When You’d Best Not Be Protesting – The Challenge of Speaking for Trees in Randwick

I had the privilege of having the following presentation abstract accepted for the 34th NSW Environmental Education Conference ‘ActiveNature – Learning, Citizenship, Activism for Sustainability’ 3-5 October, 2019.

Protests are commonly understood as a fight against something. Protests are certainly important but in some cases they might be less desirable for achieving an effective outcome. The purpose of this presentation is to consider an alternative expression of citizen activism that did not rely on protest. In 2013, the NSW government proposed the removal of over 400 trees in the local government area of Randwick as part of the CBD and South East Light Rail plans. The presentation will consider how citizen activism took two forms: either for trees (which meant ‘anti-Light Rail’) or against trees (which meant ‘for’ Light Rail). It then considers an alternative approach which dismisses this dichotomy and facilitated a more inclusive and accessible form of activism through novel and focussed events such as public art installations, tree walks, and tree messaging. This facilitated broader community participation from people who normally “would not have gone to a protest”. The aim of the presentation is to argue such gentler approaches to activism prompt complex approaches to thinking about urban development proposals such as a 2019 proposal for an express cycleway in Randwick that would involve further deforestation.

And here is more or less what I presented on the day..!

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I wanted to start by sharing with you a photograph that I took in July this year of some trees along Bundock St, in Randwick in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. The green ribbons indicate some of the trees that were originally proposed for removal as part of an express cycleway project, but that are now going to be kept instead. They were installed by Randwick City Council, and through an email exchange the Communications Manager said that they had taken their inspiration from me…

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But my ribbons weren’t green, they were orange! And they were inspired by a different urban development project. I want to share with you today about the challenge I faced in speaking for trees in Randwick, what I learned along the way and continue to learn about how citizen activism can be expressed (particularly “when you’d best not be protesting”) and about what some of the positive outcomes have been.

So this is me on the front cover of the local paper, the Southern Courier back in September 2015. It was celebrating the fact that the NSW State Government had decided to retain a local heritage park called High Cross Park, that was initially going to be removed as part of its CBD and South East Light Rail plans. I’m holding the orange bows because there was no need to have them tied around those particular trees anymore (and I’ll explain a bit more about the bows later)… But it was around 2 years before this that I first became aware that these Light Rail plans included the removal of over 400 trees, just in the local government area of Randwick.

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Not long before that, I’d actually just arrived back from a university exchange in Europe. Coming back home to these trees that I’d grown up with after a year away made me realise how much I’d missed them! I felt so lucky to call this my home. And I think we are so lucky to have these large rainforest trees in our urban areas around Sydney… I never imagined anyone would see them as removable.

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So at first, I was concerned about the grey-headed flying-foxes. Since I was a kid I’d love watching what seemed like hundreds of them fly out every night to forage for their food… Because I thought it’d be like the Light Rails I’d seen in Europe – built on the existing roads, presenting no big issues other than with the extra overhead wires – potentially – I didn’t know. So when I went along to ask at the Environmental Impact Statement exhibition, I was very upset to find out that actually, the government wanted to retain the road and that meant removing the trees.

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Eventually a project engineer empathised with my distress, agreeing with me (quietly of course) that the trees didn’t need to go. But he expressed regret that he had “lost that fight”. He then urged me to make a submission to the EIS and to get as many other people as I could to do the same, asking that the trees be kept. That was “the next thing to do”. So, I walked away home and eventually thought, “yeh, you know what, I’m gonna do it – obviously not enough people know about this, so I just need to raise awareness somehow, and then the trees will be kept and everything will be fine…”

But a strange thing happened. When I started voicing my concern for the trees, people assumed that I was “anti Light Rail”. It was really disheartening to reach out for example, to environmental academics at the University of NSW, where I was a student, only to be told that they knew about the trees, but ultimately, we needed the Light Rail, so…

I was pretty sad that it had come to this. I thought, was it really the case that “for” the Light Rail had to mean against trees? I didn’t want to accept this dichotomy and so I felt very alienated and confused. However I was also aware that I couldn’t stay away from it entirely. In making an EIS submission, for example, I was forced to pick a side: “are you “for” or “against” this project – please tick a box”.

