Macquarie Geography and Planning people at #NZGSIAG2018

The School of Environment at the University of Auckland is hosting the joint conference of the New Zealand Geographical Society and the Institute of Australian Geographers from 11-14 July, 2018. The theme of the conference is ‘Creative conversations, constructive connections’ and more information on the whole conference is available here.  For an overview of what Geography and Planning at Macquarie are involved in during this exciting conference, see below.

Corrinne Sullivan will give a paper on ‘Aboriginal sex workers: A sexy strategy?’ on Thursday 12th July in the Gender, Sex, Space and Place session.

Zahra Nasreen will give a paper on ‘Valuing shared housing as home?’ in the session Valuing housing, valuing home. 

Ashraful Alam will give two papers on July 12:
  • ‘”Matters of concerns” or materials of in/securities: revisiting migrant homes in more-than-human cities’ in the session on Materials, mobilities and in/securities
  • ‘Care-full development: insights from Bangladesh’ in the session Beyond anthropocentrism: the case for species-inclusive development

Fiona Miller is co-convening the following panels:
  • Critical geographies of climate change, adaptation and development, with Sophie Webber (University of Sydney) on Thursday, T5.
  • Climate change and new geographies of displacement, with Sophie Webber (University of Sydney), Celia McMichael (University of Melbourne), Joseph Rickson (Macquarie University) on Friday T1.
  • New geographies of development with Sophie Webber (University of Sydney) on Friday, T1.

Fiona is giving a paper: ‘Abandoning adaptation? Climate change, displacement and the creation of shadow places’ in the Climate change and new geographies of displacement session. 

Fiona will also participate in the Meet-the-editors session on Thursday 6-7pm in her role as Southeast Asia editor for Asia Pacific Viewpoint. 

Miriam Williams will speak on the Care panel at the Care and Gendered Mentoring Symposium pre-conference at 10am on Wednesday 11 and the Chair’s ECR Panel on the role of Geography in Australasia on Wednesday at 4:30pm.
Miriam will also give a paper entitled ‘Materialities of Care-full justice’ in the Contemporary Themes in Urban Geography session at 2:40pm on Thursday 12.

Andrew McGregor will be presenting a paper on ‘The biopolitics of cattle methane mitigation’ in the Beyond anthropocentricism: The case for species-inclusive development session.

Donna Houston is talking about ‘Life at the Edges: Encountering Extinction in Cities’ in the Contemporary themes in urban geography session.

Matalena Tofa will give a paper on ‘Exploring mobilities during flooding’ in the Mobilities and Weather session.

Kat Haynes is contributing to the panel Making children visible.

Sabiha Yeasmin Rosy will talk about ‘Exploring Tourism Geographies in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh: A Political Ecology of Uneven Development’ in the New geographies of Development session.

Greg Walkerden will give a paper on ‘Planning under uncertainty: embracing not-knowing and planning for flexibility’ in the Open 3: Infrastructure and planning session.

David Crew will give a paper entitled ‘Better-off or not – Researching the impact of 50 years of Indigenous Policy in Australia’ in the Developments in geography by, with and on behalf of Indigenous peoples session.

And last, but in no ways least, Richie Howitt will be giving the Progress in Human Geography keynote on Saturday ‘Unsettling the taken (-for-granted)’. Abstract here.


Platform skills for professionals

Dr Greg Walkerden, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning, writes about professional training at Macquarie: 

Professional life depends on both special knowledge and skills – e.g. for planners, how to apply relevant legislation and policy when assessing a development proposal – and generalist skills – e.g. for planners, how to negotiate with colleagues and stakeholders, and how to work creatively to integrate multiple conflicting objectives in strategic planning.

Although specialist skills might seem the most obvious and important skills to learn, in professional life it’s far more often depth in generalist skills that mark out really effective professionals (cf. Donald Schön’s work), and ‘soft’ skills are more important to employers than technical or ‘hard’ skills when recruiting new graduates (Archer and Davison 2008).

A way to understand why this is so is to think of the ‘soft’ skills as a ‘platform’ that underpins use of technical skills and knowledge. In computing, an operating system is a ‘platform’ on which applications are built: the operating system handles displaying, sorting, calculating, etc and applications (apps) on mobiles and laptops make use of these underlying capacities. The situation with hard and soft skills is very similar. Technical expertise in social planning or environmental management is of limited use if it is not underpinned by skills in maintaining good working relationships with colleagues and other stakeholders.

Apart from their underlying importance, another reason why soft skills play such an important role differentiating aspiring and established professionals is that they are a lot harder to teach. Mintzberg (2004) makes the following comment about management in organisations – but it applies equally to planning, environmental management, and any socially complex profession:

Management is a practice that has to combine a good deal of craft, namely experience, with a certain amount of art, as vision and insight, and some science, particularly in the form of analysis and technique. But students without managerial experience lack the craft and have little basis for the art, and so programs to train them have relied on the science, and that’s what leaves a distorted impression of management.

