This paper is presented as part of the Working Papers series for COMM-ORG: The On-line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. Copyright is held by the author. To cite, use: [author] [date] [title], paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing and Development.


James Whelan


The Retreat
Back to Brisbane and Ipswich
The Ipswich Ring Road Issue
Starting a Campaign
The Campaign Catches On
Building to Bigger Issues
Return to Ipswich

Author's Biography


The author and COMM-ORG gratefully acknowledges Pluto Press, who published a later version of this paper in Local Heroes: Australian crusades from the environmental frontline, and allowed this electronic version to remain on COMM-ORG.


Few people get the chance to work full-time on an environmental campaign they feel passionately about. The Smogbusters project gave me this opportunity when I was able to work collaboratively for cleaner air in the regional Queensland city of Ipswich. Working on this project allowed me to see more clearly what it requires to build a more sustainable and healthy city. In telling this story, I hope to offer both encouragement and inspiration to anyone seeking to build healthier cities.

I joined Smogbusters in October 1995 to work on air quality and transport issues in Ipswich and Brisbane. Smogbusters was conceived as a 12 month pilot project and was funded during the last days of the Keating Labor government, fulfilling a 1992 election promise. Project officers were employed by the peak environment group in each state and territory. Our brief was to increase community awareness of urban air quality and to mobilize community resources in order to increase the support and demand for public transport.


The project began with a four day retreat in the bush outside Melbourne. The eight member project team brought a wide range of training and experience. A couple of us were trained teachers. Several had science, urban planning and geography training. Most had previously worked in the environment movement on other campaigns, notably native forest issues. Few of us knew much about air. My training was in drama, community education and climatology. I never thought I would find work that drew on all three areas but this project was looking like it would provide such an opportunity.

Our project coordinator, John Stone, brought guests to Seymour to share with us their knowledge and experience of community education and development. We were exposed to successful projects which had harnessed community concern about local issues to generate sustained action. Paul Mees, the director of Melbourne’s Public Transport Users Association shared with us his informed thinking about urban transport. He argued that frequency, speed and reliability were the main features of the world’s best public transport systems. Public transport represented as much as half of all travel in many cities. In 1960, 40% of all weekday trips in Brisbane were made by public transport. Why did this drop to only 10%? Paul’s challenging ideas and extensive observations helped me begin to translate my casual opinions as a city dweller into a sound theoretical basis from which to respond to urban dilemmas. Karen Alexander led us through a wonderful visioning process in which we imagined, drew and described our ideal city of the future. They were wonderful places! Parks and gardens provided ideal locations for people to mingle and to appreciate clean air and water. These cities created healthy and active lifestyles.


I returned to Brisbane invigorated and inspired. My work would require focusing on the transport corridor between Brisbane and Ipswich. Brisbane is Queensland’s state capital and evolved as a port city on the Brisbane River about ten kilometres inland from Moreton Bay. Ipswich is a satellite city thirty-eight kilometres to the west of Brisbane. Brisbane’s tentacles of urban sprawl reached Ipswich long ago but the cities remain socially and politically distinct. The two cities occupy the Brisbane airshed, extending from the Sunshine Coast to the Gold Coast and Moreton Bay to Toowoomba. The geographical and meteorological conditions in the airshed !tend to trap pollution for several days at a time, creating the perfect conditions for photochemical smog and other forms of pollution.

As an inner city dweller of Brisbane, I needed to get a feel for the territory and I set out to learn the history of Ipswich. It is a city which has its share of social and economic woes: high levels of youth unemployment and crime. Ipswich is hotter in summer, colder in winter and always drier than Brisbane. The lovely old weatherboard homes sell for a quarter of what they might fetch in Brisbane, and young families migrate to Ipswich from Brisbane for affordable housing. Most people living in Brisbane rarely venture out to Ipswich.

Each morning Brisbane and Ipswich make an exchange: workers travel eastwards from Ipswich to Brisbane. Most of the region’s jobs are in the metropolitan area. In return, a plume of air pollution travels in the opposite direction, carrying emissions from Brisbane’s cars and factories out over Ipswich, which is pushed along by the prevailing sea breeze from Moreton Bay in the north east. The D’Aguilar Range ringing the Brisbane Valley prevents this polluted plume from dispersing. Polluted air can be trapped in the western parts of the Valley for days at a time, recirculating and becoming more concentrated day by day. The workers travel home each evening but the polluted air can stay over Ipswich for a week.

