Paper prepared for the nsw coastal Volunteers Forum, Wollongong February 27-March 2011

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Merewether Beach Revegetation Project

Working Paper No. 10 February 2011

Going Deeper: Landcare as Learning

Griff Foley, Convenor, Merewether Landcare

Paper prepared for the NSW Coastal Volunteers Forum, Wollongong February 27-March 2011

We learn every day, in every situation. Mostly we learn informally, through experience. Often we don’t realise we’re learning. We are busy doing something and don’t notice that we’re learning as we’re doing it.

We need to learn to recognise this learning and harness its productive potential.

To put it another way, we need to learn how to learn.

In this paper I examine the what, how and why of informal learning in Landcare. I draw on the experience of Landcare groups, including my own, as well as international literature on community conservation and adult learning.

Griff Foley was formerly Associate Professor in Adult Education at the University of Technology, Sydney. His books include Learning in Social Action (London: 1999), Strategic Learning (2000) and Dimensions of Adult Learning (London/Sydney: 2004, Vilnius 2005).

Writing Landcare

this has always been the artist’s task and difficulty: to locate an artistic shape amidst the chaos of reality. Form gives focus.

—John Banville

Banville was writing about the American novelist Saul Bellow. His words apply equally to describing and evaluating Landcare or any sort of social practice. It poses a question for us: What is the shape and significance of our work?

This paper is one of a number I’ve written over the past five years, as I’ve tried to describe and understand one experience of doing community conservation. These papers are offered not as definitive statements but to encourage thinking about, discussion of—and perhaps some revision in—Landcare policy and practice.


Landcare is often seen as one of the great community efforts of the past twenty years. But how do we know if Landcare works? Certainly the number of Landcare signs on seemingly abandoned weed-covered sites raises questions about the movement’s effectiveness. Certainly, too, attempts by federal and state agencies to more rigorously evaluate Landcare projects suggest that we need to know more about what works in community conservation, and why.

In this paper I argue that it helps Landcare evaluation and practice if we treat projects as learning experiences. To ask the question ‘What have we learned?’ directs attention to everything that shapes a project—outcomes certainly, but also group dynamics, the group’s interactions with its community and government agencies, the project’s historical, political and economic context, and the values and theoretical assumptions underpinning the project.

Seeing a project as a continuous learning experience helps us to come to grips with the complexity of our work. It helps us to look for creative and achievable solutions to problems. By unpacking the complexities, we see that problems can be resolved.

In writing this paper I have drawn on the experiences of Australian conservation groups, including my own, as well as international literature on community conservation. I begin by outlining the history of our project. This leads to some thoughts about the complex and contested nature of Landcare. Then I tell a Landcare story, to try to give a sense of the rich texture of community conservation projects. Finally, I suggest what all this means for Landcare evaluation and practice.

More holistic and effective evaluation

I have just reported to our funding body on last year’s work. It has been a very successful year. We have cleared and planted difficult terrain. The weather has been kind to us. Our group keeps growing. More and more community members praise our work. We have just won a grant to build the first stage of a heritage park boardwalk on our site.

My experience of this project—and of my former work (fn)—is that effective practice is about coming to grips with complexity. We need to develop the deepest possible understanding of the dynamics, context and outcomes of our work. At the same time we must guard against being paralysed by this understanding. Our task is to find a way through the complexity.

The dominant objectives—outcomes evaluation model does not capture the richness and complexity of community conservation projects. While it provides sufficient information to funding bodies to enable them to demonstrate they are dispersing funds in a publicly accountable way. But the objectives-outcome approach is an empty box. We need to know what happens in the box, and why. Otherwise how can we improve our practice?

Figure 1: The empty box evaluation model

Reflection, learning, action

Figure 2: Reflection on/in action

In 1983 Donald Schon published a book that has had a profound impact on how people think about work, and professional education. Schon argued that most work situations are confused and tricky. People have to feel their way through these situations in thoughtful ways. Schon suggested that we need to reflect on these situations, as they unfold (he called this “reflection-in-action) and afterwards (“reflection-on-action”). Seen in this way, any work situation becomes a continuous learning process, as represented in Figure 1. (Foley 2004, 11)

Even though we can learn from other Landcare projects, each project has its distinctive dynamics. Because of this project leaders need to develop the capacity to reflect on their group’s work as it unfolds.

