Community advocacy confronts the challenges of heritage conservation

A dedicated communprag-first-rally-0215nity activist needs the characteristics of a fine actor – the sensitivity of a butterfly and the hide of a rhinoceros. Oh, and the wisdom of Solomon and the stamina of a marathon runner. It has been a headlong rush for the management committee and membership to learn and respond since the founding of North Parramatta Residents Action Group two years ago. (Locals assemble for the first rally above.) Some have no prior experience of community organisations. Passion for their cause is deep and emotions run high. More than a year ago, a general meeting of members affirmed the right of the management committee to take action on their behalf, without first consulting the membership. Action is often required quickly in response to government decisions.

Ratstudio-gl-ugnsw-overviewher than simply object to state government proposals to sell off most of one of the nation’s most important heritage sites for the development of nearly 3000 new apartments, left, North Parramatta Residents Action Group has been committed to developing an alternative vision, below left. Surveys of local residents and members since the group’s studio-gl-nprag-concept-overviewfounding two years ago, a symposium in 2015, which attracted a wide range of planning expertise and community experience all produced ideas and opinions, which have helped shape their vision.

NPRAG was spurred into life when UrbanGrowth NSW claimed in 2014 that extensive NPRAG rally crowdcommunity consultation had shaped their draft masterplan for the sale and development of what is now the Cumberland Hospital site. Most local residents had never heard of the proposals and those who had, at the protest rally left, were bitterly opposed to the high rise apartment blocks comprising the bulk of the plan. Within weeks, a constitution had been drawn up and membership established. They were determined to protect and enhance the historic buildings and sites of the Parramatta local government area, especially those of national and World Heritage significance; oppose the over-development of Cumberland Hospital and Parramatta Park precincts; and support retention and public ownership of existing active and passive recreation sites, including Parramatta pool. The pool and the stadium occupy designated Parramatta Park land.

Council amalgamations forced by the former Baird Government from mid 2016, don’t allow for local government elections until September this year, so the usual democratic channels are not available to citizens. The result has been frustration and fears of a deliberate state government campaign to exclude community protest and participation.

nprag-pool-protest-1216Under the dynamic leadership of president Suzette Meade, the committee has raised thousands of dollars towards their cause. Most recently they commissioned architects Studio GL to draw artists impressions of the developments proposed by UGNSW from plans available on the government website. Studio GL then created a second set of artists impressions of NPRAG’s alternative proposals for the same sites – a cultural/arts precinct free of any residential development. The drawings were displayed at a December protest, above, about the demolition of Parramatta pool to accommodate the stadium’s expansion, and then at Australia Day celebrations in Parramatta Park. Some of those drawings illustrate this post.

The Australia Day stall was a joint effort of NPRAG and Parramatta Female Factory Friends, who established a formal memorandum of understanding between them in early 2016. Working in partnership with other groups like the National Trust, Parramatta Female Factory Friends, Parramatta Female Factory Precinct: Memory Project and Parramatta Chamber of Commerce has been NPRAG’s practice from the start. Members are keen to learn from those with a history of advocating heritage preservation, while engaging the community in new ways of thinking about their past and planning their future together.

“Click advocacy is now possible through digital activism,” Suzette says, “and community activism is inevitably political.” The state government has been insisting that the only way they can fund the preservation of heritage is by selling most of the surrounding site to developers. NPRAG is determined to demonstrate alternative solutions. An arts and cultural precinct can have a multiplier effect, NPRAG believes, with economic benefits including domestic and international tourism and the physical and mental wellbeing of residents

Everyone wnprag-pfff-australia-day-1orking on the Australia Day stall, left, near Old Government House in Parramatta Park was surprised by the size of the crowd and the numbers who had still never heard of the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. Two hundred years of colonial history and evidence of thousands of years of Aboriginal custodianship are encompassed by the 30 hectare site. Old hands and recent arrivals from India, China and south east Asian nprag-1630_n_parramatta_fshp_artistimpressionsonly_161115_3-300x212countries were fascinated by the stories and eager for more information.

As Suzette later wrote: “As you can see from the picture (top), NPRAG’s Alternative Vision drawings displayed on easels, brought the crowds to the stall and helped direct hundreds of signatures to the PFFF petition (for National Heritage listing nprag-1630_n_parramatta_fshp_artistimpressionsonly_161115_4-300x212of the convict Parramatta Female Factory) and to NPRAG’s Save our Heritage and Pool petition to the state government. We also welcomed 44 new NPRAG members.” NPRAG now has several hundred members and 3500 active followers on social media. One of the challenges is to convert social media followers into a politically acknowledged advocacy voice.

The upper drawing is an artist’s impression of the state government plan to privatise public land for a suburb. Below, is NPRAG’s vision for the same site surrounding the old cricket pavilion open to the public for cultural, mental and physical health benefits.

Suzette, whose background includes project management in the construction industry, summarises NPRAG’s vision for the future, “Over a decade we could develop – affordably – a hub for creative minds with rehearsal spaces, artist studios, community centres with a world class art gallery and museum of NSW celebrating our migration history together with the first centre of indigenous reconciliation and excellence, surrounded by an interactive-family focused sculpture park among renewed colonial botanical plantings. There would be an outdoor performance space and indoor auditoria, with practice and smaller presentation rooms. There would be a connection with Parramatta Park via a foot bridge to link the government lands and the cultural ribbon along the river. All keeping this green public space accessible for the expanding population of Parramatta to both recreate and create in.”

suzette-meade-0117Passions run high among those who are fighting for a better future for the Fleet Street Heritage Precinct, also known as the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. It’s not always easy for determination and respectful discussion to go hand in hand and Suzette is acutely conscious that her role is to allow all voices to be heard. She says, “Maybe if UGNSW worked with the community and residents genuinely from the outset better outcomes would have progressed. Why is it up to the community to make sure the right thing is done to our green space and heritage?”

parramatta-ch-c-michael_mekhitarianPresident of Parramatta Chamber of Commerce Michael Mekhitarian believes there is merit in NPRAG’s proposals, though he considers there may be a need for a greater mix of heritage, commercial, arts/cultural and residential in the precinct. He urges UrbanGrowth and NPRAG to sit down together and have a conversation. “We want the best outcome for the people of Parramatta. We need to be able to attract the best and brightest. Think of the residents if nothing else.” NPRAG has certainly tried to do this with UGNSW.

If you can spare 30 minutes, go to this link (http://bit.ly/2hBF94H). Overcoming Challenges in Community Advocacy was Suzette Meade’s speech to the Royal Australian Historical Society Annual Conference in October 2016. It not only outlines NPRAG’s operations and achievements, but offers valuable advice for many community organisations advocating change.

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One thought on “Community advocacy confronts the challenges of heritage conservation

  1. Pingback: Democracy repeatedly sabotaged in heritage, arts and cultural planning | Western Sydney Frontier

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