A Commonwealth study in the 1970s reported on limits to growth in southeast Queensland. The potential for air pollution to re-circulate in the valley and lead to elevated pollutant levels near Ipswich was clearly identified. Obviously, it would be unwise to locate additional point sources of emissions near Ipswich or near the mouth of the Brisbane River (upwind). This advice was either ignored or forgotten as industrial development went ahead.

Air quality in the region has deteriorated over the years. Significant industrial point sources have been located such that emissions drift over residential areas. Air quality has not been considered as an important factor when urban planning decisions and development approvals have been considered. For example, the coal-powered Swanbank Power Station near Ipswich was recently expanded and emissions of nitrogen doubled to 47 tons a day. 1 Swanbank's emissions in the centre of the airshed are likely to move across the region's towns and cities for days before being purged from the airshed. Coal extraction and transportation is a major industry in the valley and puts seventeen tons of fine particles into the regional airshed.2 Industrial estates are scattered through the rapidly disappearing bushland between the two cities, emitting a range of toxic air pollutants. These emissions are not generally monitored.

Ipswich records comparatively higher levels of air pollution than Brisbane. Brisbane is often referred to as Australia’s asthma capital and Australia has the second highest rate of infant asthma in the world. Although asthma has many causes, many of which cannot be controlled, ambient air quality is one contributing factor that can be managed in order to tackle the problem.


Almost as soon as I arranged desk space and a chair at the Queensland Conservation Council where I was based, a call came in from a local environment group concerned about air quality. The Ipswich City Council had launched a draft plan to build a major new road network in the rapidly growing satellite city. Members of Ipswich Envirocare were concerned about the potential impact of these new roads and wanted to add air quality arguments to their case against the road. I quickly read the ring road proposal documents and gathered up suitable literature before heading off to a meeting the group had convened with a few council staff and a local councillor. One of the Envirocare organisers suggested they might be able to, "knock this crazy idea on the head".

Here was a challenge. The Smogbusters project brief was to encourage environmentally sustainable transport while being careful to avoid making car drivers defensive. I knew from experience it doesn’t pay to antagonize local government. At the same time, however, I saw that air quality had not been considered at all and that the need for this new road network had not been conclusively established. I opted for some forceful yet diplomatic talking. At the meeting, I explained that over half Ipswich’s air pollution came from cars and that the health impacts of car exhaust emissions were well documented. Unless the ring road proposal was necessary and had the overwhelming support of the community, Council should really take a look at more environmentally sound transport options. At the very least, studies should be undertaken to examine the effect the new road system would have on air quality and noise levels. I also suggested that air monitoring and modeling sh!ould be commissioned.

The council representatives seemed to take this on board, but remained sold on their engineering masterpiece. Ipswich had been identified as a "regional growth centre" and significant population growth was anticipated. With the same mind-set that engineers adopt in providing new sewerage works, these responsible public servants saw it as their duty to build wide streets for the influx of additional cars. Recent Government planning policies were built on the assumption that South East Queensland was due for an influx of one million people within fifteen years. This meant half a million more cars. It was a traffic engineers dream of building wide roads, flyovers, roundabouts and tollways.

Over the next month, I attended several public meetings organised by local residents where people voiced their opposition to the ring road proposal. A strong case was developing - and equally strong sentiment. Sections of the road would be constructed through the neglected but biologically important green reserves flanking Ipswich’s rivers - reserves providing recreation and solitude in a rapidly growing city. Existing roads were going to be widened in old residential areas and next to schools. People in these areas were concerned about noise and air pollution, the safety of their children, and whether real estate values would suffer. Ipswich is justifiably proud of its architectural heritage and action groups pointed out that heritage homes would be resumed and other homes encroached upon along the ring road route.

