AMBER STEWART – COMMUNITY PLANNER – NEWCASTLE CITY COUNCIL
BY KIAN WEST
DO YOU EVER SAY OR HEAR SOMEONE COMMENT ‘COUNCIL SHOULD DO X’ OR ‘COUNCIL AREN’T DOING Y’? IF THE ANSWER IS YES, THEN THIS IS THE ARTICLE FOR YOU. MIRAGE OFTEN HEARS THESE KINDS OF COMPLAINTS AND WE DECIDED, SINCE NCC ARE TAKING ACTION WITH THEIR 2030 PLAN, NOW IS THE TIME TO CHAT WITH THE PEOPLE BEHIND IT ALL.
We sat down with Amber Stewart, Community Planner at Newcastle City Council, to learn a little more about what that actually means and what she does…
I always find this the most awkward question to ask, but… Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Yes! I’m Amber Stewart. I’m a community planner at Newcastle City Council. I’m originally from New Zealand, but I’m very passionate about Newcastle – I love the Newcastle community, everything about it. I’ve been here for 15 years now. I’m dog-mad, a bit renovation-mad and also a little bit local government-mad. So…
Beautiful. Why did you move to Newcastle from New Zealand?
Actually, [I got] a job with Lake Macquarie City Council. I got, I guess, the local government itch quite early and moved over for a job straight out of uni in New Zealand. Plus Aussie was paying more than New Zealand at the time, so this graduate jumped over the ditch.
Can you explain the role at Newcastle City Council?
I’m a community planner, which means my main job is to develop and implement community plans, which is what we’re here to talk about today. I research community needs and basically put that into our planning documents so that Council can deliver on community needs.
Youth Council needs?
Oh yes, I also facilitate Newcastle Youth Council. I’ve been doing that for three or four years now and I’ve got a good crew of young people. It’s an opportunity for them to have their say in council decision-making.
What does ‘Youth Council’ really mean? What does it kinda do?
It’s a group of young people who get together to have their say on issues affecting Newcastle – especially the youth, but also in general. They also have the opportunity to comment on council policy, strategies and our planning documents and make sure that they’re meeting the needs of Newcastle’s youth.
So what is it like working in council?
As I said, I’m a bit of a local government geek. I’m passionate about working in local government. I feel that within local government I can actually make a change in my community – I now call Newcastle my community. So, my blend of planning geek and community geek fits nicely into the community planning role I’m in now, and I’ve been in this role for four years. I guess I like working for Council because it’s different each day; there’s always stuff going on, it changes, it’s really dynamic and everyone at the Council is really passionate about what they’re doing.
Right. So there’s a new Community Strategic Plan – can you tell us what that’s all about?
Yes. So the Community Strategic Plan is our 10-year vision for the city. We update it every four years, so people may have heard of it before, actually. We wrote one in 2010 and 2013 and now I’m charged with getting the next one out by 2018. It’s a plan for our city for the future; it allows council to make decisions. All our reporting goes back to the Community Strategic Plan. The Community Strategic Plan is about capturing what our community wants and then as a council and as a broader community, other organisations as well – state, federal, NGOs – looking at how they can get involved to deliver what our community has asked us for.
How does that impact your job?
It’s impacting my job pretty immensely. It’s about 80% of my job. So I mentioned Youth Council, and I also do some other reporting for strategic planning, but the Community Strategic Plan is around 80% of my role right now. It’s actually a career goal – it comes back to that community planning geek thing. This is where I wanted to be, this is what I wanted to deliver. I’ve been striving for this in all the work I’ve done in the last 10 years within Newcastle Council. And it’s just something I’ve very passionate about, which sounds horrible but hopefully all those planning geeks out there understand.
I think people can appreciate a passion for Newcastle. Do you have a favourite part of the 2030 vision?
The fact that we do actually use it is my favourite part. A lot of people think that our strategies sit on a shelf – it’s often heard that people say that. This one we use on a daily basis. I know a lot of my colleagues are using it daily or weekly. It drives what we do at Council, so for me, my favourite part of the vision is the fact that it’s important and we use it. But then, diving deeper down, I guess we’ve got some strategic directions too and in particular [we’re] very passionate about an inclusive community, vibrant and activated places. So that’s a reflection on who I am and how I live my life at the moment. Obviously, I want vibrant and activated places, I want to be doing stuff, seeing stuff, going places – but I also want a really caring and inclusive community, especially as we get new communities coming into Newcastle and being accepted and welcomed.
