders in decision-making at all levels. The summary mentioned that there was much enthusiasm among government and major groups to engage in partnerships that promote sustainable principles and practices. It was considered that such partnerships were crucial for integrated approaches to sustainable development and that many opportunities exist at all levels for involvement, particularly at the local level. The summary went further to state that preference was given to a bottom-up and rights based approach to the governance of sustainable development implementation processes.

These approaches were all adopted in the Nundah Village revitalisation process. The Nundah experience demonstrated that more sustainable solutions can be achieved if the community affected by those solutions participate in the entire process. The participatory approach provided access to information that better facilitated an understanding of sustainable development. For both state and local government, participation by the Nundah community lead to innovative ideas and accepted solutions. This inclusive approach reduced risk, provided savings and facilitated consensus. Community participation can help make decisions that better meet the needs of more stakeholders, both now and in the future.

The Nundah experience demonstrates that a lack of community participation could be a major barrier to more sustainable development. This experience has also demonstrated the importance of the role of local government in engaging the community through education, resource mobilisation and responding to the communities need to facilitate the change to more sustainable outcomes.


Commonwealth of Australia (1992) National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development.

Ove Arup & Partners (1997) Sandgate Road — Nundah Impact Assessment Study.

Roberts, R., 1998 ‘Public Involvement in Environmental Impact Assessment: Moving to a “Newthink”‘, Interact: The Journal of Public Participation, pp. 39–61.

The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future.

United Nations Commission on Environment and Development., Agenda 21 and the UNCED Proceedings.

About the author

Adam Beck is a Senior Environmental Planner for Arup Sustainability. Adam manages community involvement services provided by the group. Adam has over six years experience in a variety of stakeholder engagement projects, including wastewater reuse, corridor development and land use planning projects. Adam is currently completing his Masters in community involvement and serves on the Brisbane committee for IAP2.

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