At each of these meetings, I spoke about air quality and distributed factual and compelling information about air pollution and sustainable transport. At this time, public transport in Ipswich struggled to compete with cars for convenience and only a handful of private companies ran infrequent bus services, mainly taking kids to school. The train service between Ipswich and Brisbane ran every half hour, but getting to the station wasn’t easy. I would have been laughed down if I suggested that everyone should just use public transport to prove the ring road unnecessary. I couldn’t get into detail in the context of a heated public meeting, so I just tried to convey the basic message that air quality was a legitimate concern in Ipswich and that increased motor vehicle travel would inevitably lead to worse ambient air quality and a measurable deterioration in community health.

Air quality was already poor in Ipswich. Levels of ozone (photochemical smog) sometimes exceeded the levels considered acceptable for the protection of human health. The Queensland Department of Environment at this time was using goals for ambient air quality that had been discarded in other Australian states and by international authorities. Local ozone levels often exceeded eight parts per hundred million (pphm) which was the health goal in Japan and Canada. When I started work in Ipswich, the Department only considered the ozone level high if it exceeded 12pphm. As in most Australian cities, only a handful of pollutants were monitored - sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, fine particles, lead and ozone. There was no system to monitor particles smaller than two and a half microns in diameter even though these very small particles are strongly associated with respiratory problems. Benzene and toluene--which replaced lead as additives in unleaded petrol--are both toxic, !yet neither were being monitored.


Environmental campaigns often start by getting information out into the community. Information on air quality in Ipswich was pretty hard to come by. In Brisbane it was easier to construct a factual and compelling argument. I tracked down a number of recent studies defining the air quality problem. Associate Professor Rod Simpson of Griffith University had estimated the health effects of human exposure to air pollution in Brisbane and ascribed an economic value for this impact.3 From a detailed study of ambient air conditions in Brisbane, Rod estimated that up to 83 people die prematurely each year in Brisbane as a result of air pollution. Each year, up to 300 000 people in Brisbane experienced sore throats and 400 000 people took days off work as a direct result of air pollution. The community health bill for the city was estimated to be about half a billion dollars a year. This information made talk of air quality immediate! and personal. Rod agreed to speak at public meetings we organised.

Studies had also been undertaken in Brisbane to identify trends in air quality and inform strategies to prevent further deterioration in air quality. Brisbane City Council (BCC) had recently published "Travelsmart" - a progressive transport plan for the city. This plan recognised air quality as a serious concern and set out to effectively shift a significant proportion of daily trips from cars to other less polluting transport modes. A BCC poll had identified air quality as the community’s leading environmental concern. Accordingly, the city administration had started to develop its first air quality management plan. As a community representative on the committee advising Council on this draft policy, I saw that changing transport patterns was the key element in any urban air quality strategy.

In Ipswich this sort of information wasn’t available. Air quality wasn’t recognised as an issue in Council’s draft strategic plan. There were no strategies to minimise car travel or encourage alternatives. In fact, plans to redevelop the city centre included the provision of an extra 12 000 car parking spaces for an expected population of under 100 000 people. A Brisbane City Council survey had recently concluded that the two changes most likely to encourage greater use of public transport were first, making transport fares cheaper and second, making car parking either more expensive or more difficult to obtain. In Ipswich, public transport was suffering and parking was readily available.

The process of transport planning in Ipswich seemed to be a crude exercise in predicting and providing. Engineers and computers had predicted the number of cars that would travel along Chermside Road (a local arterial) in five years time. They construed their task as providing the ‘required’ road capacity. This approach rendered talk of sustainable cities unintelligible. The mindset was mathematical and could not accommodate considerations of environmental health, lifestyle, aesthetics and community dynamics.

Before starting work with Smogbusters, I’d helped organise a slide show presented by David Engwicht. David’s visionary book Towards an Ecocity4 suggested that car trips increase to fill the available space. Roads built to accommodate increasing numbers of cars for twenty years tend to reach capacity much sooner. The pattern seems to be that excess road space induces car travel. Conversely, when roads are congested people are more likely to car-pool, walk, cycle or take a train. David joked that empty road space is like a bucket of lollies - it gets gobbled up pretty quickly.

Ecocity gave me a new perspective on urban planning. I often wondered why cities grew so rapidly (when they actually seem like awful places to live). Why are people drawn to these over-populated and often polluted places? David argues that cities provide an opportunity to maximise social, cultural and economic exchange while minimising the necessity to travel. Most Australian cities have shifted from this ideal, with urban sprawl and social dislocation resulting in the exact opposite. Hours spent alone each day in a car and minimal social contact. Urban and social planners have the daunting challenge to reverse this trend through urban renewal and consolidation projects. Transport planning can enhance or destroy the things we enjoy most about our cities.

