Love-a-bat – Working with the Hawkesbury-Nepean Bat Group

This is the second in a series of posts by excellent GEOP3800 Practicing Geography students from 2020. Alyssa Wilson wrote this piece and we’re happy to share it here.

I was one of two students working with the Hawkesbury-Nepean Bat Group. Our overarching task was to write profiles for some Australian bat species for the group’s new Facebook page (Plains and Mountains Bat Friends), and gather interesting facts and media about them. I also ended up assembling a list of environmental groups and so forth to get in touch with. I was mostly stuck behind a desk during this time, although this doesn’t exactly go against my personal preferences.

Our supervisor Ms Sara Judge warned us there was less information on some bats than others, so with her guidance I tracked down some field guides. Sue Churchill’s Australian Bats was a particular help in trying to decipher some of the taxonomical confusion surrounding the freetail bats (family Molossidae), where scientists are still deciding how to classify the bats.

Pictured left-right, the guidebooks I used A Natural History of Australian Bats by Richards, Hall and Parish (2012) and Australian Bats by Churchill (2009).

Both field guides dedicated their opening chapters to more general information about bat ecology, study and so forth, and I found myself developing a broader interest in our bats. Unfortunately, I was having a tough time integrating this information within the short length of the profiles. A saving grace arrived in a new task: write a longer blog about one of the microbat species I’d been studying. I chose Gould’s wattled bat (Chalinolobus gouldii), as it is the most common microbat in the Sydney region and I thought it would be a good opportunity to foster a connection between this species and the (largely human) community.

The white-striped freetail bat (Austronomus australis, formerly Tadarida australis), whose taxonomy was an early source of angst while I wrote my bat profiles. Copyright Michael Pennay, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License,

Writing for my placement was a change of pace, as across both my arts and sciences studies, I have been writing essays for experts in their respective fields. It gave me time to think about how to communicate complex science to the public. I had to be selective about what to share—for example, I couldn’t wax lyrical about how much of a hard time I was having understanding some of the information I was reading, and in my search for interesting facts to share, I came across some potentially distressing media about bats, including the impacts of extreme heat events—more on this below (don’t worry, it’s not graphic).

Bats are misunderstood creatures. Ironically, for all the fear and disgust that they inspire, this also makes them vulnerable. Several bat species are listed as vulnerable, and they can be impacted by urban development. Human-bat interactions can be prickly—you might have heard about efforts to expel bats from urban parks using sound canons and lights—unfortunately, it is neither kind nor effective. Bats are also vulnerable to extreme heat events, and rescues intensify as summer approaches. This is only going to intensify as the climate continues to change. Despite these troubles, my own fondness for these creatures keeps me optimistic. There are many people hard at work caring for bats. Looking after bats encompasses a broader range of activities such as bush regeneration and coordinating with local councils and other environmental groups.

I enjoyed my placement, and I hope that one day, after the pandemic has died down, I can meet some bats up close (that said, bats may carry viruses and people who aren’t skilled in handling bats shouldn’t be touching them, for the wellbeing of both the human and the bat). I’d like to thank Sandie and Sara for making my placement possible.

Exploring the impact of COVID-19 on food insecurity in Australia

This is the first in a series of posts by excellent GEOP3800 Practicing Geography students from 2020. Elizabeth Meyer wrote this piece and it was originally published on the Right to Food Coalition website.

I think its really highlighted how fragile our complex food system is and it has potentially really highlighted that there is a need for more local and resilient food systems

– Berbel Franse (Health Promotion Officer, Healthy Cities Illawarra)

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our daily lives. It’s affected people’s jobs, families, health, routines, relationships, and so much more. For a lot of people it’s also affected their food security.

Chloe, and myself, were lucky enough to be able to spend August and September of this year working with the amazing people at Australia’s Right to Food Coalition. Due to COVID-19 restrictions this unfortunately had to be done in a virtual capacity, which threw a few extra challenges at us – nothing that we weren’t able to overcome!

We were given the opportunity (and responsibility) of conducting a small research project exploring the impact of COVID-19 on four community food organisations operating in the Greater Sydney and Illawarra region:

  1. OzHarvest
  2. Food Fairness Illawarra
  3. Rozelle Neighbourhood Centre
  4. Community Greening

It really was an amazing opportunity to be able to gain some hands on research experience, whilst also being trusted with the first hand accounts of some of the people working right in the thick of emergency food relief programs.

These organisations deserve the utmost respect for the efforts they have put in throughout the height of the pandemic, working tirelessly to ensure their organisations can help as many people in need as possible.                             

