I interviewed Dr Stan Salagaras to better understand his previous role as a Community Broker with Delfin (Lendlease) for 15 years. During this time Stan planned and delivered a range of community engagement and infrastructure initiatives to create sustainable masterplanned communities.
Would you describe yourself as a Community Broker?
While it is a term that I do not generally use, it is one that aptly describes the type of work I do. My work in community development is about identifying opportunities and working with key stakeholder organisations involved to realise or broker those opportunities. I have used the phrase Community Broker, but it depends on whom you are talking to. I’ve found that if you’re talking to organisations you’re trying to bring together to collectively achieve an infrastructure or engagement outcome in the community, they understand that you’re performing a brokering role. You’re effectively building or brokering a relationship between those organisations you want to play a role in the future development of that community. When I’m talking to people in the community, however, I don’t talk about brokering; I talk about community development or community engagement. So I tend to use the terms Community Broker and Community Development Manager/Consultant according to the group or audience that I’m working with so they can best understand my role.
Do you see your role as the Community Broker being involved from the inception of the project in setting the vision statement?
Absolutely agree with that, because my experience is that developers generally don’t consider community as a key integral part of the initial planning process. Often the early discussion is about infrastructure and facilities, and not about people, services and engagement. So over my time in the industry it’s become clear how important it is that I, as a Community Broker or Community Development Manager, become involved in the planning of a project as early as possible to be able to provide a community perspective on how plans, structures and facilities can be enhanced; not just designed by urban designers and planners delivering what they think the community wants. Good community plans or designs are based on a good understanding of the community they will serve.
It is imperative that every project has an overarching vision which clearly outlines what it is trying to achieve in a community sense, otherwise what invariably happens is that people managing the project focus purely on the delivery side – the funding, planning, engineering, construction and marketing – without fully appreciating the type of community they are actually trying to achieve.
Do you get involved in that initial workshopping?
Yes I do wherever possible. I see that as a very important role of the Community Development Manager or Broker – understanding the overall project objectives and parameters, articulating and incorporating community elements, and developing appreciation in other parties of the importance of community. To undertake this role you want someone who’s got the ability to work collaboratively, in a positive and engaging way with a wide range of stakeholders.
That’s why the project visioning and planning process is one that you have to work at continuously over a long period of time, as not everyone is at the same level of understanding or acceptance about the role of community in a project. Sometimes you take a few steps forward and at other times a couple of steps backwards, but you need to keep revisiting the agenda and issues until you come up with a final agreed project vision that incorporates a clear community perspective.
How can we initially fund more shared use community facilities?
Shared community facilities are difficult to achieve but invariably yield better community outcomes. The first step is to develop a vision for the community facility – what is its purpose, who is going to use it, how will it operate and the benefits to the end users and community. Then it’s about trying to get each of the potential stakeholders or user groups to buy into that vision. What I have often found is that user groups want standalone facilities that they own and operate independently, but in the current economic climate this is difficult to achieve. So there is a need to work with each of the stakeholders to promote the view that by working collaboratively, sharing facilities and aggregating limited available funding, each organisation can achieve what they want in a much more cost effective manner.
In summary, step number one is really about understanding what you want to achieve and determining how each stakeholder fits in. Some stakeholders might not necessarily have full understanding of the overall vision or comprehend how it might link to them. Each of the stakeholders comes to the table with a different viewpoint, so a part of the role of the Community Broker is to consider what agency X, Y and Z want to achieve and see how their requirements fit into the vision promulgated by the developer. It really means that you’ve got to get everyone to buy in to the vision, and each party has to see a significant proportion of what they want to achieve within the overall vision for the project.
Until organizations buy in to the vision, you’re not going to get buy in to the facility. I recall that the building of The Mawson Centre at Mawson Lakes was a seven-year project from gestation of the vision through to delivery. The first two years were all about getting each of the stakeholders – University of SA, City of Salisbury and Education Department – to buy in to the vision of a 21st C learning, cultural and community centre initiated by the developers, Delfin. The next three years were about working with the stakeholders in workshops and individual meetings looking at the centre’s operation and management, before we even began to look at what the building would look like, or how it would be funded. The final two years were about construction of the centre and getting formal agreements in place for the operation, management and ongoing maintenance of the centre as a shared facility. While at the time it seemed an eternity to get commitment to the project, it is most gratifying now to see the benefits of a shared facility being enjoyed by university students, school students and the Mawson Lakes community.
