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A while ago, we received a letter from the Council informing us that our area had been selected to be upgraded into medium-density apartment blocks. The gist of the letter was that the population base of Sydney is still expanding and after due consideration they had to sacrifice an area of the municipality to the state-wide upzoning plan. It just happened to be us, which did not go down well with those of us that live in the area: we like our street and our community. We thought it was worth preserving but we were told that we didn’t have a chance, it was pretty much a done deal.

I wrote in to the council objecting and would have left it at that… it’s easy to feel powerless when you feel you’re a lone voice. In a stroke of good fortune, I bumped into a neighbour who felt the same way. He had bumped into a few others who felt the same way. We had a dozen names in an entire suburb who wanted to do something about it. From this start, six months later the rezoning plan was rolled back. We learned something about starting up a grassroots campaign in the six month journey that I think bears reflection. Here are the main things we learned:

1. The overwhelming first instinct may be to storm the council offices with pitchforks and firebrands. This rarely works. It is VERY unlikely that an outright “no” will work because Council has reasons for making the proposal in the first place. Harness the passion into a plan: you will need to refute the parts of the plan you object to with solid alternatives if you expect to make headway. Contact your local Progress and Residents Associations; these people are likely to be more experienced in influencing Council or will at least be able to give you an idea of the political landscape.

2. Council isn’t evil. They are in general a collection of people trying to make the best decisions they can. Approach your local representatives in a business-like way. See how they feel and whether they’re willing to intercede on your behalf. Above all, we found that being even-handed, polite yet insistent enabled everyone to engage with each other constructively to find a joint solution.

3. Gather exposure. The key thing in a campaign is growing the list of people on your side. Stories in the local press are an excellent way of letting other people know that they aren’t alone in feeling that the proposals are wrong. Couple this with a website* and an email distribution list (and understand that Council will see this) so that like-minded people can join the campaign even if they don’t know you.

4. Take to the streets. Use the list of interested citizens you’ve acquired to reach people beyond the website or local press: organise a petition and get signatures. You may be surprised by how many people think the same way you do and are willing to sign.

5. Never give up. Prepare for the period in the campaign after the initial heat has died down, when the end is not in sight and you’re unsure that you will succeed. Most campaigns fizzle out. We instead kept the pace up with regular email newsletter updates and appearances in Council meetings to state our position.

In the beginning, it was like each concerned resident was an isolated island of objection in an archipelago. We worked hard to join up the islands and in the end, we were able to organise and present to council a petition signed by half a thousand people representing all streets in the district. The petition not only showed popular resolve to oppose the plans but also went a sizeable way to suggesting viable alternatives: we aimed for a win-win situation and that seemed to help all parties to come to a workable arrangement.


*The website and email newsletter were built over a couple of nights with off-the-shelf packaging and hosting: is a Drupal 6-powered site with the following plugins: forward, google_analytics, pathauto, simplenews, token and xmlsitemap. This was hosted at a cost of a cup of coffee a fortnight on Dreamhost. The plugins allowed the site to be submitted to Google to turn up in searches from early on in the campaign, when word of mouth is important.