From our interviews with representatives from these organisations it became clear the the emergency food relief industry has been turned on its head since the start of the pandemic. Disruptions to pre-existing food chains (such as supermarkets) has been a big contributor to food insecurity for groups of people without the resources to bulk buy.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

There was agreement amongst those interviewed that “there is a need for more local and resilient food systems” (Berbel Franse, 2020). For many of these organisations there has been a significant increase in the demand for food relief, whilst others found that there has not been an increase but rather a shift in demand. They’ve witnessed a distinct shift in the groups experiencing food insecurity, with many of their previous clients now doing better off due to an increase in welfare payments. Whilst on the other hand, new groups such as international students and families, are now experiencing food insecurity for the first time. The point was raised there is a certain degree of stigma and embarrassment attached to accessing food relief, which has acted as a strong deterrent for these new groups experiencing food insecurity, and this stigma needs to be broken down moving forward.

COVID-19 regulations have also had a massive affect on the volunteer bases for these organisations (of which they are heavily reliant). Safety-measures and regulations have resulted in a significant loss in volunteers. Rozelle Neighbourhood Centre has seen a drop in volunteers from 120 down to just 5. This has increased the workload for these organisations enormously, and they have all risen to the challenge, partnering with other organisations and government councils for any form of assistance.

Although there were challenges in undertaking this internship and research completely online, I’m beyond grateful to have been given the opportunity to conduct this research and record first hand the incredible efforts that have come from these organisations in such a difficult time.

To Amy, Chantelle and Liz from the Right to Food Coalition – Chloe and myself can’t thank you enough for taking us on and for all the guidance and feedback you gave us along the way! Thank you!

A process of learning in a multicultural setting: exploring tourism in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh.

This fascinating blog is from recent graduate Sabiha Yeasmin Rosy about her experience doing a PhD with the Discipline of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University.

A long-cherished wish came true!

My first encounter with Bandarban – one of the three districts of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) – happened during an excursion, when I was a Bachelor student studying at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The trip became really special after my romantic eyes met the green hills, snaky roads, the slopes, the Jum (shifting cultivation) fields, and the streams for the first time. Bandarban was extremely different from Dhaka – the city where I grew up – geographically, ethnically, and historically. I was aware of the historical ethnic conflict in CHT, had a deep affection for the mountains and was conscious of the issues Indigenous people experienced here: doing my Bachelor monograph about Indigenous issues here made sense to me.  Unfortunately, due to a range of reasons, it didn’t happen. Finally, through my PhD I could work with Indigenous peoples, in their place, getting familiar with their cultures and fulfilling my long-cherished wish!

Approaching the research

The CHT is a place which has a history of deprivation and conflict since the late 1970s with a disruptive settlement programme of the ethnic majority Bangalee from their Indigenous homelands. This settlement resulted in conflict between Indigenous people, and settler and military Bangalee, due to the violence and exploitation committed against the Indigenous peoples and their lands. A Peace Treaty was signed in 1997 to ensure Indigenous peoples’ rights; however, the conflict still goes on at different levels due to land grabbing, illegal extraction of resources, and control over the socio-political environment. The continuous military presence in the CHT shapes how Indigenous peoples here lack power and control over their own place.

Development of tourism in a such a context caught my attention as an avenue through which to explore different perspectives and the underlying socio-economic and political issues for people –environment relationships. In a post-conflict situation, where the tension over power and control remains, and the rights of different actors are unequally distributed, conducting research requires openness and sensitivity not only towards the participants, but also to the history, internal politics, culture and the information gathered from the field. Therefore, I employed feminist ethnographic research methods to combine my emotions, knowledge and reflexive understanding to have deeper insights of the CHT – in terms of place, people and culture.

The process of collecting data was the most intriguing part of this research. To be exact, engaging with people and their narratives not only brought different perspectives on external and internal political conflicts, or power relations between different actors, but also allowed me to experience Indigenous culture and practices through participant observation. Being an ‘outsider’ – a Bangalee woman researcher – seemed to work as an advantage as I was invited into Indigenous people’s public and private spheres. Due to my gender, I was not a romantic or sexual threat for women (generally, Indigenous women are discouraged from marrying Bangalee men due to conflictual relations, socio-cultural and religious differences). Three Indigenous families took care of me while I was staying in Bandarban and we became friends. Most importantly, I am highly indebted to Aunt Naly for not only introducing me to these families and my research assistant, but also for inviting me to celebrate women’s rights related programs, meeting women activists from different organizations, and participating in all Buddhist festivals. She played the role of a door opener, which allowed me to get involved with people’s everyday practices and experiences relating to tourism in a post-conflict region.

