Year

2012

Degree Name

Master of Science - Research

Department

School of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Abstract

Debating the limits of cities in geographically challenging environments is characteristic of modern western environmental politics. This thesis investigates a particular case study in the Illawarra region of Australia, where the city of Wollongong’s ‘green backdrop’, the Illawarra Escarpment, was the subject of intense debate in the 1990s and beyond, here termed ‘escarpment politics’. I invoke the concept of the green public sphere as a forum for the formation of public opinion on the basis of a range of citizen input about environmental matters requiring action by the state. However the existing literature treats this as primarily a normative concept, leading to the research question of how to give it an empirical dimension.

The thesis outlines two related historical narratives, the planning of urban development in New South Wales and particularly the expansion of Wollongong to West Dapto in the south, and the work of an urban environmental movement trying to ‘save’ the Illawarra Escarpment, either by bringing more of it into public ownership or at least zoning the lands for environmental protection. Both histories involved displacing and disempowering existing landowners, many of who were descendants of former dairy farmers of a rich agricultural region, but also had a history of campaigning against degradation of their own area through coal mining and waste dumping. The landowners argued that they were being unfairly expected to bear the costs of helping to provide a general amenity. The range of citizens’ concerns and perspectives characterised the wider public sphere of escarpment politics and led to unresolved conflicts. My focus however is on the Illawarra Escarpment Community Reference Group, which I am treating as a potential public sphere although it was initiated and managed by state bodies.

I investigate the basis of some of the common and conflicting environmental values that emerged, including the forms in which they were debated. These were characterised by antagonism and acrimony, particularly in the Community Reference Group. The thesis concludes by speculating about factors that might have enabled dialogue to have been more productively conducted, suggesting some essential practical requirements of a green public sphere. The concept of the green public sphere is finally assessed in terms of its limitation to speech when the action required is the responsibility of government bodies. Much of the citizen dissatisfaction in this case is attributable to the actions of government bodies in an unstable and possibly dysfunctional larger political context. This particular public sphere forum, even if it was conducted in an exemplary manner, could not have affected the larger context and thus we have to question the capacity of such groups to influence environmental planning and management by the state. In contrast, the most successful examples of solving comparable problems is offered by international accounts of the communal management of common pool resources.

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