It was immediately clear that the transport plan proposed by Ipswich City Council would add to urban sprawl. In Los Angeles over 50% of the city’s total area is covered with bitumen and yet LA motorways are congested several hours each day. A city dominated by roads is a city where people have to spend more time travelling and have less time for social contact.

Extra road space in Ipswich would mean extra car trips no matter which way you looked at it. Extra car trips would not just mean more air pollution. Communities are divided by roads. Cycling and walking become more hazardous. Residents are exposed to higher levels of noise pollution. Open space is consumed - covered with hot black bitumen, or just made unpleasant. Who wants to walk or ride in a city dominated by wide, busy roads? It seems ironic that cafe precincts in cities are often near busy roads. "Will you have smog with your coffee?"

The message I worked to communicate was that if everyone used public transport a couple of times a week and if public transport was improved to meet people’s expectations, air quality would improve. Or at least it wouldn’t deteriorate as quickly as was predicted. The promise of a congestion-free arterial network makes a second-rate public transport system even less attractive. Uncongested roads are a myth (they fill up!) but some people seem to find the prospect of huge expanses of black bitumen attractive, especially people like transport engineers, town planners and councillors.

During the frst few months, I sought every available opportunity to meet interested community members. This meant attending small and large group meeitngs, visiting people in their homes and offices, participating in all manner of community events. I must have personally met several hundred people. Wherever I went, I  repeated this simple message and asked an open question, "What kind of city do you want to live in?" Increasing the capacity of local road networks would not simply accommodate the predicted growth in travel demand: bigger, wider roads would actually induce travel. How can a low-frequency bus service terminating at 7pm compete with a four lane roundabout and flyover connected by smooth, black bitumen? In reality, expanding the capacity of Ipswich's roads would have the direct effect of increasing motor vehicle emissions and resulting in higher rates of asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular problems and even premature death.

After a lot of lobbying on these issues, I helped establish air quality as a legitimate concern to be addressed by the ring road proponents. Most opponents to the road proposal, both individuals and groups, focussed on neighbourhood issue. Arguments about regional air quality didn't distract residents faced with the prospect of losing their driveways or having hundreds of extra trucks rolling down their streets. There were some though, for whom local air quality was a top issue - elderly people and families with asthma sufferers. I learnt to respect the NIMBY perspective (Not In My Back Yard). In the face of an unwanted change, it is understandable that people will say, "No - I don't want that change. I'm not going to move away. I want to live here and I want my neighbourhood environment to be preserved."

This debate threatened to divide road opponents. Since I represented a state conservation group, people presumed I would take a regional rather than NIMBY perspective. I worked hard to overcome this presumption, including writing letters to local papers supporting the local perspective - honouring the efforts people were making to preserve the environments they knew and cared for.


The community galvanised around their opposition to the ring road. A rally was held, with community groups marching into the Ipswich CBD from several suburbs to hear speakers and collect hundreds of signatures on their petition. Letters to the Editor of the local paper were unanimously against the ring road, listing concerns like the threat to heritage homes, quality of life, noise and air pollution. Under intense pressure, the Council announced they would retract the proposal and spend more time "consulting". The community reference group that had advised council during the drafting of the City Centre Development plan was re-convened.

Harnessing the topical interest in transport and pollution, I held public meetings in Ipswich and in the western suburbs of Brisbane. Rod, David and Andris Auliciems from the University of Queensland were our expert speakers and gave the message real credibility. These gatherings helped me tap into community concerns about air quality. Air quality had been identified as the leading environmental concern in Australian cities by Australian Bureau of Statistics studies. There was no problem generating interest in the issue and we soon formed two Smogbusters groups which met fortnightly in Brisbane and Ipswich. I’ve learnt that there’s no substitute for local knowledge and that it is crucial to appreciate local politics and identify specific point sources of pollution in the city.