One of the challenges in funding community facilities is that while council and government organizations talk about a willingness to cooperate and share, often they are reluctant to actually come to the table and put their ideas down without an initial commitment of funds from the developer. It’s as if the developer is seen as the source of finance for all community infrastructure and facilities. Generally councils want to extract as much as they can from developers for community initiatives, instead of realising that the best outcomes are achieved through sharing the responsibility.
Is there a risk in providing a facility that no one connects with?
I’ve never really thought about risk in developing shared facilities because an integral part of the process of getting commitment to such facilities is developing understanding and ownership from each stakeholder, and in particular the community. This goes a long way to overcoming risk and ensuring ongoing use and success of the facility.
Developing community understanding and ownership is a vitally important part of the process because while developers eventually move on, the community will remain and inherit the legacy left by the developer. The ownership of community assets generally remains in the hands of the community and council. So it’s really important that both groups are integral to developing the shared vision for the facility and accept ownership for its ongoing growth and evolution over time. And the role of the Community Broker is very much one of facilitating the process.
Would you say that you are often the voice for a future community that doesn’t yet exist?
Yes, absolutely. I need to advocate for the future community because with all due respect to my colleagues – the planners, the engineers, the architects and others – they don’t fully understand the community position; they come at it primarily from a planning or design or engineering perspective. They’re not necessarily trained to understand or bring in a community viewpoint from the same position that I, as a community professional with extensive practical experience, would. It’s about promoting a new set of ideas and including within the planning cycle the elements that a community would want, and generally being the voice for the community that doesn’t exist there as yet.
Have you come across any inventive ways to better address shared use facilities?
There’s no magic wand in all of this. What works in one community, with one group of stakeholders who commit to a particular vision may not work in another community because the stakeholders are different, their individual requirements are different and they operate in a completely different framework. Much depends on how innovative and how willing individual stakeholders, particularly government agencies and councils are to engage in new ideas; traditionally they are quite conservative.
On the topic of working with councils and developers, what is your method to break down the more traditional adversarial approach? Is it workshops? Is it getting in early and engaging in discussion jointly?
All of the above. My philosophy is one of being really open, creating open lines of communication between developers and council, and being frank and honest about what the developer wants to achieve. To facilitate my work with developers, I try to build relationships with various arms of government and council to ensure that I keep abreast of the challenges they confront in delivering community infrastructure and services. If I can work with developers to address and resolve local infrastructure or service delivery issues faced by councils or government agencies, then it’s a win-win for all parties.
I have found that one of the essential elements of working with councils or government agencies is to work with the most senior people in the organisation because, on most occasions, this provides a better chance of moving an issue through the bureaucracy and getting a decision.
How do you manage time in what is a necessary process to go through?
Achieving good community outcomes is a lengthy and time-consuming process, which often does not fit with impatient developers or project directors. I’ve worked with developers that have said, “why haven’t you got a school locked in by now?” I have to remind them that there are a whole lot of issues to be resolved before this can happen – government priorities, state budgets, funding approvals for new schools and so forth – issues that are outside of my control and not in synch with project timelines. If I can’t control the inputs then I can’t state that a school will be delivered in year two, three or four of a project. All I can do is to work through the process, keep chipping away and deliver on what I can control. You’ve got to keep explaining to people the realistic difficulties encountered in community development, which many don’t foresee and you’ve got to be pretty resilient and focussed on the end result; because it all takes time.
What do you think was different about Delfin as a developer? What was the key point of difference about them as a developer in the industry?
One of the things that Delfin did really well was that they understood the importance of community, education and economic factors in the successful development of new, master-planned communities. Many other developers, unfortunately, haven’t seen the importance of these factors. Delfin saw the value of bringing in community, education and economic services as early as possible. They had a service delivery model, rather than the more traditional facility delivery model adopted by most other developers. Delfin’s early service delivery model did not require a great deal of initial investment or funding because they looked at initiatives like putting schools in houses or using transportables or demountables to start school services. In Mawson Lakes, for example, we used part of the University of South Australia, the Dean of Engineering’s office, to deliver the first stage of the Mawson Lakes School.
