MHC Forum 1999
(This paper is based on a paper first presented at the Negotiating Frontiers, Social Planning in Multicultural Societies Conference, Canberra March 1999.)
I'm going to tell you about Dee Why.
Dee Why is one of the largest suburbs in Warringah. It has a population of over 30 000, its retail and commercial services, including over 400 businesses, provide for a catchment of almost 50 000 people. There is a beach and lagoon, but very little open space. Housing is high density, with lots of families living in units. A recent, and very comprehensive Urban Design Study developed by Warringah Council aims to develop Dee Why as the heart of Warringah.
Warringah is the largest local government area on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. Like most of Northern Sydney, it is an affluent area. Household incomes are relatively high and unemployment is low. The more traditional social planning issues such as, health, housing and childcare are not as pressing in Warringah as they are in other parts of Sydney. Land use, development pressures, environment, urban design and planning are the major issues that absorb the resources of Warringah Council's integrated planning unit, of which cultural planning is a part.
Many cultural planners, working in NSW, find that they are largely occupied with community and public art activities. At Warringah there is a small cultural services group that is responsible for cultural and heritage projects and community arts support. This group includes the local studies library. Although in my role I am still largely responsible for the public art program I have also, over the past two years, had the rare opportunity of undertaking cultural planning from within and now as the manager of a policy and planning team. As such our cultural and heritage projects have been able to focus on integrating cultural and heritage issues into the many policies, strategies and planning documents that will ultimately determine how our place, Warringah, will be developed and managed in the future. This process is referred to as cultural mapping. It is a process that at the very least, attempts to involve and represent the community and all its diversity in the planning process. At its very best it privileges community experience and knowledge, challenging the practice of planning itself. Today I want to talk to you about cultural mapping in Dee Why.
When I first joined Warringah Council a fellow staff member took me on a tour. We visited the playgrounds featuring public art by local artists -
"Council serves a population of over 130 000 of which 18 000 are under 11 years old." she explained.
We passed a number of the more substantial parks and reserves -
"...recent surveys have shown that the environment is the number one issue amongst local residents."
We walked sections of the exquisite Coastal Walk past the sculpture of Duke Kahanamoku the Hawaiian who brought surfing to Australia -
"...the main theme of the Cultural Policy is Beach Culture and it is expected that this will influence urban and open space design."
We drove past various community facilities including the three community arts centres -
"...its a well off community, only 12% of people here receive any form of family payments (as compared with 42% in Western Sydney)1, 16% are from non English speaking backgrounds."
We drove to Dee Why Beach -
"...it's a really popular beach, you'll be involved with the reserve redevelopment project. By the way this is where the Italians hold their annual 'Festa Sul Mare', we fund it, I don't know why, its got nothing to do with our main cultural theme - beach culture."
Festa Sul Mare means festival at the sea. The weekend after that tour was the weekend that the annual Festa Sul Mare was held. I went down to take a look. It was a very hot day so I went in the evening. It was dark. It was busy, so I had to park a long way off. As I made my way down to the beach I noticed that I was not alone. Walking from every direction, down every street and alley were people, familiar looking people, couples arm in arm, groups of young people, families with small children, family groups including grandparents and what I guessed were aunts and uncles, husbands and wives. They were all walking towards the beach. I'd seen this somewhere before. The women wore high heels. They were dressed up. They were wearing an awful lot of that heavy costume jewellery that my aunt, Zia Bruna, keeps sending me. The young people were wearing trendy, designer clothes. The children were walking towards the beach in shorts with creases and white socks and sandals.
It was just like being back in Italy. It reminded me of holidays with my family who live in the south of Italy. Those wonderful summer nights when at about 11pm - everyone - irrespective of age, gets totally dressed up to promenade down to the piazza for gelato or coffee.
Dee Why Beach isn't exactly Otranto or Castro, but once a year you can imagine it might be. The road is closed, the cafes are full and spill out onto the pavement and streets, there are people everywhere. The entertainment is as one might expect, folk dancing and the one tenor (the local tenor).
Festa Sul Mare is Beach Culture. It is as relevant an expression and celebration of the beach as any other 'beach culture' event funded by Warringah Council. Festa Sul Mare is the Beach Culture of a particular community, a local and long standing Dee Why community whose 'beach culture' just doesn't happen to include surfing or lifesaving.
Festa Sul Mare is one of the few times of the year that Dee Why Beach is really hopping. In fact, from a planning point of view, Festa Sul Mare is probably a very good starting point when considering the development of the Dee Why Beach area. The fact that the festival attracts a range of people of different ages, creating a sense of safety and inclusiveness, suggests that it is possible to plan activities that have broad appeal and that it is possible to organise the place in such a way that people of all ages can be accommodated. The fact that people who normally drive everywhere will, on 'Festa' night, actually walk to the beach, might suggest places for improved lighting and paving. The fact that on 'Festa' night cafes successfully place tables onto the paving, might suggest some changes to the planning controls that would see this as a regular occurrence, creating a more lively night life and contributing to the local economy.