Yep, totally. Is there a practical use for you and your role in Youth Council with that vision?
Yeah, there is – actually, there is an action under Caring and Inclusive Community to engage with our young people. So not only am I developing and writing the CSP for the community, but I also have facets that I do deliver directly, which is really exciting – because if you’re writing something and you’re not actually implementing it, you don’t know if it’s really working. So I only implement a part of the Community Strategic Plan, because obviously all of Council offices are the people who are delivering on the Community Strategic Plan.
So when you aren’t at work, where do you like to spend your time?
I’m actually moving house at the moment, so I spend a lot of my weekends doing that. I like taking my dog for a walk along the foreshore in particular. I’m off to an event in Watt Street this weekend (a music event). Cafés on Darby Street, just getting out and about in our city, I guess. I like the walkway up at Bathers Way too.
If someone comes to visit Newcastle, where do you have to take them?
Oh, totally the walkway at Bathers Way – that’s my first stop to show off our coast. As you can probably tell, my accent’s from New Zealand, and so I get a lot of Kiwis and we just don’t have the coast we have in Newcastle [back in NZ]. So I take them up there, show them the coast and then take them to Blackbutt Reserve, show off the facilities we’ve got out there. All the amazing cafés and shops on Darby Street and the museum and art gallery as well. I always take them to the museum – they’ve always got something going on there that I’m interested in – any events and festivals that are on at the time.
What would you tell any Novocastrian who’s thinking about having their say?
This is your chance to have your say. I’m passionate about it, I’m listening to them. We will get all their feedback. We will take it into account, we don’t ignore! We do our best to get into our Community Strategic Plan and deliver. This is a whole-of-Council document and there are a lot of people supporting me and doing this, right through from leadership to fellow officers. So just for people to know – just to say, I am listening, and I will do my darnedest to make sure what they say is heard.
Anything else Novocastrians should know?
Novocastrians should know that this plan is better if we do it together. It’s not about me sitting there writing this. It’s better if everyone has their opportunity to have their say and share it with all their friends and get everyone involved and be proud to be Novocastrian and recognise that the people, the officers and leadership at Council are doing their best to deliver for the community.
What are the range of tools people can use to get involved in the project? Are there lots of different things?
Yeah, we are being quite innovative in the way we’re engaging this round of the Community Strategic Plan. Workshops will be out at four different locations across our city and we’re encouraging people to come along to those. We are even engaging some Auslan interpreters and some visual scribes to make them more inclusive, to ensure parts of our community that often don’t get to engage in council activities will. We’ve also got engagement with HQ, which is a platform where you can sign in and fill in a survey, put an ideas wall on our wall. There’s competitions for that, if you get involved. If you have big ideas, there’s some prizes on offer.
So if you’re in a conversation when people say, ‘They should do this, they should do something about it, they should fix that road…’
Often we hear people in the community say ‘Council should, Council could, Council should be doing this…’ This is the time to put this in writing to allow us to hear that, collate it, understand it, know who it’s coming from and hopefully be able to implement that in our plan.
Can you give us some examples of what that might be? Is it roads improved? Is it facilities? Is it more funding?
Yes, that could be a range of things. It could be new services identified – new ways of our services delivering, like technology in our libraries, which is now improving the way services are delivered in libraries. It could be big ideas; there’s a lot of stuff happening around at the moment on Smart City, new technology to do great things in our city in different ways, be more sustainable in the way we approach things, be more innovative. It could be events that we’re missing, gaps in our communities that we’re not recognising. Our parks and reserves – what’s missing? What’s working? That sort of thing.
If you were to strip it right back, if you were to say, ‘In this plan I want to see a connected city,’ what does that mean for Council on the ground? Does that mean building more roads, footpaths?
So if you were to strip back some of the strategic directions that are in our current Community Strategic Plan, something like Connected City – what that means for delivery on the ground is more cycleways, more pedestrian networks, maintenance of our roads. Thinking about the way we move around our community… Connecting our city through actually building our shared pathways that you’ll see, and providing those opportunities to get out and about to cycle and commute to work, and the way you interact with your family on the weekends – that sort of thing.
Have Your Say workshops and community sessions are still happening. You can sign up to complete surveys and become involved in the dialogue that forms the data used to create this 2030 plan, so now is the time to have a voice and guide the direction of our city.