A phase of learning – norms and culture

Putting aside the complex findings of my research (described in my thesis), I would like to focus on a few cultural aspects, that gave me a strong indication of CHT Indigenous people’s norms and practices. I was amazed by their practice of helping strangers. They leave some rice, salt, lentil, fuel and other necessary things at Jum ghar (a small hut made in Jum field temporarily for taking care of crops and process harvesting). Any strangers passing by the Jum ghar can take shelter at night and feed themselves. Although elders do have doubts about the sustainability of this practice due to modernisation and cultural changes.

Jum ghar in Barbadan. Photo: Roming Bawm

Apart from learning about this practice, I personally experienced moments that made me feel overwhelmed. When I went to a Jum ghar of a Mro Indigenous farmer to participate in a picnic, he gave us – a group of 11/12 people – pumpkins for free when we were leaving. He insisted I take the pumpkin when I politely refused. It was not the pumpkin that touched my soul, but the man who showed his affection by giving something that he produced. Thus, how could I say no to a sweet pumpkin! There were a few incidents when shopkeepers at the community level, or at tourist places, offered me tea and foods for free – refusing to take money. A few people also gave me their farm grown fruits, or cooked local delicacies for me as well. This giving was a reflection of our mutual respectful relations, and their way of treating me cordially.

Giving tourism a ‘scope’ in a multicultural setting: does it work?

The development of tourism in a massive scale has been a new phenomenon in Bandarban with a growing number of people interested in visiting new places. The most famous tourist destinations are Meghla, Shoilo Propat, Chimbuk, Nilachol and Swarno Mandir (golden temple), Ruma, Bagalake, Thanchi and different waterfalls. In these places, the infrastructural changes have transformed the environment, raising questions as to who benefits from the tourism economy.  

Shoilo Propat (waterfall). Photo: Rosy

Indigenous women are involved in tourism to a limited extent, selling their handicrafts to tourists at the different destinations. Bawm Indigenous women are largely involved in making handicrafts. The main crafts they produce are shawls, bedsheets, mufflers, and blankets. The ethnic majority Bangalee tourists find interest in these products considering them ‘different’ or ‘exotic’ as they are produced by Indigenous ‘others’. The ‘otherness’ creates a complex boundary between the Bangalee and Indigenous peoples that can be traced back to the history of colonial invasion and violence against Indigenous people in the CHT.  

Women selling their crafts at Shoilo Propat. Photo: Rosy.

The research findings in my thesis draw upon the various representations of culture in tourism, and the possibility of cross-cultural understanding. However, the scope of cross-cultural understanding is rather elusive, as the Bangalee tourists are contributing to changes in Indigenous culture along with other digital forces. In addition, to meet the growing demand for crafts, the quality of products is compromised. The commercialization of culture is a mean to attract and satisfy the tourists according to their needs. In this process, everything is in danger of becoming commercialized, be it people, nature or culture, in the name of ‘exotic’. However, there are few opportunities for tourists to get to know any Indigenous people or their histories as they hardly interact with them, unless they buy something. Therefore, it seems difficult to build a relationship based on mutual respect and sensibility.

Nonetheless, tourism contributes positively in some women’s lives with greater income and an increased ability to make decisions in the family, to invest the income for children’s education, and to manage family expenses. It is undeniable that tourism is a big part of the economy in Bandarban, but money and power remain in powerful actors’ hands. This makes it even more important to support opportunities for equal participation in decision making and tourism planning, for more respectful and responsible behaviour, and for reciprocity in relationships.

I would like to finish this piece acknowledging the contribution of my principal supervisor Associate Professor Fiona Miller, and co-supervisors Associate Professor Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Dr. Jessica McLean. The journey was filled with mixed emotions, sometimes I was lost in worry, stress or emptiness, sometimes I was relaxed, content and felt amazing. Undeniably, I have learned a lot about how power is constructed, implemented, and manifests in different situations. My perspectives on life and what is important has been re-formed, altered, and I have become more aware of injustices and the importance of ethics. Being a geography student helped me develop knowledge and empathy towards people, the environment and cultural practices, which also contributed to some changes in my thinking process. Lastly, thanks to the University for giving me the scholarship and enabling me to be a part of this wider community.

Introducing the A-Z of Shadow Places Concepts Collection

We are excited to introduce a wonderful new project on behalf of the Shadow Places Network, ‘The A-Z of Shadow Places Concepts’ collection is edited by GeoPlan academics Associate Professors Fiona Miller and Donna Houston with Associate Professor Emily Potter from Deakin University.

The Shadow Places Network is a network of scholars, artists and activists who are collaborating to re-imagine connections between communities and places in a time of climate change.  As explained on the Shadow Place Network website, the network:

“…seeks to make visible the place-based, material and imaginative structures, practices and relations that sustain the exploitative capitalist system, and the modern global history of colonisation, that underpin climate change. These structures, practices and relations actively construct a geography of injustice constituted of multiple shadow places”.  (Shadow Places Network, 2019).