I’ve always been a great believer in anthropologist Margaret Meade’s saying, "Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can effect great changes." This philosophy was considered idealistic by many of the weary community activists I linked up with in Ipswich. Right from the start, I was warned , "There’s no point even trying. Once Council makes a decision, there’s no hope." But I pressed on. It was clear we needed to convey factual and hard-hitting information about air quality to the community. This strategy was confirmed by market research Smogbusters commissioned in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. People were most likely to respond to messages that were simple, personalised the problem and offered solutions. 6 So we steered clear of, "Don't be an environmental vandal - sell your car," and opted for, "If you can cut down your car trips you!e ll be doing something good for air quality and for your own health."

Over the next six months, Smogbusters worked hard to gain recognition. I recruited and trained volunteers and the network took on a life of its own. We made presentations to all kinds of people - elderly citizens, school and university groups, business networks, politicians and resident groups. Whenever there was an opportunity to raise air quality issues, we did: through submissions to council, letters to the paper, talk-back radio, conferences and public events. We set up displays at libraries and shopping centres and spent time talking with locals about public transport and air quality.

People had a genuine interest in the quality of the air they breathed and didn’t seem to be receiving much information. Although the Department of Environment compiled data from a dozen monitoring stations in the Brisbane region, this information wasn’t getting out because, it seemed, senior bureaucrats were not committed to community right to know. There had not been a publicly available monitoring report since 1991. By the end of 1996, the 1992 report was produced. I made it my job to ensure the Department’s Scientific Assessment Section received regular requests for data. The data was then presented and interpreted in the Smogbusters Update - a newsletter we began to circulate to our growing list of contacts. Our continued pressure ultimately prompted timely reports. Members of the community can now receive monthly reports on request or on the internet!

At this time, I also became interested in the proposed National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) legislation which enshrined the idea of ‘community right to know’. The NPI trials in Dandenong, Victoria had quantified toxic emissions in more detail than ever before and added impetus to campaigns in Melbourne. I’d seen other campaigns strengthened through increased access to data (level of emissions from identified point sources) and I could see this sort of information would be invaluable for smogbusting in Brisbane. Data means nothing without interpretive information, so the Update carried information on health effects and comparative air quality goals. Ambient air quality considered acceptable in Brisbane breached goals for fine particles and ozone adopted by the New Zealand regulatory agencies, the European Union and the World Health Organisation. This information struck a chord with many people, who asked, "Why should we suffer worse environmental conditions than those considered unacceptable in other places?"

To increase our credibility and recognition as a lobbying organisation, Smogbusters needed to make a big splash. In the middle of 1996 the year, we joined forces with environment groups around the country to mark National Public Transport Week. Public transport corporations who had not wanted to listen to our constructive suggestions about improving public transport were much more receptive when we offered to promote the environmental benefits of their services. The Week was launched with a radio advertising campaign featuring two well-known media personalities and I convinced the rail and bus authorities to pay for the airtime.

For World Environment Day June 5th 1996, we ran a Public Transport Derby in Brisbane. Teams of politicians, celebrities, sports people, public transport executives and activists raced around the city on buses, trains and ferries completing as many trips as they could in three hours. Points were allocated on the basis of trip length and bonuses given for intermodal trips. The Transport Minister’s team returned exhausted to King George Square, having covered more ground than any other team. Now we could be certain the Minister had some personal experience of public transport! Simultaneously, our volunteers gave "congratulations" badges to public transport passengers. Public transport providers provided the funds for us to give away 80,000 badges. Any doubts I might have harboured about the extent of community support for action around air and transport issues evaporated as over 200 volunteers came forward to help give out the badges. In Ipswich, the front cover of the local paper showed a local campaigner decked out in a "Want Clean Air? Try Clean Transport" tee shirt, giving out badges at a local train station.

A week is a long time in the life of a community campaign. Despite the excellent media attention we received during the National Public Transport Week, the problems seemed just as huge and impossible afterwards. Roads were still being built. Ipswich City Council were still neglecting to plan for clean air or environmentally sustainable transport and as I sat at my local bus stop each morning, it seemed there were even more single occupant cars going by.


Any campaign can be punctuated by periods of self-doubt. This one seemed utterly futile at times. Was this a campaign that could be won? It wasn’t like other campaigns I’d worked on. When we worked to have wilderness areas declared, we knew when we’d won. Campaigning to have license conditions for a smelter tightened was similarly logical: work out the decisions that need to be made; identify the people who make those decisions; and plan how to influence those people. The campaign to block the ring road was a bit like this and involved strategies I could identify with - all the familiar features were there present: an unpopular proposal - apparently misinformed protagonists and community opposition to the proposal. But the longer-term goal of a sustainable city often seemed out of reach.

