Victory. A proposal to demolish part of Melbourne’s Fed Square to build a flagship Apple store is dead. The relentless and creative campaign against the proposal––led by a nine-member, non-profit, non-political group, Our City Our Square––has lessons for all citizen groups who want to challenge and overturn proposals under the planning system. But it came at a cost.

A $250,000 campaign donation by our volunteers

The volunteers who ran the phenomenally successful campaign (read all about it here) and overturned a planning disaster worked long hours without pay. Collectively, the group spent 50 to 70 hours a week over 18 months representing the 100,000 people who signed petitions against the plan. President of OCOS, Tania Davidge, deferred her PhD and eventually worked fulltime on the campaign. It’s incredible that the group kept going.

The roughest back-of-the-envelope calculation adds up to a labour cost of somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000 on the scantest of hourly remuneration. The professionals involved could no doubt command much higher pay.

Why do we expect citizen groups to be self-funded?

Had the group asked their supporter for money to cover the cost of their time (rather than the costs associated with the campaign) would they have succeeded? I doubt it. Of course, money clouds the issue; we want activists’ motivations to be pure. But how can we expect great planning if one side—the developers and town planners—is flush with, and the other side—the citizens—are not.

Critics might ask, where do you draw the line? Should we pay the people who turn up to rallies, or sign petitions? Of course not. But there needs to be a happy medium.

Melbourne owes a debt of gratitude to Our City Our Square

If we cannot pay them, we can thank them. And our appreciation can extend beyond the remarkable victory of protecting a well-loved public space. This group has created a playbook for active citizens who want to successfully oppose developments that do not serve the community. It’s a case study in community engagement that we can all learn from.