The A to Z of Shadow Places Concepts is one example of an interdisciplinary collaboration drawing together academics and artists from different parts of the world.  The network and A-Z project draw their inspiration from the late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood who introduced the powerful concept of shadow places. Plumwood’s article is a treasure-trove of useful ideas.  One of the most enduring statements in the piece is her call to reformulate our attachments to place with the principles and practices of environmental justice:

…to cherish and care for your places, but without in the process destroying or degrading any other places, where ‘other places’ includes other human places, but also other species’ places”. (Plumwood 2008)

From the Shadow Places Networks’ website:

‘The A to Z of Shadow Places Concepts’ collection is the outcome of invitations to authors and artists to reflect on the concept of shadow places in their own work.  The following is a glimpse of the entries written by GeoPlan scholars including works by Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Donna Houston, Jessica McLean, Andrew McGregor, Fiona Miller and Emily O’Gorman. 

Co-Becoming by Bawaka Country including Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Banbapuy Ganambarr, Djawundil Maymuru, Sarah Wright, Kate Lloyd and Sandie Suchet-Pearson

Shadows are important in co-becoming; we need a respite from the sun, a place to yarn. But they are shadows of our choice, we are related to them, we nurture and celebrate them. We need both lightness and shadow to make it whole because lightness cannot work on its own and neither can the shadows.

Damage by Donna Houston

‘The politics of wastelands from the microbial to the planetary require greater attunement to the iridescent edges of disturbance, the lived interdependencies and multispecies injustices. Here, there is no redemption, only the potential for the ethical and political navigation of ‘impure’ states of more-than-human flourishing.’

Digital by Jessica McLean

‘The environmental costs that accompany the benefits of digital ecosystems are frequently hidden. We do not see the electricity flowing through our digital devices in the same was as we see water flowing through a shower head or down a drain. And in the early days of the expansion of digital communications – when email was becoming an everyday tool – the promise of the paperless office was ushered in with the proliferation of digital spaces. Digital solutions continue to be offered without significant consideration of the actual environmental impacts that might be associated with their lifecycle’.

Killable by Andrew McGregor

Learning to be affected by this liveliness and all the emotions, from wonder to horror, it elicits inside us is a first step in moving from killable societies in which humans, and only some humans, matter, to multispecies societies based on kinship and care’.

Loss by Fiona Miller

Yet in seeking to trace a geography of loss more than just bearing witness to places of harm is required. It is also necessary to hold the processes and actors complicit in constructing this harm responsible. Plumwood’s concept of ‘shadow places’ is a powerful way of thinking about the connections between places and the multiple unacknowledged, disregarded places of material and ecological support.’

Underwater by Stephanie R Januchowski-Hartley, Christopher Bear, Emily O’Gorman and Fraser A Januchowski-Hartley

Being underwater affords varied experiences and perspectives that could extend our understanding of human-animal relations from within the water. We ask: what is different between in and out-of-water human-nonhuman relations and experiences? Do people experience a different relationship with species from underwater than they do from above or alongside?’

‘The A-Z of Shadow Places Concepts’ collection is open access and is published on the Shadow Places Network website.  We hope you enjoy reading these pieces as much as we did writing them!

Introducing the multispecies justice working group

This blog post is an invitation to join the new multispecies justice working group, written by Geography and Planning’s Associate Professor Andrew McGregor, Associate Professor Donna Houston, Alinta Pilkington, Jack Vanzino, Sophia Amini and Tanmay Kulkarni.

In 2020 the new unit GEOP3000 Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene was taught for the first time at MQ.  Both a social movement and a research agenda, environmental justice highlights how responsibility for, and the burdens of, environmental degradation are unevenly distributed across space and scale, and divided between and within social categories such as race, class, gender, and ethnicity.  Practical improvements are sought through more informed, flexible, representative and inclusive decision-making processes.  The Anthropocene refers to a new geological epoch in which humans, and some humans in particular, have become a geological force driving planetary change.  The Anthropocene amplifies the uneven impacts of global heating, pollution and landscape change on people, plants, animals and places.

Throughout the unit students developed new concepts and skills that could be applied to improve environmental decision making.  One concept that stood out for many was multi-species justice, whereby the considerations of non-human species are also taken into account in decision making.  Multi-species justice was employed as a frame to analyse a range of issues within assignments, including animals in zoos, shark management and kangaroo culls. 

After the unit concluded a small inspired interdisciplinary group of students have worked with staff from Geography and Planning to form a multispecies justice working group.  The group meets fortnightly via zoom to discuss relevant readings and developments relating to multispecies justice, such as recent changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.  The group has since grown to include Masters, PhD students and staff and is open to all. 

