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Future Shapers Sustainability Jess Miller
Photograph: Nic Walker

Time Out's Sustainability Future Shaper: Jess Miller

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

Councillor Jess Miller was elected to the City of Sydney Council as part of the Clover Moore Independent team in 2016.

Miller’s key areas of expertise are in environmental systems, specifically urban ecology and urban forestry, and local food systems. She is an advocate for a slow city with lots of active and public transport, character, community, sport, colour, creativity and diverse culture. She’s also been instrumental in ensuring the views of younger people are represented on Council and that the city continues to set a global example of how to deal with the changing climate.

Follow Jess Miller here: @jessmillersydney

The way you engage with the task of creating a more sustainable city is very multi-faceted: clean air initiatives and food security; in terms of future proofing our power structures by engaging younger people in our political process; greening the city initiatives. Why do think having multiple different angles into the conversation is the most effective strategy for tackling the climate crisis?

One of the things that you see from people who are working on climate change, over a really long period of time, is that there's a huge amount of burnout. When I started working on this stuff, when I was probably in my very early 20s, I was drawn in through activism and nonviolent direct action. At that time, it felt right for me, being part of a group of people who were using their frustrations and passions to engage with a movement for change. But equally, if you're fighting to shut down coal-fired power stations for 10 years with not much success, it can get pretty exhausting – it’s not a particularly nice experience, being arrested and having to really lean hard into that kind of binary narrative about goodies vs baddies. I learned a lot from being involved in activism from such a young age, but I think maybe my approach has evolved as I've evolved as a person. When you understand the subtleties of how to affect change, you learn that it doesn’t have to be that one-dimensional battle all the time.

The conversation about the climate emergency can skew pretty bleak, which is understandable giving the stakes. But you infuse your own work addressing various issues linked to city sustainability with an edge of optimism. Why is it a useful tone to strike when mobilising action on the green initiatives you’re involved with?

Positivity can definitely be an effective tool. I guess for me, the transition from direct action into a more strategic way of working was about finding those ways to cut through the discussion and move towards action in a way where you're not having to persuade people, you know? The work becomes about actually inviting people to do the things that create change. That was the thinking behind campaigns like the Garage Sale Trail and Grow it Local and Sydney Doesn't Suck. I guess I found that to be a really effective way of cutting through the bullshit, and getting straight to the action in a way that doesn’t expect everybody to pick a side. People engage with the initiative because it seems like a sensible idea, and also something that is really fun and culturally relevant. Again, it’s about shifting the conversation away from it being a battle.

How can cities – and the urban planners and authorities who create them – make our day-to-day lives more sustainable?

I think the way that many cities have a system demonstrates that you can get the kind of impact at scale within a context. So I'm a firm believer that if you can design density well and appreciate systems, and think about cities as places that can be regenerative, as opposed to parasitic, the experience of living in the city can be really fantastic. But it also takes the pressure off other places that should be cared for differently. There are places within Greater and Metropolitan Sydney that probably shouldn't be developed. For us to exist in a way that is self-sustaining, it's a good idea to have people living in density, because it means that you're not forever sprawling the human footprint into places that should be left alone. What I've been working on mostly for the last 10 years or so is understanding which urban ecologies work, and what are the relationships between humans, trees, soil and water in that urban context. That’s such a creative undertaking, and being on the city council gives me a really valuable vantage point about how all these things work together. It’s like having this massive canvas that's literally 26 square kilometres long, that you can start to paint a different kind of picture on.

Underpinning that vision of functional urban ecologies is the nuts and bolts of infrastructure. How do those utilitarian concerns factor into the sustainability conversation?

We've inherited this way of thinking about infrastructure that is limited to things like airports, buildings, roads, bridges, motorways. And there's a real sense of disconnection between how you fund and build infrastructure and a very limited paradigm around jobs and growth being the driver of economies. The counterbalance to that is this idea of living infrastructure. And living infrastructure is anything that is conducive to life – urban forest or waterways are living infrastructure, but so is culture and creativity, and anything that makes life worth living, whether it's an opportunity to hang out with your mates at the pub, or see a show or go to a gallery. And increasingly, I think we are paying more attention to particularly First Nations people and their ideas, and their connection to Country that reconnects humans to everything around it. What we're looking at in the city, and one of the big bits of work that I'm really proud of within the city, is the Greening Sydney strategy, which at its core, identifies a really innate, important relationship between living infrastructure and people. So if we don't get the urban forest right, and if we don't look after the soil and the waterways and the plants and the trees that create these places that people can come together and connect, inevitably, we all end up being worse off. Not just because the ground can’t support plants or the water becomes undrinkable. People become lonely and isolated. Communities are more stratified. So I guess the challenge that we face now is how do we rethink some of the economic models in a way that places as much value and investment on living infrastructure as non-living infrastructure.

What do you see as the future of Sydney as a sustainable city?

We're already shifting towards this idea of Sydney being a regenerative city – a place that can give back more than it takes. I guess it's probably less about what that looks like and more about what that feels like. In the future, I would hope that we create a place where people feel safe and feel connected. That's not to say it's going to be easy, but we owe it to ourselves to try really hard to do that and do it in a way that is fair. I'm particularly passionate about greening Sydney strategies because it picks up on Indigenous ideas around seasons and actually paying attention to the land and what's going on around you. We need to understand that we can leverage planning controls to make this stuff real. That is the role of government: to set the direction and enable really exciting things to happen.

Meet the Future Shapers

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