Is Mintzberg’s conclusion the last word, however? If we take it as a challenge, we can flip it into a research question: how can university courses develop these soft skills effectively? Experimenting with ways to teach soft skills is fundamental to universities’ missions, in fact. At Macquarie, for example, all classes are designed to contribute to Graduate Capabilities – most of which are ‘soft’ skills (eg Effective Communication, Professional and Personal Judgement and Initiative) – and exploration of alternative ways of teaching soft skills is integral to what we do.

For professional disciplines specifically, such as planning and environmental management, developing new ways of teaching soft skills is part of the profession’s research and development. When, in universities, we formalise this work, our teaching becomes part of our research work.

In our postgraduate Environmental Decision Making class, for example, which is one of our classes where students practice research skills, students undertake ‘reflective practice experiments’ (Walkerden 2009), exploring ways to develop these soft skills for themselves. To address the challenge of needing a setting to practice craft skills, and develop artistry, these experiments happen in the settings students already have to hand: their homes, workplaces, or other classes at Macquarie.

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The majority of students focus on two key influencing skills: stakeholder analysis and negotiation. Working out how to organise cleaning in a shared house, finding more thoughtful ways to approach a negotiation with an employer about wages or conditions, and practicing negotiation skills in group work in another subject, are all popular settings in which to develop these platform skills. Because they are platform skills, creative appropriation of everyday life works well as a medium!

Experiments like this function at two levels. For the students, they are an opportunity to explore, formally, how innovations can be experimented with in practice traditions, and they develop their capacity for ongoing improvement as practitioners. For the teachers as researchers, they are an opportunity to explore ways that capacity can be built. For planning and environmental management, in particular, given the profound challenges we face, as societies, with finding a ‘sustainable’ relation to the places in which we live, this is an important research agenda.


Planning students at Macquarie: Using videos for learning and teaching

Linda Kelly, lecturer in Planning at Macquarie, writes about how planning students are using digital tools in creative ways:

For the past two years, Macquarie’s third year planning students have been required, as part of their assessment, to prepare a short video which aims to motivate a community to be interested and involved in a planning issue. These issues have included matters such as graffiti management, short-term holiday letting, bicycle paths, affordable housing, and the 30-minute city.


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Screenshots from planning students’ videos

The different perspectives and techniques that are demonstrated in these videos are a delight to watch. Part of the learning experience includes a video afternoon where we watch the videos together. This presents a rare opportunity for students to see their own work as it compares with the work of their cohort as well as witness and evaluate the work of others. It has proven to be a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

Developing short videos as a way of communicating and informing communities about planning issues is a skill that the students can add to their repertoire during their degree. Exploring ways to expose the students to vocational skills within a university degree program presents a number of challenges for teachers. Skill development such as plan reading, understanding design terminology, land use surveys, and assessing development issues like overshadowing, bushfire hazard, floor space and height to name just a few, can be time consuming and is more technical than academic. The utilisation of assessment tasks as a way of embedding skill development into the planning program is an effective option. Video production is a fun, inspiring and inclusive way of building communication skills for aspiring planners.

Geographies of Disruption Symposium: Program and invitation to join

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We are excited to share the program for the Geographies of Disruption Symposium, funded by the Geographical Society of NSW and the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University:

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The Symposium will be held on April 19-20th 2018 at Macquarie. We are inviting people who are interested in the Symposium to join the conversation. You do not need to present a paper to participate in it.

If you would like to attend and participate, please email Jess McLean ( by Tuesday 10th April for catering purposes.

Social media and resident action groups

Wayne Williamson, PhD candidate at Macquarie University and Planning Officer at NSW Department of Planning, shares his insights on social media and resident action groups in digital spaces. Find Wayne on Twitter @willwa.  

Community participation in urban planning is generally considered crucial for the delivery of positive outcomes. However, the network structures that can be created by resident action groups that use social media are not widely understood and the dialogue through social media between citizens, planning agencies and other stakeholders is rarely captured and analysed.

The level of public transparency achieved by social media may go some way to reshaping the accepted notion of a short formal consultation period within planning processes towards an ongoing discussion with the community at all stages of the process. Thus, government departments need to recognise the speed of public engagement is being influenced by social media.

To explore the social media network structures and the dialogue distributed through them, I have applied social network analysis and discourse analysis to Twitter data I collected for resident action groups in Sydney.

Why look at these groups using social network analysis? Firstly, network structures such as strong and weak ties and dense clustering can tell the researcher if social capital in being generated in the network. There are various network structures depending on the network type, including small world, village, opinion leader, and hierarchical networks.

Source: Lyles, W. 2015. Using Social Network Analysis to Examine Planner Involvement in Environmentally Oriented Planning Process Led by Non-planning Professionals, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 58(11), 1961–1987.

So if we can gain an understanding of the value of a network structure, how do we then explore what the people in the network are saying? Discourse analysis is a method that can be used to explore the discourses employed by local government, planning agencies, independent expert panels, politicians, journalists and resident action groups to either support or oppose a proposed development.

Using social network analysis to understand participation within resident action group networks

Journalists, news agencies, local businesses, and other resident groups are attracted to and well represented within the networks I have analysed. But, the networks are led by a small number of active people, with a low number of followers, in an opinion leader network structure. Although numerous stakeholders are present in the social media networks they may not participate at points in the planning process, which suggests that participation is largely being pushed by the resident group with little engagement from key stakeholders.