Community gardens are making space for multispecies. Photo: Donna Houston

Multispecies justice is a novel concept but one with great potential to generate new practices and ideas. As Danielle Celermajer and her co-authors argue, as a novel concept multispecies justice has a lot of tensions and disagreements. Chief among these tensions is the question of how justice can be more-than-human?  How can we avoid ‘extensionist’ and ‘hierarchical’ approaches that extend the human-centric ‘subject’ of justice and how can we understand justice in more plural and relational ways?  In what follows we share some of the ideas the group founders, Sophia, Jack, Alinta and Tanmay, associated with multispecies justice.

What is multispecies justice?

Multi-species justice means recognising that human life is entangled with all other forms of life and ecological processes. It means acknowledging that our wellbeing is directly dependent on the wellbeing of other species, and acting in a way that is genuinely considerate of other species to create a healthier way of living on our planet (Sophia).

Multispecies justice is a new, generative concept that refers to the recognition of injustice caused to non-human species as a result of anthropocentric environmental decision-making processes (Jack).

Multi-species justice ensures that all interests are not only acknowledged, but adequately represented. It is an all-inclusive concept, highlighting the interconnectivity between species, including our own (Tanmay).

It forces us to make spaces in our thinking, communities, planning, and resource use and so on that actively involve the consideration of other life – how they live, where they shelter, their food and water needs and so on (Alinta).

Why are you interested in multispecies justice?

I think it’s a critical concept because we’re facing a period of history likely to be the 6th mass extinction event – and it’s an event directly attributable to humanity and our unchecked appetites for resources. Placing nature back into the frame of rights forces us to check these exploitative lifestyles and simultaneously enables us to innovate new ways to live within our means (Alinta).

An approach that sees humans embedded within, rather than exceptional from the rest of the natural world, will enable more just and equitable outcomes for the largest number of stakeholders within environmental decision-making processes (Jack).

I think it’s inevitable that we will have to deeply reconsider our exploitative relationships with other species – not just for their sake, but also for our own survival. Multi-species justice provides a vital and exciting avenue for exploring how to establish this consideration in our decision-making processes (Sophia).

It is a concept that repositions humanity alongside other species, instead of above them, finally recognising that humanity is not distinct from nature, but a part of it. This is the sort of thinking that will enable environmental issues to be adequately addressed in the future (Tanmay).

Multispecies justice is a part of activism in response to the last Australian bushfire season. Photo: Donna Houston

How can multispecies justice inform practice / policy?

Coming from a legal background, my immediate thoughts are that multispecies justice can inform the law. We have already seen this in the legal personhood of rivers and nature itself (i.e. rights of nature). It can also play a major role in establishing conservation measures as it encourages conservationists to truly think about what other species need, as opposed to just what we think they need. But multispecies justice can also influence our choices in daily life – what we eat, what we throw out, and how we get around (Tanmay).

Elevating non-human species into our sphere of concern provides an opportunity to transform our practices in a way that is sensitive to contemporary research and will leave our planet in a healthier state for future generations of life (Sophia).

Every component of human civilisation has been built on an illusion of a divorce of humanity to the rest of the natural world. Reintegrating the rights of nature will force an active re-think into every single facet of the way we live our lives, plan our cities, and use resources (Alinta).

Non-anthropocentric ethics must be considered in order to shift societal perceptions of ethical responsibility so that just outcomes are generated for as many stakeholders as possible within the current environmental decision-making system (Jack).

Going forward

We are all very excited to be part of this creative, multidisciplinary and non-hierarchical working group and invite others to join us.  We are open to new ideas and suggestions and are currently planning a major resource for pursuing everyday spaces and practices of multispecies justice.  If you would like to join us please get in contact with Andrew McGregor or Donna Houston

A social impact assessment should be bona fide, no matter what you call it

Dr Alison Ziller, Lecturer in the Discipline of Geography and Planning, evaluates recent SIA dilemmas in Newcastle, NSW:

An unresolved issue in social impact assessment [SIA] is the extent to which a proposed planning project or policy change requires a full SIA or a less comprehensive assessment. The dilemma is exemplified in the high level of detail required by the Department of Planning’s SIA Guideline for State Significant Resource Projects and the lesser amount of information required by many councils in the form of a SIA statement.

The Planning Institute of Australia’s SIA Policy Statement avoids the dilemma by stating that the requirement for a SIA should be commensurate with the significance of the likely impacts or the project or policy. However, this does not sit well with many planners for whom the size of a project is determined by the floor space ratio, number of floors or building height – the size of the building, not the extent of the impact. The basic problem with the building size approach is that small projects and, similarly, small policy changes can have large impacts. It all depends on what the building or policy change is for, and how it is proposed to be introduced.