What would you say are the keys groups that you would normally try and work around to deliver those sorts of services?
Education, health, social and economic services are the key drivers to the creation of a sustainable community. At Mawson Lakes we established a Social Development Working Party that had representation from a number of state government service agencies and local government, and we asked them “Here’s your chance to help alleviate some of the issues and problems that you’ve had in other communities. If you were embarking from scratch in this community, what would you do?” So it was getting buy in from these organisations early in the life of the project and we developed a community development plan around their ideas and commitments.
For any master-planned community it is important to do an audit of surrounding community infrastructure and services, and then work with the organisations that can help address the gaps that are identified. There’s no point in duplicating services that already exist across a region because these become harder to fund and deliver. But if you consider services that actually complement and fill the void that exists across the wider region, you have a better chance of getting funding to get them started.
When looking at a project you should never focus solely on the internals of the development. You need to find out what facilities and services actually exist in the surrounding community and where the gaps and opportunities are. You then work with the key stakeholder organisations that can help fill these gaps and opportunities in infrastructure and service delivery. For example, there might not be a nearby library. So why not consider establishing a community library that’s shared with the school library? I know from experience that you can get really good outcomes for both parties – community and school – through shared facilities that are developed at more affordable costs to both parties and as a result provide greater value per dollar expenditure. So it is about identifying these opportunities, putting them into a plan and working with the stakeholders to realise the opportunity. Issues will undoubtedly arise, but my view is that you need to embrace these challenges, clarify their exact nature and then address them cooperatively with the stakeholders.
At what point do you start to engage with the actual community in greenfield type sites?
Obviously at the beginning of a new greenfields project you don’t have a community with which to engage. To provide a community viewpoint in the planning process you need to seek the involvement of surrounding government and non-government service providers in the planning process. These organisations are able to articulate community needs and the state of social services across the region, identify strengths and weaknesses in addition to gaps and opportunities.
When residents start to move in you need to engage with them as soon as practicably possible and certainly within the first couple of months; I have found that anything beyond this time tends to see a reduction in their level of future engagement in the community. A project needs to have a communication strategy articulating how it is going to do this. This will range from face-to-face communication, in terms of a welcome to the community process, presentation of a welcome gift, completing a move-in survey, meeting your neighbours BBQs and community information seminars, right through to the more formal written community information appearing on the project’s website and community newsletters.
Community development is about developing community ownership. Wherever possible you should try to identify community leaders or community advocates that can play an active role in driving ideas and issues. They can support the building of community groups, which not only provide developers with valuable information, but also sustain the ongoing development of the community. For example, there might be a group in the community that has a strong focus on the natural environment. If so, the developers should give them a voice, a role, provide them with some seed funding to commence a project and this becomes the vehicle for embracing the broader community on environmental agendas. This can be replicated with other specific groups whether they be youth, seniors, mums and bubs and through this strategy active community engagement develops.
When do you think the Broker or Community Development role is complete?
Personally, I think the community development role needs to continue throughout the life of a project, firstly to ensure that the developer has a community voice and secondly to ensure that the changing needs of the community are addressed. New groups are established, emerging ideas come through, and so the community development role is not only to sustain the ongoing level of community engagement, but to continue to grow and evolve the community focus.
The community development role has two elements to it – one is community strategic planning and policy development, and the other on-the-ground community engagement and delivery. My personal view is that you can’t have one person doing both roles, because in master-planned communities it’s too big a job and the required skill sets are different. Initially you need a strategic Community Development Manager to build the connections, review surrounding community infrastructure and services, do the brainstorming, identify community needs, develop community policies and procedures, and prepare a community development plan. The implementation of this plan is really ongoing over the life of the project, particularly in areas of community infrastructure that are usually linked to population growth, so there is an ongoing role for a strategic Community Development Manager throughout the project.