Quantitative evaluation

The story of our Landcare project can be told in a paragraph:

In 2004-5 we cleared the Merewether dunes of Bitou Bush, an invasive weed of South African origin. We then revegetated the dunes with local native plants. Since early 2006 our regeneration work has focused on the lower slopes of Merewether Headland and the Merewether Baths carparks and picnic area. This is a historically significant precinct. As well as being the site of the Burwood Colliery railway, the area is a significant repository of social history. In 2008 we developed a proposal to turn the revegetated headland into a heritage park that will celebrate Merewether’s ecology and history. Community and government support this concept and we expect it to be realised by late 2012.

Or the story can be told as a list of outcomes:

Merewether Landcare’s Beach Revegetation Project, now starting its 8th year, has through the efforts of an enthusiastic group of local volunteers and in consultation with Newcastle City Council:

  • Regenerated the Merewether dunes with local native plants

  • Made substantial inroads into regenerating the area surrounding Merewether Baths

  • Done more than 12,000 hours of work, with an in-kind value of over $360,000 dollars

  • Planted more than 30,000 local native tubestock, with a 70+ per cent survival rate

  • Restored three native vegetation communities1 on severely degraded land

  • Markedly increased biodiversity from 3 local native species to 30

  • Through this on-ground work, interpretive signage, a pamphlet, newspaper articles and a website ( increased public awareness of the role of native plants in coastal stabilisation and urban beautification

  • Has been largely funded through competitive grants2

Starting with four members in 2004, Merewether Landcare February 2011 has 30 active members, all of them local residents & volunteers. It has no paid staff. It has weekly work sessions each Tuesday morning between March & December and at other times during the hot summer months.

The quality of Merewether Landcare’s work has received external recognition:

  • Winner, 2010 NSW Environmental Protection Award, Keep Australia Beautiful Clean Beach Challenge

  • Selected for Department of Environment graduate trainee site visit 2008

  • Selected by Australian Government for its Mosaic Map of quality NRM projects— see

The heritage park site on Merewether headland

Richer accounts

Précis and lists of outcomes give us a succinct account of project achievements. But they do not address the most interesting and important question about Landcare: What works, and why?

To tackle this question, we need to tell stories about projects, and analyse their significance. This can continue as long as a project lasts. We do this all the time in our project, in an informal conversational way. At times we also feel the need for a more structured evaluation of our work.

So, for example, in 2008, I wrote a paper called Five Years On: Reflections and Directions. This paper listed outcomes, but it also reflected on how the project had developed. Here is an excerpt from the paper:

The little project that grew

We had envisaged a two-year project. By the end of the second year the core outcomes of the project—dune revegetation and stabilisation, shade trees, and a picnic area plot—had been achieved, as had the development of a work group committed to on-going maintenance of the revegetated area.

The project had grown in two unforeseen ways. First, our work group, a hard working and committed group of locals, wanted to do more than maintain the already revegetated areas. We also wanted to expand the revegetation area to part of the Dixon Park dunes as well as the Merewether Baths carparks and the bitou bush-infested natural amphitheatre immediately behind the baths.

Second, the first two years of the project had generated significant issues that could not be planned for, dealt with or evaluated by the aims/objectives/outcomes framework we had initially used in the project. These issues included the relationship of our project to short- and long-term changes in coastal processes, coastal ecology and botany, and urban planning and design. The project also raised important questions about decision-making and leadership in local environmental projects.

We have dealt with the first unenvisaged outcome—the group’s desire to expand our area of operation—by simply getting on and doing it.

To date we have dealt with the complex set of issues generated by the project —the second unenvisaged outcome referred to above— by talking and writing about them. Our written efforts—see Table 2, outcome 3—are posted on our website: We have written these articles and papers to clarify our own thinking about the project and its future directions, and hopefully in some small way to educate our community about issues raised by the project.

After five years, our hands-on work and reflection on it have led us to want to both plan our future efforts more systematically and evaluate it more fully. The rest of this paper sketches some ways in which we might do both these things.

Plants, parks and people: beautifying the coast

Our work, beginning as a small native revegetation project, now points to something broader: a coastal landscaping project. Bitou bush remains on the headlands along the beach. The three beach parks—Empire Park at Bar Beach, Dixon Park and Jefferson Park behind Merewether Surf Club are bare and desert-like. These parks, as well as beach walk-ways and car parks, cry out for appropriate landscaping and planting. As our work behind Merewether Baths demonstrates, these areas can be weeded and replanted with local native species. Viewing platforms and interpretive signage along the beach would improve coastal access and inform beach users of the rich ecology and history of this part of Newcastle.