To some extent planning has always recognised this. There are clear limits, for example, to where brothels or panel beating workshops can be located. However, in these instances, the social impacts of a class of premises have been assumed to be largely the same and susceptible to generalised controls. On this basis, the NSW State Environmental Planning Policy [SEPP] Exempt and Complying Development Code (2008) lists a number of changes of use of premises which do not require development consent. For example change of use of one kind of shop, say a clothes shop, to another kind of shop, say a greengrocery, does not require development consent. 

However, S2.20B (f)(i) of the SEPP explicitly rules out some changes of use on the basis that they do require development consent. Among these are food and drink premises. Food and drink premises are diverse, ranging from hole-in-the-wall cafés to premises, such as small bars, licensed to sell alcohol to be consumed on the premises. As these examples demonstrate, the different use affects likely trading hours, likely duration of customer presence and different potential risks in their subsequent behaviour. The collective term for adverse social consequences attributable to licensed premises is alcohol-related harm. Risk of alcohol-related harm accounts for the fact that liquor licensing is the responsibility of a specialist agency, the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority [ILGA], and decisions are made on an individual basis. Under the NSW Liquor Act (s48(5)), the Authority is required to take account of the likely social impacts of permitting or changing the terms of a liquor licence.

Making decisions on a premises by premises basis is time consuming and requires an application from each licensee to ILGA. However, this has the benefit of requiring case-by-case review which is likely to extend over time. Where a number of licensees in an area seek similar changes, the case-by-case review process provides ILGA with the opportunity to observe trends and consequences (social impacts) in an area as they emerge. Each application requires ILGA to consider afresh the likely social impacts.

Recently Newcastle City Council recommended a short cut to this social impact assessment process seeking to promote the night time economy in the city’s CBD. The short cut required the NSW Department of Planning Industry and Environment [DPIE] to grant exempt development status (as an exception to the SEPP) to 26 ‘selected’ licensed premises.

Newcastle city. Image by Ricky Wright from Pixabay

On 4 September 2020, DPIE issued an Explanation of Intended Effect [EIE] saying:

The Minister for Planning and Public Spaces is seeking feedback on a proposal to amend the Newcastle Local Environmental Plan 2012 (Newcastle LEP) to allow certain small bars and restaurants to trade outside the hours of operation for the premises specified in the conditions of the venue’s development consent (trading hours). The proposal is to allow for this extended trading to be treated as exempt development if it is done in accordance with the hours permitted by the ‘standard trading hours for such licences under the Liquor Act 2007 (Liquor Act).

While DPIE has a SIA Guideline in place for major resource extraction projects, it does not have a guideline for the assessment of social impacts for other projects or policy changes. Nonetheless, a planning proposal which is the subject of an EIE is required to provide a justification for the proposal (s 3.33 (2)(c) of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act).

The EIE states that the justification of the proposed exempt development status is to:

assist participating businesses to recoup lost income from the temporary closures and reduced customer capacity due to COVID-19. (EIE p1)

DPIE allowed 16 days for community feedback on the proposal.

In making a submission to this proposal, I drew attention to fact that the change would affect an area with a long history of alcohol-related harm – not mentioned in the EIE. The EIE’s justification for creating the exempt development status for 26 selected licensed premises was based on the undocumented assertion that they had not had ‘any recent breaches of their liquor licences or incidents of anti-social behaviour’. ‘Recent’ is undefined.

There is no discussion in the EIE of:

  • assault rates in the area,
  • the epidemiology of alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 restrictions,
  • the validity of conducting a trial during unusual circumstances,
  • the impact of extended trading hours on other premises in the area, nor
  • the fact that the selected premises would be able to serve high strength alcohol during their extended trading hours.

In social impact assessment it is not the size of the document which is important, nor even the name given to the process. What matters is that the pros and cons of what is proposed are identified and fairly and adequately assessed. This remains to be done in the case of this EIE.

On being a part-time Higher Degree Research candidate

Dr Wayne Williamson shares his higher degree research experiences at Macquarie, offering insights on thesis by publication research and navigating complex positionings as an insider/outsider.

A long-held research interest

After completing a Masters by Research (on a part-time basis) which investigated the adoption and use of information and communications technology in the NSW planning system, I settled back into working life as a planning officer in the NSW state government.

While my Master’s thesis touched on the adoption of social media by NSW local governments, I had no plans to continue studying. However, in early 2013 I noticed a number of planning matters where community groups were using social media. In some cases, social media was being heavily used to support community groups’ campaigns against development proposals. I quickly realised that these community groups were using social media to an extent never before seen by planners. Never one to pass-up an opportunity, I started collecting the social media data being generated with a view to potentially undertaking a research project in the future.

