Community Consultation…

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Removing the King Street plane trees on a Sunday morning

The picture on the left shows the first of the King Street plane trees being felled a month or so ago. Talking to two people in management positions at Newcastle Council that morning was interesting.

In frustration one of them said to me that the reason they give as little notice as possible is to avoid conflict at the site with treehuggers people like us. Obviously they give the notice that is required by law (and no more). A public notice is put in the paper – imagine the size of that – and signs were put on telegraph poles nearby. The RTA insist on 2 weeks’ notice, apparently, if there are to be road closures, but otherwise they are only required to give something like a week’s notice. One of the residents watching the tree-felling had rceived her notice four days before the job was carried out.

Council employ an ‘engagement’ officer. Presumably this person’s role is to engage with the community. Maybe s/he needs to start with some education for the various departments in council involved in upsetting residents providing services to residents.

Reading about processes involved in community consultation I found a couple of interesting things. The two bodies most mentioned in a google search on this are local councils and the mining industry. Interesting bedfellows.

The University of Western Sydney runs a course in ‘Effective Community Consultation’http://www.uws.edu.au/urban_research_centre/urc/short_courses/effective_community_consultation

I love this:

‘Despite widespread acceptance of the need for community consultation and high levels of expenditure on it, the phenomena of superficial hype, political hi-jack, consultation fatigue, stakeholder cynicism and unpleasant public meetings have emerged as significant challenges for the consultation practitioner. This two day practical workshop deals with the theory and principles on which community consultation practice is based, the many barriers to good practice, practical solutions and opportunities to practice these.’

The course includes ‘Contacting with integrity’, ‘Meetings v. workshops uses and abuses’, ‘Issues of integrity (responsiveness, timeliness, transparency)’, and ‘The urge to whitewash’.

Sounds like sending some key council managers to this would be  a better way to spend a few thousand dollars than sending our Lord Mayor to a sister city in Japan. Actually, I think you’d have to start over with new, young managers. I don’t think two days is enough to ingrain a new way of looking at this process in people who have been involved in council business for very long.

In the interest of tracing the history of the anti-mature tree movement in Newcastle I reproduce a Herald article written by a former general manager telling us about her approach to fig trees and why They Must Go.

Old trees pay for past malpractice

Author: Janet Dore
Date: 26/07/2002
          Publication: Newcastle Herald

While the city plans for future urban forests, Janet Dore explains why old plantings and old practices continue to cause problems.

AS a city that prides itself on policies based on sustainability, heritage and culture, the removal of Civic Park’s ageing fig was a difficult and sad task.

Newcastle City Council planted 4500 trees last year.

We are committed to providing urban forests that beautify our city, promote sustainability and protect public spaces for future generations.

Those thousands of trees planted last year will one day shade our grandchildren and their children.

Removing the fig in Civic Park has raised issues that as a community we all need to consider. Our city has changed and will continue to grow around trees planted many years ago.

So how should we manage veteran trees in an urban environment that has changed dramatically over their lifetime?

Newcastle has many hundreds of large mature fig trees on public and private land, most of which were planted between 60 and 80 years ago.

If we reflect on past tree maintenance practices, we will discover that most are no longer in vogue today.

For instance, it was common to cut the tops off trees, almost as if they were rose bushes, and then to continue lopping as a routine practice. At the time, lopping seemed to solve the problems of growing large trees in confined spaces.

What we have found today is that lopping exposes the inner wood of trees to the elements and the bigger the exposed area of wood, the greater the risk that decay will severely weaken the tree at maturity.

At the same time, branches that grow to replace lopped branches are poorly attached and prone to falling.

It was also common in the past to install infrastructure and other civil works by open trench excavation, regardless of the presence of tree roots.

Technology today allows us to bore underneath tree roots and to repair infrastructure such as cables and pipes without open trenching.

However, since trees may take many years to decay, past work damaging the tree is often forgotten.

It has been suggested that we look to the issue of figs in Hyde Park, Sydney, and adopt a similar approach. However, this is comparing apples to pears.

The figs in Hyde Park have enormous space for root stability and have grown on a sandstone soil base. Their stabilising roots have found support in rock sandstone fissures.

By comparison, the figs in Newcastle have to contend with soils built of industrial waste with considerably less space to develop stable root systems.

This is not an issue unique to Newcastle. The management of veteran trees has become problematic for communities in Sydney and Melbourne and internationally. For this reason, a focus on urban tree management has become critical for future sustainability.

Unfortunately, urban living puts stress on our trees. A tree that may live many hundreds of years in natural conditions can reach its aged life after a mere 80 years in urban conditions.

The tree removed from Civic Park last weekend illustrates the problems we have in dealing with our past practices.

So, how should we be treating our trees in the future?

Newcastle City Council has introduced a pro-active approach to selection, maintenance and replacement of our urban trees.

We have surveyed 53,000 street trees and recorded their statistics on a database. We are currently auditing these trees, identifying their maintenance needs and setting an inspection regime for each tree.

We are also investigating the benefits of looking at the trees of Newcastle as an urban forest. An urban forest is simply the total of trees and large shrubs that grow on public and private land in any urban area.

Urban forests contribute significantly to quality of life for urban residents, by capturing stormwater, shading bitumen and buildings, reducing the risk of skin cancer and absorbing fine pollution particles that affect asthmatics.

Newcastle City Council is presently working with the Local Government Association to review software for calculating the benefits of urban forests. We are also developing a more integrated approach to design of new infrastructure so that civil works and trees do not come into conflict in the future.

Newcastle City Council will continue to plant trees in the city and manage these responsibly. Our tree selections have been made with due regard for the future and we do not anticipate the next generation of Novocastrians will have to experience the unexpected and heartbreaking loss of its veteran trees. Janet Dore is general manager of Newcastle City Council. 

How long does a manager have to be gone before their influence disappears?                    Home

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