From the beginning, it was clear the Smogbusters campaign was different. Traditional campaign strategies were inadequate. We weren’t just out to stop a road - in the long run we wanted a clean airshed, a healthy community and a transport system that was sustainable. The attitudes we needed to influence were not held by a small number of "key decision-makers". Indeed, the whole community needed to change their minds - and their behaviour. How can a campaign group successfully change the behaviour of a metropolitan city’s population? Was there a prospect of ever ‘winning’ the campaign. As David Engwicht said, it came down to winning back the cities. We needed to think big - to reach out to the community at large.

The national project team developed a communications strategy targeting the general community, tapping into existing concerns about air quality and offering practical suggestions for change. A tabloid-style newspaper insert was produced. Our Clean Air Review was printed in full colour with an inside page highlighting local issues and solutions for each city where it was distributed. The outside page was generic and gave information about health impacts and the environmental benefits of non-car transport. The Clean Air Review went out to 80 000 households in the Brisbane to Ipswich transport corridor. More than a quarter of a million were distributed nationally. The benefits of being part of a well-funded national campaign hit home as I dealt with the deluge of phone calls and visitors. People who could give time joined the Smogbusters groups or volunteered to help out. Others demonstrated their support through donati!ons.

The Review also generated some disharmony. In Queensland and other states, government agencies responsible for protecting the air environment perceived our broadsheet as a broadside. We were accused of misinforming and misleading. I was shocked to hear that the Department of Environment did not agree that Brisbane Valley had "an air pollution problem". They had read the same reports as me, predicting increased incidence of ozone "events" lasting days at a time and were aware that air quality experts were advocating occasional restrictions on car use in order to protect air quality. Brisbane City Council predicted motor vehicle emissions would increase from 230 000 tonnes to 380 000 tonnes each year within 15 years. How much worse did air quality need to become before the issue was taken seriously?

The Ipswich Smogbusters group identified two achievable tasks for the next six months. We would conduct local air quality testing and carry out a survey looking at attitudes toward public transport and air quality. The national Smogbusters team had access to simple equipment capable of monitoring nitrogen dioxide, aerosol particles and ozone. The Airwatch kit had been developed by the CSIRO and was soon to be introduced in schools in several states. We chose a number of locations for monitoring in both Ipswich and Brisbane and arranged for our results to be analysed by a research student at Griffith University. By promoting our local monitoring through the media, we generated considerable local interest. The tests found levels of nitrogen dioxide and aerosol pollution high enough to have an adverse impact on people’s health, but turned out not to be sufficiently reliable. There was no point sensationalising the issues. We needed to be taken seriously and to get ou!r facts straight. Our ozone results appeared to be well above the Queensland goal but the ozone monitoring device we were using turned out to be unreliable. It seemed our energy was better directed toward gaining access to the Department of Environment's monitoring results and publicising this information.

Our community survey turned out to be a great way to help group members develop confidence as activists. We drafted the questionnaire collaboratively and group members took responsibility for surveying between twenty and one hundred people. As a young activist I had learnt the power of taking on an achievable task and completing it successfully. Campaigns are often led by zealous experts who can make us feel that your contribution is irrelevant. Ego does enter into it and an apparent success can motivate increased commitment. Volunteers gained a sense of both involvement and achievement through helping out with the survey which identified sought after public transport improvements and attitudes toward cars and pollution.

Queensland adopted new public transport legislation in 1995 which encouraged competition between public transport companies and signaled the end of operating subsidies. A large British company successfully tendered to provide bus services in many regional cities in the state. Operating under a variety of local names, the company replaced smaller, independent bus firms. In Ipswich, several companies had traditionally provided bus runs with a fleet of motley, large, old diesel buses. The new fleet of air-conditioned 30 seat midi-buses gave a good impression but one that was to quickly fade. Sunbus services earned the reputation of being infrequent and unreliable. Patrons of the previous services complained about the changed routes and the difficulties they had obtaining and interpreting the new timetables. Some older people were unable to read the route number on the hail and ride buses until the bus was zooming past. Some elderly people also fell off their seats - appare!ntly the suspension on the new buses made them very bouncy.