Fast forward 12 months, I literally showed up at Associate Professor Kristian Ruming’s office with a pocket full of social media data and some case study ideas that I thought were worthwhile pursuing. And so my #PhDLife began.

Insider/outsider, planner/researcher

My part-time enrolment in the PhD program in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie created a situation where I found myself being an insider in the planning profession, with certain access and assumed knowledge, whilst also having outsider status in the community groups I was seeking to study. This did raise ethical issues when conducting interviews, as I needed to identify my employer before conducting interviews. My employment status did not affect my interviews with planners and had no effect on my day-to-day working relationships with colleagues. However, some interview requests with community groups were declined and perhaps my employee status played a role.

As an insider researcher, you have the advantage of possessing specific knowledge of processes and procedures and a professional network that allows you to gain access to people that may otherwise be difficult to make contact with. However, there is an element of suspicion when an outsider seeks an interview with representatives of community groups, as their campaign is often personal and the subject matter typically generates passionate responses and opinions.

Case studies explored through a mixed methods approach and thesis by publication

As I had a strong list of case studies I wanted to explore, I decided to tackle the project through a thesis by publication very early in my candidature. In broad terms the thesis would be made up of two sections; Part I would investigate a range of planning matters from small site specific planning matters to large urban renewal sites from the local community’s point-of-view. Part II would examine how both local and state government planning authorities use social media.

As the thesis would eventually document seven case studies, I employed multiple data sources and analysis methods. This mixed methods approach was considered appropriate as it provided the opportunity to answer research questions where either quantitative and/or qualitative methods are most suitable. For example, social network analysis is appropriate for visualising community group social media networks. At the same time, discourse analysis and content analysis are suitable for exploring the topics that are circulated through social media networks.

An example of the network analysis from Wayne’s thesis – this one generated for Bronte development discourse. Source: Wayne Williamson

Community groups, planning authorities and social media

For the community groups investigated, it was found that they did not attract large numbers of followers on Twitter and are led by a small number of people. Other Twitter users would follow the groups, but had a low-participation rate. On a more positive note, it was found that social media is an effective platform for connecting to other community groups experiencing similar planning processes. Community groups also drew on social media’s potentially wide geographic reach to broadcast emotional strategies which raised Sydney-wide claims about consultation and equity.

In regards to planning authorities, it was found that any dialogue between a community group and a planning authority on social media seemed to strain the internal processes of the planning authority. The case studies also highlighted the difficulties of moderating participation on social media and keeping comments on topic, which demonstrates the agency of individuals and groups to shape the discourse.

Overall, I found a mismatch between communities that utilised social media as an additional communications channel to engage and/or disrupt planning processes, while planning authorities implemented social media to mimic traditional engagement processes, but seem very reluctant to engage in any specific questions or discussions through social media.

Part-time PhD study enabled long term observations and data collection

My investigation of social media use in planning practice morphed into a long term project of discovery for me. Being a part-time PhD candidate gave me the time to undertake long term observations and data collection for case studies that can last for several years. The long term nature of this project has also given me the opportunity to become an active participant in an emerging body of academic literature. Thus, as my research has progressed it has benefited from the work published by others over the past 5 years. While there are many challenges associated with undertaking higher degree research on a part-time basis, it can be done and can be very rewarding!

Wayne Williamson. Source: Wayne Williamson

Recording of A/Prof David Bissell’s talk ‘Anaesthetic geographies: unfeeling insecure digital labour’

Thanks to A/Prof David Bissell for an excellent talk this week – you can watch and listen to it here:

Researching human-lion conflict in Namibia

This blog shares insights by Dr John Heydinger about his PhD Cotutelle program with the University of Minnesota and Macquarie University:

Lions, pastoral livelihoods and shared landscapes in northwest Namibia
Humans, livestock, and lions have inhabited shared landscapes in northwest Namibia for hundreds of years. Currently, human-lion conflict threatens pastoral livelihoods and the viability of the region’s desert-adapted lion population. From 2017 through 2019 my dissertation research, which was undertaken as part of a Cotutelle program between Macquarie University and the University of Minnesota, took me to the communal conservancies of northwest Namibia. There, I worked alongside local conservationists, including government and NGO staff and communal pastoralists, to examine human-lion conflict and work to innovate new approaches for humans and lions to coexist in this rugged, arid landscape.