So our project is now moving into a third phase. Over the next two years (2009-2010) we will foster the landscaping of the Merewether Beach precinct. This will involve us in:

  • Continuing our hands-on work on the headland amphitheatre and Baths and Surf Club car-parks.

  • Advocating the creation of a bush reserve on Merewether headland. This would involve consolidating and extending our existing hands-on revegetation and landscaping work, further construction of paths, steps and swales, and construction of viewing platforms and interpretive signage at the top of the site

  • Advocating properly landscaping and planting the three beach parks and the Bar Beach and Dixon Park carparks

Moving from a bush regeneration project to a broader landscaping project as envisaged here raises significant resource, decision-making and educational issues. It would involve us in liasing with and lobbying local, state and federal politicians and public servants, as well as in seeking resources from public and private sources. It would also mean educating our local community and local decision-makers about the aesthetic and environmental arguments for landscaping the beach precinct.

All this would be both time-consuming and quite different from the hands-on work that our group has so far undertaken. It would be quite acceptable for most members of our group to continue to concentrate on the hands-on work, and to leave the project development and advocacy work to a few of us. Between now and the end of this year our group will discuss both the viability of the landscaping concept and, if we proceed with it, what each person’s role would be in developing the concept.

There are both negative and positive reasons for this proposed landscaping project. Not to go in this direction would make it likely that the beach and headland would revert to their former weed-infested state once we all get too old to work on them. If we secure a headland park and beautify the three beach parks we will have left to posterity a wonderful community resource. Importantly too, we will have contributed to changing community attitudes towards urban aesthetics3 and native plants.4


Two years on from writing the above account much has been achieved. In mid-2009 I prepared a concept paper on the heritage park, and distributed it to local councillors and key council staff. At the end of 2009 I gave a PowerPoint presentation on the park concept to Council. This led to a number of councillors visiting the park site. During this time Lori and I also contributed to community consultations on Council plans for revitalising the Merewether beach front and coastal parks.

Newcastle Council has now developed a new management plan for Merewether. This adopts our heritage park idea, and contains many of the urban improvement ideas that we have been advocating in newspaper opinion pieces. Our revegetation work on the headland is currently supported by a Catchment Management Authority grant, enabling us to properly swale this rugged site. A Council community grant has funded a geo-technical report that has confirmed the site’s capacity to carry a boardwalk and viewing deck. The same grant has paid for a recently completed access path to the Baths and the heritage park site. With the support of the Council General Manager and our local State MP, we have just won a joint State Government/Council grant that will fund a viewing deck and boardwalk on the headland site. Other Council/State Government initiatives have or soon will fund other improvements to the parks at Bar Beach, Dixon Park and Merewether.

These gains came more rapidly than we expected, due to the happy conjunction of a productive new Council, an energetic new State MP, and an equally purposeful new Council general manager—all elected or appointed in late 2008. The departure of the general manager at the end of 2010, a likely change in State Government in 2011, and tensions among local councillors mean that this positive turn might have been temporary. Even if it was, Merewether has benefited from it.

We begin 2011 hopefully, but knowing that there are frustrations and struggles ahead, as there are some behind us.

Richer evaluations

The story that I have just told obviously gives a fuller picture of our project than a bald list of objectives and outcomes. Both are necessary, and it is reasonable to require groups receiving public funds to both a quantitatively and qualitatively evaluate their work. There is an example of this in Appendix 1. You will notice that the qualitative or narrative evaluation deals with issues like skills development and community learning that could not be captured by the objectives-outcomes format. Yet these matters are integral to the success of the project. Note too that the funding body’s application guidelines, while referring to what I think is an overly elaborate and hence impractical journal-keeping process, do not require a narrative evaluation report.

It would not be difficult for funding bodies to provide grant recipients with simple guidelines that would help them to treat their projects as learning experiences and report on their learning. Evaluation would be fuller and more valid, and the practice of both group members and funding bodies would improve.

Celebrating learning

In subsequent sections of this paper I deal with the more difficult side of learning in community conservation. Here I want to make the point that there is also a lot of purely positive learning in community conservation projects.

Getting to know native plants has been one of the great joys of our project. At the beginning, naming a few native species exhausted our knowledge. Now, we know many more species, and understand concepts like plant community, habitat and ecosystem.

