Marcus B Lane, Geographical and Environmental Studies, The University of Adelaide
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
Civic regionalism is often promoted as being more effective because local citizens and their communities are closer to environmental problems and solutions than a remote government and its policies and regulations. Being close to the problem, it is claimed, brings greater understanding and more effective solutions.
The argument is appealing because regional civic organisations are most likely to respond to immediate and obvious environmental problems such as traffic, noise, flooding or soil erosion. Herein lies the power of local action. However, the causes of resource management problems are often uncertain and systemic and the solutions may be beyond the local region.
In fact, closer is not always better. There is a constant danger of regional citizen boards becoming parochial in their management strategies and priorities. For recently established groups, this can be explained by a lack of knowledge; for other groups it can be explained by a lack of appreciation of the wider decision-making framework or the wider scales at which environmental problems are manifest.
The short-term and parochial focus of citizen-based environmental planning has been highlighted by a number of researchers. In Napier’s (1998) comprehensive study of soil conservation efforts in the mid-west of the United States, the parochial focus of farmers and local groups limited their capacity to deliver major improvements in land management. In Australia, reviews of the Natural Heritage Trust have highlighted the ephemeral character of groups receiving financial assistance, the short-term benefits of their work, and the lack of a wider, strategic direction in their work.
The argument that ‘closer is better’ is further complicated in Australia by the extent of publicly owned land and natural resources. Publicly owned land is, of course, owned by all Australians—those nearby as well as those living in distant cities. A risk of civic regionalism is that, by passing responsibility for environmental management to regional (non-government) boards, we face another set of problems—including a virtual privatisation of public resources, the need to develop new mechanisms for accountability and, of course, the political marginalisation of distant stakeholders. These very problems have been realised in the western United States; a recent review of this experience concluded that:
‘The views of distant stakeholders should have equal weight in decisions involving public resources. Public officials should make decisions about public resources.’ (Kenney et al. 2000, 401, emphasis added)
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