A desert-adapted lioness in the Hoanib Riverbed. Source: AJ Watt Images

Multi-disciplinary and multi-method research into human-lion conflict

As part of a multi-disciplinary research project, the goal was to create historically-informed solutions to human-lion conflict that are locally-inclusive. This complicated and complex problem required a multi-method approach to examining human-lion conflict. Drawing on archival, scientific and governmental material, as well as social surveys and oral histories that I performed, this was the first time that disparate sources of information on human-livestock-lion relationships in northwest Namibia were unified. The result has been a dissertation that informs ongoing conservation interventions. This thesis is the first attempt to explicitly frame applied lion conservation activities within historical contexts, critically assessing livestock as mediators of human-lion interactions. Part of the thesis examining the geography of lion and wild dog extermination during the early colonial era has been published in The Journal of Southern African Studies. An additional paper from the research, examining the effects of lions on pastoral livelihoods, has been published in Biological Conservation. With other aspects of the research to be published in Environment and History.

Lion Rangers program

In addition to performing research, during my time in northwest Namibia I helped found the Lion Rangers program. The Lion Rangers are a group of local conservationists, employed by their communal conservancies (community level conservation organisations), who receive equipment and special training to mediate, mitigate, and prevent conflict between humans and lions within their communal conservancy. Since the beginning of 2018, more than 35 local conservationists have received training and been deployed to help monitor the region’s desert-adapted lions and work with communal pastoralists to limit conflict. In addition to training, the Lion Ranger program, in partnership with the Namibian government and local NGOs IRDNC, TOSCO, the Namibia Lion Trust, and Desert Lion Conservation, is innovating new projects to limit human-lion conflict. These include a ground-breaking early warning system, helping erect new livestock enclosures, and assisting with lion translocations away from problem areas. This work continues on, even during the Covid-19 crisis. More information is available at and on Instagram (@lionrangers).

The Lion Rangers near Mbokondja in Anabeb Conservancy. Source: AJ Watt Images

Continuing my research and conservation activism

Following upon my doctoral research, I am working as a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. My research examines a subpopulation of desert-adapted lions inhabiting a remote and rugged escarpment area of northwest Namibia. To-date, no population or ecological monitoring of this population has occurred. This two-year research is supported by a Big Cats Conservation Initiative Grant from the National Geographic Society.

As a graduate student, the Department of Geography and Planning has been critical, not only providing me with guidance and support for my research, but also entrusting me to follow my passion and questions to implement an activism-oriented project. In particular, my supervisors Dr Emily O’Gorman and Associate Professor Sandie Suchet-Pearson provided countless hours and insights, as well as thoughts and recommendations to help me see the work to this stage. Their trust, that I would be able to produce meaningful research, and guidance, to help make it so, was among the great gifts I have received. I look forward to continuing to work at the forefront of community-based conservation and contributing to new scholarly developments at the intersections of human societies and the natural world.

Social impacts of open cut coal mining

Dr Alison Ziller, Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning, shares her recent SIA work in NSW:

Social impact assessment (SIA) is often done for mining and resource extraction projects which the NSW Government has determined are of state significance. This means that the applicant is required to prepare a SIA and the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) must take social impacts into account in making its decision about whether or not to permit the development.

Lock the Gate’s campaign highlighted the agricultural values of the area (

In July the IPC considered an application by a mining company, Whitehaven Coal, to excavate a new open cut coal mine near Boggabri in NW NSW. This new mine would extend an already approved mine. The project is called the Vickery Extension Project. The application included an SIA.

There has been strong community opposition to this project. While much of the opposition focused on water issues, there was also concern about the likely social impacts of this mine should it go ahead. A number of community organisations were involved, among them an alliance of 450 community groups called Lock the Gate.

Alison Ziller was asked to provide Lock the Gate with a review of the applicant’s SIA. She also made a presentation on the social impact issues to the IPC. The key social impact concerns raised were that: the number of jobs for local people would be few, the project would be likely to have detrimental effects on public health in the region, and the mitigations proposed by Whitehaven did not appear tangible or durably effective in dealing with the adverse impacts.

In follow-up, the IPC asked Dr Ziller to advise whether there were examples of positive social benefits as a result of mining. Her reply noted that claims of social benefit are often made regarding the number of local jobs likely to be created, the benefit associated with financial contributions made by the mining company to sporting and other local groups, promises of local training opportunities, community engagement events, increased population and town beautification projects. But each of these is often accompanied by a down-side:

  • Often the number of local jobs is few and skill requirements mean they are not available to local people who are currently unemployed;
  • Local financial contributions rarely include much needed social welfare services, such as a mental health service;
  • Promises of training programs are vague and may not result in jobs;
  • Community engagement tends to focus on gathering support for a project, not on supporting the people opposed to it, and this contributes to social division;
  • More residents in a town only happens if new workers move in, but many workers prefer to fly in and fly out; and
  • Town beautification is no compensation for the landscapes lost to the open cut pit.

Mining and resource extraction projects are often viewed in terms of environmental and economic impacts. However, they take place in rural areas and significantly affect local residents’ lifestyle, amenity, livelihoods, health and well-being. These critical social impacts also deserve full consideration.