To visualise these findings, the Green nodes in the image below are the nodes that may have seen a tweet or retweet, while the red nodes did not. The activity is concentrated in the centre right portion of the network where the resident action group’s Twitter account is located in the network.

This network diagram also highlights which Twitter uses connected to the network were not passing on the messaging. The Twitter accounts across the top of the network diagram including the responsible local government, the Department of Planning, the Minister for Planning, a state member of parliament and two local newspapers did not tweet or re-tweet during this time. Highly connected Twitter accounts across the bottom of the network diagram—being another state member of parliament, and two citizens with significantly high connections were also silent.

Source: Williamson, W., & Ruming, K. (2016). Using social network analysis to visualize the social-media networks of community groups: Two case studies from Sydney. Journal of Urban Technology, 23(3), 69–89.

It is important to note that social media platforms such as Twitter operate on a self-selection model, and it should not be assumed that all Twitter accounts are supporting the objectives of the community group. By visualising the resident action group’s social media network, there is a possibility of overestimating the community group’s potential reach using social media.

Using social network analysis to visualise the network structures of resident action groups

A highly centralised network is characterised by a few Twitter accounts holding the majority of connections with others in the network. These networks are good for building support for collective action, but are not so good for problem-solving. A more decentralized structure provides better access to resources and stakeholders. Nonetheless, the goal of a resident action group is to generate collective action, thus the network structures I have visualised demonstrate the network’s strongest ties (represented by red connections in networks diagram below) are concentrated on the resident action group’s Twitter account and suggests there is social capital being generated within this segment of the social network as group members generate opinions, distribute information, and support each other’s activities.

Source: Williamson, W., & Ruming, K. (2016). Using social network analysis to visualize the social-media networks of community groups: Two case studies from Sydney. Journal of Urban Technology, 23(3), 69–89.

Social media gives a community the opportunity to participate throughout the planning processes regardless of when the statutory consultation period occurs. This is not new as community groups have traditionally used letters, petitions and telephones calls to facilitate ongoing participation, but it provides an additional communications channel.

Using discourse analysis to understand participation within resident action group networks

To undertake discourse analysis researchers look to highlight two aspects of discourse: first, the social context of the discourse, and second, the rhetorical organisation of the discourse. My use of discourse analysis is predominantly concerned with how and why language is used by stakeholders, particularly the local community, how particular rhetorical strategies are deployed by government agencies, and the effect of those strategies on the urban planning process.

Traditionally, dialogue during a planning process has taken place in town hall meetings, private meetings with elected officials and phone calls with planning staff, which would only be accessible to those present at the time. However, planning is increasingly being played out on social media, which creates a highly accessible digital public record, including dialogue between government agencies and resident action groups and also between people in the community itself.

Resident actions groups are still using letters to newspaper editors and quotes for journalists as fundamental communications channels for their campaigns; however, social media affords them an additional communications channel to initiate interactions with other individuals and organisations on a daily basis.

Planning practice needs to recognise that social media is changing how communities are choosing to communicate at different stages of the planning process and consider how they may respond in a timely and helpful manner.

While social media can play a role in the planning process, it is difficult to quantify which communications channels have the most effect on the decision makers, but, it is fair to say that the sustained use of social media seems to draw government departments into cautiously making public comments about the process.

The dialogues I have studied also reveal a serious limitation facing planning practitioners in that it is very difficult to discuss planning matters in the short message format Twitter operates on.

Although community groups are utilising social media as part of their communications, the stakeholders and decision makers they attract mostly played a listening role instead of getting involved. This was evident through both social network analysis and discourse analysis.

An unexpected result of this research was that resident action groups who publicly oppose a development using social media can attract negative attention or abusive behaviour from other people in their community. Social media was effectively used to raise a resident action group’s profile, but social media also magnified the level of opposition to their campaign. Further research into opposing views within communities and how differences are expressed through social media may provide planning practice with additional insights to how resident action groups represent their community.

Do you live in a rented shared room and want to talk about your experience with us?

Here’s your opportunity! 

A Macquarie University PhD student is conducting a study into these questions;

  • How did you find a shared room?
  • Why did you choose a shared room?
  • How do you like the experience?
  • Have you always wanted to tell someone but no one asked?

To participate in this study, you must be over 18 years old, living in a shared bedroom instead of a separate bedroom and sharing the rent with others. If this study interests you and you are eligible as well, you are invited to participate in an online survey (which will take approximately 15 minutes of your time) at

Everyone who completes the survey will have a chance to enter a prize draw to win 1 of 10 Coles Myer gift cards valued at $50 each.

Note: You can also avail the opportunity to participate for an interview and you will be paid $40 for your valuable time. This is your opportunity to contribute to the research. This project is available until 30 April 2018.



Seminar: Ena Ying-tzu Chang will present ‘Indigenous cultural sovereignty and biomedical hegemony: Rethinking pathways to health promotion initiatives in Eastern Taiwan’

All welcome to PhD candidate Ena Ying-tzu’s seminar on Tuesday 13th March. Details here:

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