Once the community starts moving in to the project, however, developer’s need to appoint a Community Liaison Officer whose role it is to actually engage with the community, run programs, activities and events, and become the face of the project at the local level. This person, in fact, becomes the delivery vehicle for rolling out the community engagement elements of the community development plan.
A community development plan is vital, but it is not a one-off task, it must be reviewed annually. Yearly benchmarks and targets need to be set, reflecting emerging trends and opportunities. While long-term, whole of project community development plans can be prepared, they need to be reasonably broad because it is extremely difficult to predict, with any degree of certainty, what will happen in say the fifteenth year of a project; there are so many variables that impact on future development.
Developers also need to look at the sustainability of community development initiatives beyond the life of a project, to ensure that the community legacies of the project survive. This is now realised as an important aspect of exiting any project; succession planning needs to take place to determine which local authorities or organisations can continue to drive and maintain community programs and services that have commenced.
Do you try and measure less tangible items, such as social inclusion, or just physical outcomes?
I believe you need to measure both; it’s not an either/or situation because both are important. Measurements undertaken by developers are usually based on targets set for a particular year or period. These may involve community infrastructure, but invariably contain some community engagement elements. That’s why a Community Broker needs to be clear about what they can realistically achieve, especially when it comes to physical outcomes, which in many cases are beyond the control of the broker or developer to deliver. That’s why I never promise to deliver infrastructure, programs or services that are beyond my capacity unless I have a commitment from the stakeholder agencies responsible for delivery.
While most developers undertake some form of measurement as part of the process of reviewing their annual targets, this is generally of a less formal nature and focussed primarily on infrastructure or program delivery, not on the social elements of the project. Very rarely do developers engage in any formal social research to assess the type of community they are developing, whether the social expectations of residents are being met and whether the community is inclusive. Delfin, in the early 2000s, was the exception when it funded a series of social research projects through Griffith University and the University of SA to assess the nature of the master-planned communities it was developing at the time.
Who pays for the role of the Community Broker or Community Development Officer?
The Community Development Officer position has to be paid for by the developer in the same way that they pay for project directors, development managers, planners, engineers and marketers. It’s an integral part of resourcing the overall delivery of the project plan. This is not to suggest that other parties, such as local government or state government agencies, cannot share in the responsibility. For example, many of the early Community Development Managers in Delfin were seconded from state governments. That came about because Delfin had strong relationships with a range of state government agencies and the various governments, as a whole, were committed to these new urban developments and understood the merit of developing good communities. The benefit of this was that there was both government buy in as well as developer buy in to the projects. Not only was there shared funding for the officer’s position, but information could be exchanged much more readily and more positively between the developer and government.
On those big projects it totally makes sense, but it might be difficult for developers that own one residential estate, with maybe a small local activity centre in it?
That is certainly the case; you’re not likely to get state government involvement in smaller residential developments. But this is where local councils have an important role to play. Councils have holistic community infrastructure and service plans outlining what they want to achieve across the region. They need to engage with developers operating in the region to realize specific community aspects in particular developments. One of the primary responsibilities of the Community Development Manager is to build relationships with councils, become aware of their vision and plans for the region, and incorporate applicable initiatives in developer applications.
Does all of this community building help the developer in marketing?
The evidence suggests that it clearly does; there is a strong relationship between community development and marketing. There’s no doubt in my mind of the importance of celebrating community achievements whether they be in infrastructure, services, programs or events. Promotion of these is a clear demonstration that a project is delivering on what it is promising in a lifestyle and community sense; not just delivering on the physical aspects of a development but also the social. At the end of the day this becomes an advantage to the developer in terms of further sales as well as reinforcing the value of the significant investment made by people that buy into the community.
If you could change one thing in either the process or the outcomes to create more vibrant communities, what would that be?
I would encourage developers to appoint Community Brokers early in the life of a project to integrate community considerations at the same time as urban design, planning, engineering and marketing decisions. This will generate project plans that are more responsive to community elements; firstly because they include community vision statements and community development plans detailing infrastructure and service requirements, and secondly because they identify key community stakeholders and partnership opportunities facilitating community capacity building. All are really important elements for achieving sustainable community developments.