A related learning has been about botanising—collecting and naming plant species—and the people who do it: the botanisers, people like George Caley, a working class lad from Yorkshire who collected plants in Australia in the early nineteenth century, and Nan Baxter, a Newcastle GP whose 27 papers on local flora were instrumental to the creation of Awabakal National Park. (Foley 2006 a & b)

We have also learned about coastal processes and coastal history (see Working Papers No’s 1 & 2, downloadable from the Merewether Landcare website

In the early years of our project, as we worked on the Merewether dunes, we came to think that the natural beauty of the area would be enhanced by better architecture and urban planning. This led to several newspaper articles and longer papers. (Some of these are downloadable from Section 4 of the Merewether Landcare website, others are available from the author).

There has also been a lot of learning, which we have not yet documented, about group process and leadership. We have also reflected on relations of paid and unpaid workers in community conservation, and about relations between conservation groups (see Section 5 of the Merewether Landcare website).

The positive learning in our project was symbolised for me yesterday, our first working day of 2011. A dozen of us worked on the steep slopes of the natural amphitheatre, weeding and swaling. The temperature reached 38 degrees centigrade. Our energy, solidarity and determination crackled in the hot air. Over eight years we have learned,—and our community is learning—that abused and degraded land can be restored and again be a useful and card for public space.

Landcare as work

Landcare work is both simple and complex. Like any work it involves thought and action, conception and execution. Like other work, it has both a technical and a social dimension. It involves people using technology acting on raw materials to produce something. It also involves workers in relationships with one other and with people outside the group.

The technical side of our Landcare work is straightforward: we use hand tools to extract weeds and cultivate native plants; we also do some basic landscaping. The botanical and ecological knowledge required in our project is also elementary.

The social dimension of our project is more complex. Our group is a particularly productive and contented one: we get a lot done, and we work happily together. Our relationship with Newcastle City Council and other government agencies, while generally good, has at times tested our ingenuity, determination and sense of humour. Our attempt early in the project to forge a partnership with another local environment group soon ended unhappily. We have a multi-faceted relationship with other coastal interest groups (surfers, surf club, swimmers, fishermen, hang-gliders etc) and the wider public.

Because we volunteer Landcarers think as well as act, and feel as well as think, what started as simply pulling weeds and planting natives has become something more complex and engaging. We have learned some coastal ecology and some botany; we have formed views on urban design; we have quite a bit to say about how work is organised, and its cultural, political and economic context. (See Sections 2—5 of our website.)

Landcare as struggle

For most Australians Landcare is the happy group of volunteers you see in the current (and to me supremely irritating) television advertisement. Think of that optimistic, consensual image as you read the following story.

An OH&S story

On a recent afternoon, at our mutual friend Mollie’s beachside house, I was talking to Harry, convenor of Kundaluk Landcare, a successful community conservation group.5

‘We had been working on a steep section of our site for six months or so’, said Harry. ‘We were making good progress with weeding and terracing it, and planting native tubestock. Then we had an e-mail from Lucy, our Council liaison officer. She said that a Council OH&S officer had inspected our work site. He had advised Lucy that our group could only work on the site with safety harnesses, and after we had completed an “abseiling” course.

‘We had worked with Lucy for some years and knew that she could get pretty bureaucratic. So I responded by e-mail; I wanted to keep a record of our exchanges over this issue. I told Lucy while the OH&S people had authorised us to work on a adjacent site, they had not yet done a risk assessment of the slope we were currently working on.

‘The next day Lucy told me that she could not find a project file, draft plan, scope of works or plant list for our current work site. I immediately e-mailed Lucy the scope of works form that we’d given her predecessor, who had verbally approved it three months previously. We had been working on the site ever since.

‘The following day Lucy and two OH&S people assessed the site; we were not invited. The OH&S people had repeated Lucy’s earlier advice that we had to have harnesses and appropriate training before we again worked on the site. We would also need to cap four star pickets supporting treated pine sleepers on the site and deal with ”several [it turned out to be two] protruding screws and nails”, and remove a painted sleeper that did not appear to treated with CCA (copper, cromium, arsenic). Further’—and here Harry read from a transcript of the e-mails he had exchanged with Lucy—‘”When working with treated pine sleepers appropriate PPE [personal protective equipment] needs to be worn, paying attention to personal hygiene (hand washing before eating, smoking), leather gloves to resist splinters and P2 dusk mask to be worn when sanding, cutting, sawing or planing timber”.

‘Until all this was done’, Harry continued, ‘we could not work on the site again. But we could not remove the screws before we’d had harness training and obtained harnesses. The Council, Lucy informed us, had no funds for either. Nor could we water the site, not even from an adjacent set of stairs. Lucy was prepared to “discuss options of [sic] how to get the untreated timber removed, along with the protruding screws”. She would also need a risk assessment for the watering. In the meantime she would arrange for a worker from another Council section to water the site.

