First published in the Garden magazine 12 April 2013

 The creation of the new Auckland Council is a great opportunity to do things differently, not least how it engages with local communities. For a host of reasons, including the sheer size of the super city amalgamation, many systems and policies were carried over into the new organisation intact.

So, while many Council officers work concertedly for the public good, they are sometimes frustrated by the rules or processes that they work under. Now that things have settled, it’s time to start looking at improving Council’s dealings with people.

The appointment of the former Chief Operating Officer to the role of Transformation Director, to steer the “Way We Work” initiative underlines the importance of that attempt to create a “high-engagement” culture. Senior executive backing is needed for such an initiative to succeed.

Many operational departments are being restructured to make them more “local board-oriented” amongst other things. There are already signs that this is making a difference, and will ease the problems I discussed in my first column a year ago.

Another initiative aims to enhance community-driven planning and neighbourhood projects. Essentially, the idea is to move from the current mode of asking people, “What can we do for you?” to asking, “What do you want and how can we help you achieve it?”

I’m a keen believer in empowering communities—people get exactly what they want, and become stronger communities in the process—so I’m very excited to have been asked to join the task group driving this. If we succeed, it means a step-change in the way we work with local communities.

Roger Blakeley, Chief Planning Officer, is instigating this project. His experience as CEO of Porirua City Council provides a good example of how neighbourhood planning works in practice. He recounts how some local people came to see him one day, with carefully worked out plans for projects in their local community.

By the time he left Porirua, 6 villages (5000 population each) had self-nominated to prepare village plans with the projects they wanted that reflected the local needs and the character of their communities.

The Council provided funding and staff support for plan development, and for the projects proposed. Many initiatives were supported by voluntary labour. Most importantly, they had huge support from local communities.

Already our group has met and identified the types of initiatives that could be part of a neighbourhood planning approach in Auckland, as well as the impediments or challenges.

One neighbourhood initiative I’m keen to support is Auckland’s first “transition street”. This is where the residents and businesses in a street commit to serious sustainability practices and support each other to achieve them. Things like composting and worm farming, growing local produce, recycling and reducing waste.

Some of our communities are better placed to collaborate in this way than others. As we build expertise in this “bottom-up” approach, and more examples of successful initiatives, others would be encouraged or enabled to follow suit.

Challenges included funding (a big obstacle in the current, constrained environment), and existing structures, procedures and culture. Too many of the later are inflexible or risk averse and are one-size-fits-all.

Next term is looking exciting. Having built Australasia’s biggest municipality from the ground up, we have the opportunity to try new ways of engaging with and empowering our communities. Watch this space.

The Gardens turns one-year old in May. It’s been great to see it shine a light on the communities of Mt Eden and Epsom, and a range of interesting local people and their stories. May it continue to prosper and expand. Happy Birthday!