The organisers of Festa Sul Mare have obviously got something right. If one of the few times of the year that Dee Why Beach really functions as a lively, safe and inclusive public place, is the one night that the Italian community organise, then it would seem that they may know something that we don't know. And yet, Festa Sul Mare and the Italian community's history and contribution to Dee Why is not on any map or social plan or heritage list that Council uses to determine land use, development, urban design, economic or recreation planning in the Dee Why area. Therefore Festa Sul Mare, the significance of Dee Why to the Italian community and more importantly the significance of the Italian community to Dee Why was largely over looked by the people undertaking the Dee Why Urban Design Study.
Obviously, like most urban design projects the recent Dee Why Urban Design Study has considered lighting, paving, retail mix and development controls. But it has not done so from the perspective and knowledge of the people there. Even if the some of the final recommendations by the consultants are not that different to those that might have been recommended had they worked with the Italian community, the fact that they failed to involve the Italian community has meant that there were certain conclusions that their study could never draw. In short their process could never lead them to the conclusion that sustaining the Italian community is critical to making a success of Dee Why, and therefore critical to their aim of making Dee Why the heart of Warringah.
A recent audit, by the NSW Heritage Office, of the over 17,000 items listed on NSW Heritage Databases found that only one item of Italian Heritage was listed. Given the size and significance of the Italian community in our area Council agreed that we hold an Italian Heritage night. With the help of the local studies library we are documenting the Italian presence in this area and finding other examples of significant places to the Italian community. Some of what we learn might be added to the heritage list, other things will be recorded and passed on to designers and planners working in this area. Its only a first step, but at least its the beginning of saying to the planners that the community, their history, their sense of place, their daily lives and movements through a place should be expressed in the way that the place is planned for and managed in the future, because after all only the community can give the place heart.
Multiculturalism, by demanding that cultural difference be considered in the project of creating an equitable society, is challenging some of the most entrenched traditions and functions of local government. Community services at a local government level, being more recent functions, are far more conversant with the ideas of culturally appropriate planning and service delivery. Land use, public open space, recreation and urban planning are less so.
I think it would be fair to say that as yet no open space or recreational facility in Warringah has been designed or managed in a way that accommodates the diverse recreational needs of our ethnic communities. Hence the assumption that beach culture is about surfing, swimming and sunbaking and that all people have the same recreational needs.
The sustainability debate has led to a growing understanding that cultural, social, economic and environmental issues must be balanced and seen as connected in order to maintain or create thriving cities or communities. This in turn has helped pave the way for planning frameworks that address places and the full range of things that go on in a place, rather than planning being determined by single issues and the traditional demarcations imposed by the planning disciplines at work at this level. The separation of cultural concerns from social concerns is essential to the argument that sustaining our cultural diversity is crucial to social, economic and environmental health.
The social capital discussion has served to remind us of the enormous contribution community activity and networks make to the health and vitality of our communities. It demands that planners acknowledge communities are actually very good at making things work, have enormous amounts of knowledge about what works for them and can see solutions where planners only see problems.
And finally, at Warringah Council at least, engagement in the process of Aboriginal Reconciliation has done more that any other activity to challenge the way that we are planning and mapping community and cultural concerns. The violence with which Aboriginal people were driven from that land and with which almost every trace of their presence and culture was removed has meant that the process of mapping contemporary Aboriginal community concerns as well as Indigenous Heritage has and continues to be a slow and painstaking process. One that is calling into question almost every planning process or control currently being developed at Warringah Council.
The ideas behind multiculturalism, sustainability, social capital, and the process of Aboriginal Reconciliation all help shift the planning dialogue from simply one of equity to one outcomes.
This is Dee Why. This is what Dee Why looks like at the moment. This is the result of the poor planning controls we currently have in place.
This is Dee Why. This is what the "Urban Improvements" project envisaged Dee Why might look like at the end of their study.(2)
This is also Dee Why. This is how the Tongan Women's Support Group mapped Dee Why as part of a project, aimed at involving ethnic communities in the process of preparing the new development controls and urban design strategies for Dee Why.
The Tongan Community are one of the larger new communities in Warringah. They mostly live in Dee Why, which is also where the Council Chambers and offices are. They live there because their church is there. Their church is there because Cecil Gribble a missionary who spent most of his life in Tonga, came back to live in Dee Why. The Dee Why Uniting Church congregation is named after Cecil Gribble. Dee Why is significant to the Tongan community. The Tongan Women's Support Group are leading exponents of the artform of Tapa making. Tapas by this group can be found around Australia, including Canberra. When I started work at Warringah Council, I discovered that not only did we not own or had we ever considered commissioning a Tapa, but to the best of anyone's knowledge we had never even invited the Tongan Community to participate in any community or civic function.
