2 May 2023

Don't condemn NIMBYs, they deserve our praise, says heritage veteran

| Ian Bushnell
Join the conversation
Bearded older man

Conservation and heritage expert Max Bourke: all praise to ‘Not in my backyard’. Photo: Australian Garden History Society.

Canberra should thank its much-derided NIMBYs for holding the line against the government and developers intent on building on the city’s vital greenspaces, according to a veteran conservation and heritage expert.

The inaugural Director of the Australian Heritage Commission, Max Bourke, delivered the ACT National Trust’s inaugural ACT Heritage Oration at Albert Hall as part of the ACT Heritage Festival.

READ ALSO Government’s disappointing response shows it is not for turning on Planning Bill, says community council chair

ACT Heritage Minister and Greens MLA Rebecca Vassarotti was in the audience so Mr Bourke’s comments at the business end of his speech had particular currency for the government as it presses on with its contentious planning reforms and infill policies.

Mr Bourke said his strongest hope was for the ongoing struggle of NIMBYs, who were often derided, but citizen action and grievance such as theirs were major motivating forces in protecting the environment.

“If the aim of a group of rational people is to protect their environment, then all praise to ‘Not in my backyard’,” he said.

He said concerned citizens were the true keepers of the environment.

“Government agencies can easily fall into the rhythms of the government of the day and legislation to protect can be so cumbersome and often ignored that it is the role of the small and large forces of citizen action that is the only hope of, for the most part, slowing, not inhibiting, the steady loss of the things we want to keep,” Mr Bourke said.

Citizen groups faced an exhausting prospect of endless so-called government ‘consultations’ against a background of clearly conflicting government positions.

“Recently, I have observed and participated in a local example where the government is relentlessly increasing density, while we know full well the effects of tree loss and heat islands, which sets the background to pointless government inquiries into ‘nature in the city’,” Mr Bourke said.

“But we continue to make submissions and sit in Assembly consultations where local members look at their phones while trying to think of questions to ask. But it must be done!”

Mr Bourke said a recent visit to Adelaide provided lessons for Canberra on the importance of retaining the city’s parklands in the face of developers wanting to nibble away at them.

“Just like Lake Burley Griffin here in Canberra, they require, and get from concerned citizens, continual watchful struggle as developers, private and public, always have a good use for ‘just a few hundred square metres here or a strip just a ‘hundred metres there’ for some good purpose,” he said.

He warned of instances where action to conserve heritage spaces had been nullified by planning decisions allowing development nearby or actually within the site.

While there were some wonderfully preserved precincts, others had suffered at the hands of these decisions.

“Some of the most stupid excesses where 20-plus storey buildings have been allowed on either side of a three-storey building with some historic significance, so that the sense of place is totally smashed; of facades in some places a metre or so thick retained while a new building which is oh so obvious is inserted into the structure and towers above it for 20 storeys,” Mr Bourke said.

READ ALSO Canberra’s housing crisis is ‘relentless’, new report finds

He said he was still excited by the ongoing role of community-driven groups, from the tiny ones, such as the Lake Burley Griffin Guardians, to the older established ones, such as the National Trusts, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Garden History Society.

“Long may they thrive,” he said.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

The ‘happy for you to build it elsewhere in someone else’s backyard but not mine’ NIMBY, is an issue of selfishness. However, if people are, for heritage reasons (as an example), opposing development, then I agree with Max Bourke and their concerns need to be considered.

I agree entirely with your sentiments Max Bourke although I do have my reservations with some NIMBYs though. But we can also take inspiration from many environmental activists of past who made their mark. These include the likes of activist Jack Mundey who was a “true keeper of the environment”. Prominent during the 1970s and 1980s Jack was responsible for the green bans that saved many prominent heritage sites in Sydney. This included preserving open community spaces and many of Sydney’s early buildings from the greedy behaviour of developers. He was also prominent in saving the landing site of the First Fleet at Circular Quay and preserving affordable public housing in key inner-city environments.

Whether it’s not in my backyard, not on greenspace, not on farmland or not on bushland, NIMBYs are hypocrites pushing younger and disadvantaged Australians into housing stress by blocking the construction of housing. This is simply a boomer who’s got his, and is determined to pull the ladder up behind him. If you don’t want to see housing development and construction, oppose infill and high rates of immigration, not housing construction.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.