But I knew the project didn’t have to be so destructive. I’d already heard it from that project engineer, and I saw it again when, in response to EIS submissions, the project proposed a slight realignment adjustment along a small section of Alison Rd that they claimed would retain up to 20 trees. 20 trees out of 430 or so wasn’t amazing, but what I saw was there proof of that classic phrase – “where there’s a will, there’s a way”… 

But with no “next thing to do” since formal community consultation processes had ended, I felt pretty defeated. I was left wondering about how many people had not spoken for trees simply because that had meant speaking against Light Rail and, on the other hand, how many people had spoken against trees by virtue of being for Light Rail, knowingly or otherwise…

Then, one day, somehow, I came across a *little* initiative called National Tree Day (ok, not so little), and it gave me an idea…so I went with the idea, and along the way I met with our local state government representative, who was definitely “for” the Light Rail, but also a self-proclaimed tree lover. I invited him to a new community event I was planning to align with National Tree Day – not a protest, I reassured him, but a show of appreciation for and a celebration of our heritage trees, and also a chance for him to engage with the community. He couldn’t really say no, right…

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And so he did come along, as you can see here. Of course the event wasn’t just for him – it was for everyone and anyone who cared about our trees, but having him there really helped to demonstrate that.

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I wanted “Randwick Tree Walk for Tree Day” to be family-friendly, fun, and focussed on our trees. I wanted to be able to educate attendees about which specific trees had been approved for removal as they walked along the proposed Light Rail route (which, by the way, was also just the nicest heritage tree-lined walking route!) And so, with the help of a handful of devoted helpers I’d managed to gather around, the orange bows were born.

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Orange stood out (it was also available in large quantities from Reverse Garbage!), but we put a lot of effort into ensuring that the bows we made were beautiful as well.

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Some people who hadn’t been able to join the walk joined us at the High Cross Park finish line. I had organised some art activities, and Sydney Wildlife volunteers brought along some native animals – like this flying-fox – for people to see up-close. They actually waived their event fee for us because they really believed in and cared about what we were trying to do.

And the orange bows had essentially given the trees a chance to speak for themselves. We actually left them up for a week as a public art installation, encouraging people to keep talking about them. Tree Walk attendees expressed their mixed emotions – awe for our trees, and sadness that they were set to be removed. Quite a few people also expressed their gratitude for the event, saying that they “would not have gone to a protest”. So I felt really glad to have created an alternative opportunity for them to express their concern.

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But my actions were not always so well understood by everyone…! There was that time when Randwick council pulled down the orange bows after I’d put them up again in the lead up to the 2015 NSW state election – just to try and make sure our trees were on the agenda. And so these are the three major political candidates who I invited to help me retie them, after I had clarified my intentions with council’s Communications Manager (not “anti-Light Rail”), followed proper process, and gained permission for the installation (which I hadn’t had to do the first time, but, you know..!)

And that wasn’t all that was gained from that initial misunderstanding. Once council workers understood that we weren’t trying to protest the Light Rail full stop, but that we wanted a Light Rail that would build around our trees, not through them, they actually offered their support for a second Randwick Tree Walk! This meant we’d be able to afford to pay Sydney Wildlife to come this time, which I was really excited about.

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Our 2nd Randwick Tree Walk for Tree Day in July 2015 was almost twice as big as the first, and this time at the finish line we had a wishing tree on loan from the council nursery, some art en plain air, plant giveaways – it was all happening at High Cross Park. People who hadn’t known about the walk joined in…

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One of the attendees who had brought her husband on the walk told us something you’ll probably find strange, which was that he had said along the way, “you know, I’ve never really looked at trees before…”

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Whilst the bows had given the trees a bit of their own voice, we decided to take things a step further with our “Speak to the Trees” initiative, taking inspiration from Melbourne. It was another alternative opportunity for people to express how they felt about specific trees, and lots of people sent in some really beautiful and touching messages that are up on our website.

At the end of 2015, and beginning of 2016, once Light Rail works had begun, starting with tree removals, and continuing, I retreated from most of the noise and mess that followed. But I had people contacting me to congratulating me on my efforts, saying that we had inspired them to look more carefully at any future development proposals for Randwick, understanding that, “we need development but it needs to adequately preserve/create green spaces for the health of the environment and community members.”

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And so this is a photo of a public art installation that our Roots & Shoots group contributed these ‘Tree Talismans for Peace’ to – also some members of a community centre I ran a workshop with (I love the mini orange bow there…!)

It was also the last time we tied our orange bows. Other people have since tied similar ones with varying intentions and kind of changing the meaning… As for council’s green ribbons I showed you earlier, they were a response to the fact that out of over 800 submissions made to that express cycleway project proposal, 70% were concerned about tree loss. For me, this really shows that more people in the community are now able to “look more carefully” and to think in a more complex way about urban development proposals.

Sometimes “the next thing to do” might not be “the best thing to do”, particularly if that means you’re forced to fight against something when really you’re just wanting it to be the best it can be. So if we can consider context and create positive, inclusive and accessible ways for more people to have a say in these issues that affect them, we can encourage better environmental outcomes even when a project has to go ahead (for whatever reason), and especially in the case of urban developments that are presented to be in the interests of environmental sustainability.

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Thank you to the organisers of the conference and to the people who came to listen to my presentation – and also, thank YOU for reading!

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