Our survey identified a much higher level of satisfaction with train services than with the new buses. A number of specific bus service improvements were identified - frequency, reliability, comfort (both on buses and at stops) and routes. Security at train stations was also a key issue. Only a week after we publicised the survey results, the bus company came under fire in the local paper. The first scandal erupted when a bus driver became frustrated by unruly students and refused to let them off. A parent chased the bus and forced it to stop. The letters to the editor - an excellent gauge of community sentiment - showed some support for the driver, but a high degree of dissatisfaction with the company. The second controversy was fuelled by residents of a nursing home, unhappy that the new routes meant a longer walk to the nearest bus stop. What excellent campaigners! With a councillor on side, they dominated the paper’s front page until their demand was satisfied !- a minor route change and a new bus stop.

Our long-term campaign goals required a community development approach. With project funding for only twelve months, it was important that we contribute to both awareness and skill level: to sow the seeds of longer-term campaigning by informed and competent activists. People involved in the campaign were keen to sharpen their media skills, so we ran a workshop with prominent print and radio journalists. We learnt more about air pollution, talked politics and planned achievable campaign activities such as lobbying local politicians, issuing media releases and joining committees.

Training is just as important for paid environmental campaigners as for grassroots volunteers. Our third project officer meeting was held in Adelaide in June 1996 and coincided with the national conference of environment centres and conservation councils. The conference offered workshops in media strategy, campaign planning, avoiding burnout and other practical aspects of campaigning. During the five day conference, the Smogbusters team met several times. By this stage, we had many stories to share. Our public meetings had met with varying degrees of success. Some project officers had established constructive relationships with their state departments of environment and transport while others were being treated like ratbags. In some cities, project officers had the support of active community networks while in other cities, public transport and air quality issues had not yet attracted the attention of conservation and other community groups. Perhaps this was due to! lack of information. As I’d learnt in Brisbane, regulatory bodies in some states were not publishing air quality monitoring results. It’s difficult to campaign on air pollution when the community is not being told the results of monitoring! We shared stories about National Public Transport Week, which had been tremendous for most of us. We’d achieved saturation media coverage and really increased our political clout. But with only three months remaining, we needed to work out how to secure ongoing funding.

In Adelaide, I spent a lot of time thinking about the tensions between volunteer and professional environmental advocacy. There seems to be a lack of empathy between professional (paid) environmentalists and volunteer campaigners. Peak environment groups sometimes seem out of step with community concerns. At this time, green issues (native forests, marine issues, biodiversity) remained the dominant concern of environmental groups while brown or urban issues were pretty marginal. At community level, the priorities seemed the inverse.


Flying back into Brisbane, I was struck again by the awesome task we had taken on. The city I looked down on bore little resemblance to my vision of a sustainable community. The Ipswich Ring Road proposal was still alive and well. City Council had re-convened the Community Reference Group with the stated intention of canvassing alternative transport strategies. As the meetings unfolded, I discovered the road was the only option that would be seriously considered. Council had given the Reference group no decision-making power and no autonomy. The agenda of each meeting was predetermined. It appeared guest speakers were briefed to push the Council line. Council took responsibility for chairing and taking minutes. As a result, the records of these meetings showed no dissent. When it looked like alternatives to the ring road were not going to be developed, several community representatives asked whether David Engwicht 4 might be invited to make a present!ation to the group.

Between Reference Group meetings, we began to organise meetings of community groups sharing concerns about the road. These meetings helped us tackle the challenge strategically and to consider how a united local front might begin to influence Council’s approach. We agreed David would add a new and necessary dimension to Council’s deliberations and raise some important questions. Are all car trips in Ipswich absolutely necessary? Are there some creative and practical ways to cut down on unnecessary car trips? If people made fewer car trips, how would the city change? What sort of city do people want Ipswich to become? Our suggestion that David be invited to speak to Council's Reference was an unequivocal "No!"