In 1997 we ran a project entitled "My Place, Our Space".
One aspect of this project was aimed at involving ethnic communities in the consultation process of the new Warringah Local Environment Plan, which is the over riding development control plan used at a local government level. A number of ethnic communities, through their cultural groups, were commissioned to produce an artwork that addressed how they saw their place and its significance to their community. The Tongan community made this Tapa of Dee Why.
After the project exhibition I suggested, that given that the Dee Why Urban Design Study was the second biggest project being undertaken by Council, it would be appropriate to hang the Tapa where we could all see it. I hoped that it would remind us that Dee Why is home to people from a range of cultural backgrounds, and that there are many layers of history and multiple realities that must be reflected and woven into the development of this place.
The exhibition had been a success so it wasn't hard to persuade Council to agree to hanging the Tapa if only for a short while. Luckily for us there was only one wall big enough to hang it on. The main wall of the Council Chambers. The fact that it would displace the portrait of the Queen caused some consternation, but it was finally agreed. It looked beautiful.
By now I'd really got my courage up I decided to push my luck. The Mayor had only agreed to hang the Tapa for a few weeks and he wanted it down. But Sela Smith of the Tongan Women's Support Group and some other members of the Tongan community were soon to become citizens, and of course the citizenship ceremony is held in the Chambers. So we schemed to have Sela and the Tongan Choir as special guests at the ceremony and -
"...it really would be a lovely gesture, Mr Mayor, to leave the Tapa in the Chambers until after this event" read my memo.
Standing in the Council Chambers, in front of the Tapa, with the sounds of the wonderful Tongan Choir still ringing in our ears, Sela spoke. She described the Tapa, explaining that it represented Dee Why as her community saw it. She explained that Dee Why was the site of her community's spiritual worship, and that their church was their most significant social meeting place. She described the many walks that the group had taken on the beach, when creating the Tapa, in order to better illustrate the curve of the coast and capture the feel of the sea breezes, as this had meaning for her community. She stressed that in designing the Tapa the group considered it essential that special recognition be given to Indigenous Australians. She stressed that in designing the Tapa the group considered it essential that special recognition be given to the culturally diverse communities that make up Australia. When Sela described her community she described a community that were connected to their place. When Sela described her Dee Why she described a place that was defined by the spiritual and social life of her community. When Sela described her Dee Why she described a beautiful place that none of us had seen before. And as Sela spoke, we too, if only for a short while, imagined that this Dee Why was possible for us too.(3) It was a very moving ceremony.
Nevertheless, and despite these efforts, it was with some sadness that I looked over the final Dee Why Urban Design Study, to discover that there was no significance mention of the Italian, Tongan or any other ethnic community.(4)
Local Government has come a long way in a relatively short time. Many of the recent changes to the Local Government Act that have focused on community involvement in planning for places, management of land and services have enabled officers to consult and involve communities in ways that may have not been considered necessary or possible in the past. However, given that local governments greatest influence is over the built environment and the management of public places, the quality of the processes by which the relationship between urban development, public places and community life are addressed are still sadly lacking as is the debate concerning the relationship between social outcomes and the level of investment in our diverse communities.
Planning at a local government level still suffers from a profound inability to hear the many voices in our community and to comprehend the lived, breathed, embodied, spiritual realities of community life. The challenge for planners is to find ways to privilege the experience and knowledge of our diverse communities in the planning processes and argue that sustaining our cultural diversity is good planning that will yield outcomes for everyone.
This is Dee Why. These are the children of St Kevin's Primary School in Dee Why. Over 65% of the students at this school are from Non English Speaking Backgrounds. They come from the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Former Yugoslavia. Korea, Cambodia, Egypt, India, Holland, Pakistan, Tonga and Italy.(5) This is Dee Why. This is the heart of Warringah.
1 1996 Census Data
2 Dee Why Town Centre Urban Design Works, Mcgregor and partners and the GeoLINK Group, Warringah Council 1998
3 Section and slides referring to Tongan Community prepared in consultation with Sela Smith, Tongan Women's Support group
4 Dee Why Urban Design Strategy and promotional materials, Undertaken by Dickson Rothschild Architects, Warringah Council 1998.
5 Slide shown with permission St. Kevin's Primary, Dee Why
European Foundation for the Improvement of living and Working Conditions 1997
Towards an Economic Evaluation of Urban Innovative Projects, Micro Projects for Mega Change
P. Hall (1998) Remaking Cities: Urban Innovation and Urban Regeneration , Prepared for the City of Melbourne's Benchmarking Cities 98 Conference: Innovating Cities