‘By now it was feeling caught in a Catch 22, and I became a bit cheeky. I replied that although there was no risk in watering the site from the stairs I would complete a risk analysis form. I also said that we could save Council the trouble of removing the screws as they had mysteriously disappeared. And I confirmed that all the timber on the site was CCA treated.

‘Lucy arranged to meet us on site to “discuss all these issues”. We agreed on a time which she subsequently changed because she was “required somewhere else at the same time”. Ten minutes before the rescheduled meeting she phoned to say she had another meeting and couldn’t make it. She then went on holiday for a fortnight.

‘When she returned she thanked me for removing the screws and for submitting the watering risk assessment, site map and other documentation. She reiterated the requirement about harness awareness training “for up to 1:5 slope” (four minutes later this became a 1:3 slope).

‘This nonsense had been dragging on for over a month’, Harry continued. ‘The transcript of the e-mails between us runs to 15 pages. I’d had enough. I didn’t respond to Lucy’s last message. We heard nothing more about this “vital” OH&S matter. We continued working on the slope, which is now fully revegetated with native plants. Two years later, after Lucy had moved on and there was another slope that really required it, Council funded height awareness training and provided harnesses. What had changed? The Council had a new, and dynamic, General Manager. She was changing the culture of the place. Instead of saying “What might go wrong”, Council staff we were beginning to say to community groups, “How might we help you?” ’

We sat in silence for a while, Harry and I. Then he laughed. “It gets pretty farcical, doesn’t it? At times Kafkaesque: the two protruding screws that we had to remove but couldn’t, the uncapped star pickets, the ‘untreated’ pine that turned out to be treated pine, the harness and training that we had to have but couldn’t get.”

Another pause while we thought about this, then Harry started up again. “It would be fun to do a cost/benefit analysis of this, wouldn’t it? How many dollars in work hours for Lucy, the other Council people she brought in, and for me at the in-kind rate of $30 an hour.”

‘This is probably the most extended piece of silliness we’ve had to deal with”, said Harry. “But we’ve experienced a lot of incompetence, slackness and silliness from paid staff in the decade we’ve been doing Landcare.”

He chuckled. “Let me tell you another story, a brief one. Right at the beginning, before we started work, we invited the author of a coastal revegetation manual down to look at the site. We were inexperienced, a bit anxious. We were looking for advice. We didn’t get any, he just told us to follow the manual. But as we walked over the site he pointed to a steep slope we planned to—and subsequently did—revegetate. ‘That could be really difficult’, he said, ‘There could be all sorts of things buried under there, even an old bus.’ He also advised against planting Lomandra longifolia—now a staple on our site—as unsightly plastic bags could snag on them. At the time the site was covered by Bitou Bush—so aesthetically pleasing, eh?”

Harry and I simultaneously issued a noise of recognition, half-groan, half-laugh. Then Harry said, “The irony is that people like Lucy and the coastal manual bloke see themselves as the professionals, the experts, and us as the amateurs. Many of the people in our group had professional and managerial careers, and they are affronted by the unprofessional behaviour of some salaried staff.

‘Individually these incidents may seem trivial. But cumulatively they can wear you down. I’m sure that is one reason why so many local conservation projects fail. Few volunteers will tolerate such foolishness for long.’

Harry paused at this point. We sat in silence for a while, looking through the filigree of eucalypt leaves at the sea darkening in the evening light. ‘We’ve learned to absorb this sort of stuff. You’re not going to change them. You’ve got to avoid getting locked into conflict with them. You can’t let it get to you. We deal with it by having as little to do with bureaucrats as possible. We just want to get on with the work.”

Landcare as social action

We will better understand Landcare projects if we look closely at what actually happens in them. When we do this, stories like Harry’s soon surface.

The quality of the relationship between volunteers and waged staff is an important but little examined aspect of Landcare. In a society that places a premium on money values, including the exchange of labour for a wage, non-market work, however useful, has little or no value. Whatever waged staff may claim, or even believe, about how much they value volunteers, their interactions with them cover a spectrum from the genuinely respectful through the patronising to the contemptuous and infantilising. Too often, waged staff see volunteers as pairs of hands. This approach is generally overlaid by the rhetoric of volunteerism and community. But the thinking and its effects are definitely there in Landcare, and like Harry I suspect this contributes to the failure of many projects. Adults will not accept being treated as thoughtless manual labourers, or as children.

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