Council could bury their heads in the sand. We pressed ahead with an independently organised workshop. David was trialing a project based on a street party to consider how local communities could reduce their car trips and offered his services for free. We invited Councillors and council staff. David led us through a creative visioning process, imagining the sort of city we all wanted to occupy in 20 years. How would we get there? What decisions need to be made between now and then? Many of the decisions related to transport.

The workshop sequence was surprisingly simple. We started by estimating the number of car trips we each made in a week. David introduced us to the three R’s of trip reduction. The first was Reduce. How many of our weekly car trips could we easily reduce? It’s pretty easy to shop on the way home from work - that’s one trip less. The second R was for Recycle. We could recycle some of car trips in another form - as a walking trip, cycling or by taking public transport. In South East Queensland about 15% of all trips are made by walking and cycling. Most trips under one kilometre are potential walking or cycling trips. Safe bikelanes make riding a feasible mode for longer trips. Bikepaths that meander through parks are no substitute for a safe bikelane on the road if you’re riding to work. David’s slides showed European cities like Copenhagen where cyclists are given priority at intersections and where cycling lanes are the inside lanes!. It seems crazy that in Australian cities cyclists must contend with parked cars and opening doors in the curbside lane.

The third R was Reuse. David argued that there should be incentives to reduce car trips. Road space saved by reducing and recycling car trips could be reused as parks, malls, gardens or spaces for cycling and walking. As long as space is given over for roads, cars will be the dominant transport mode. The inverse is also true. Safe and attractive spaces are needed for walking and cycling. In the process of reducing their car trips, local communities are likely to develop ideas to make alternative transport modes more convenient. This might mean a shuttle bus to the nearest train station, a pedestrian bridge over a creek or wider footpaths. Perhaps some tree planting to provide shade. A local government serious about encouraging non-car trips would also be serious about offering incentives.

Workshop participants collectively estimated we could easily reduce or recycle about one third of our weekly car trips. Nothing needed to change. If public transport services are improved we could recycle even more trips. If corner stores reappear, more trips can be reduced. David referred to this 33% as an indicator of inefficiency. It was clear that there was no need to increase the car capacity of roads in Ipswich. Instead, Council could productively focus on making it easier for people not to use their cars. Town planners might endeavour to decentralise services, so more people could walk or cycle to work, school and shops. Residential developments might be focused around public transport hubs as happens in Toronto, Canada (can you be more specific about how this works?).

While most of the participants were members of community groups, the mayor’s attendance made us hopeful the workshop ideals would be taken on board by Council. But in the weeks after the workshop our campaign lost momentum. Some community representatives became despondent as Council concluded the transport planning plan without a substantial emphasis on walking, cycling and public transport. The Community Reference Group meetings wound up. Ipswich Envirocare shifted their energy to other issues. My funding expired. We hadn’t made a revolutionary change, but we had made a contribution. We’d learnt about the issues and we’d helped raise awareness in the community. We had helped transport and environmental planning evolve in a positive direction. More importantly, we had become more effective campaigners through our experience.

After six months, Smogbusters received ongoing funding. Is our vision of a sustainable and sustaining city far-fetched? I don't think so. Too many people share the vision for our campaign to fail. The story isn’t over. And you’re part of it.


1. Brisbane Air Quality Strategy, May 1996, Brisbane City Council p.38

2. Air Emissions Inventory South East Queensland, July 1995, Coffey Partners p.1-5

3. Simpson, R and London, J. Feb 1995 An Economic Evaluation of the Health Impacts of Air Pollution in the BCC Area

4. Engwich, D 1992 Toward an Ecocity: Calming the Traffic, Envirobook: Sydney

5. Environmental Issues: People’s Views and Practices, 1997 Australian Bureau of Statistics,

6. Smogbusters & Public Transport, January 1996 Open Mind Research Group

 Author's Biography

James Whelan is an activist educator in Brisbane, Australia. Having worked a decade with community welfare and conservation NGO's as an adult educator, James began research and practice around "teaching and learning for environmental activism" responding to the apparent value of intentional training and support across progressive social change movements. James is a member of the Terania Centre group working to establish a centre for social change suport and cooperation in northern NSW, incorporating residential courses for community organisers in the Pacific region. He is an associate lecturer in community environmental education at Griffith University where he is pursuing his PhD. James coordinates the Smogbusters project with the Queensland Conservation Council, the state's peak environment NGO.