Building the resilient city

“The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet”
William Gibson.

Take a drive an hour south through the rapidly expanding growth corridor fusing Perth to Mandurah, and you’ll fly past a road sign at once hopeful and heartbreaking.
“Sustainable Mandurah Home” it points cheerfully. Somewhere within the featureless expanse of brick and tile sprawl relentlessly consuming the Swan coastal plain, someone has taken the time to build a sustainable home.

I have no issue with the house itself; it’s an intelligent blend of the state-of-the-art and the bleeding obvious, it didn’t cost a fortune to build and it gives visitors a sense that energy and water-efficient homes are comfortable, practical and inexpensive to live in.

The heartbreak of course, is that this single house vanishes into a sea of tens of thousands of large, nearly identical unsustainable homes built in breathtaking defiance of the basic ground truths of the 21st century. Cabled to fossil-fired power stations hundreds of kilometres away, entirely dependent on cheap middle-eastern oil for mobility, emergency services and food, this great city is profoundly, utterly vulnerable. We won’t really understand the extent of our fossil fuel dependence until its gigantic flows of energy, water and resources are suddenly disrupted.

Much has been written about cities and sustainability in recent times; there’s a wild and creative flowering of theory and practice across our universities and co-operative research centres; demonstration projects are flourishing and whole new disciplines are being established before our eyes.

We’ve known – for a long while – how to build zero carbon houses and office buildings, but the art of building human-scale sustainable cities seems to have been lost to us. After the War, centuries of accumulated planning wisdom were rapidly eclipsed by the overwhelming demands of the private car and its corporate stewards. Cheap anywhere-to-anywhere transport spawned an unstoppable proliferation of places that feel like nowhere; a featureless topography of suburban sprawl-mart development. Tram and bus transit alternatives made suddenly quaint by saturation automobile advertising were purchased and shut down by oil companies across the United States. In Australia, the culprit was calculated neglect everywhere but Melbourne, leaving faint but persistent after-images in the collective memory of the rest of our cities.

Now we get to turn it around. Public transport is making a comeback: on drawing boards, in the Senate committee hearings that just toured the country, and in our neighbourhoods. Planners are revisiting the idea of urban village archipelagos, networks of medium and high density human-scale settlements linked with safe, fast, frequent public transport. With light rail proposals advancing in Canberra, the Gold Coast, Sydney and Perth and the proposition of Commonwealth Government public transport funding for the first time in a decade, we may be on the edge of an urban tipping point.

Planning world-class public transport for our communities can catalyse a whole series of changes that are not immediately obvious. Public transport works best in high population centres when a critical mass of people are an easy walk or cycle from transfer stations. Artful densification reduces the urban footprint and can be a major driver for local economies. Embedding a high proportion of affordable housing in these centres, rather than condemning low-income families to the urban fringe, guarantees access to employment and creates the opportunity for vibrant social diversity.

Halt the sprawl once and for all and we’ll be able to protect and restore the ragged biodiversity and watersheds surrounding our cities. The reckless paving-over of essential peri-urban agricultural land can also come to an end as we recall farmers and market gardeners to their central place in community life.
Electrifying public transport by installing light rail along strategic corridors will lighten our vulnerability to rising oil prices and help prevent the horror of future oil wars. Demoting private cars from their pre-eminent position in the planning hierarchy will improve public health and reduce obesity, because every public transport trip starts with a walk or a cycle.

All of these ideas are taking shape in real-world neighbourhoods around Australia, but the dominant governance mindset is still the provision of more roads to reduce the congestion spawned by the last round of road-building. The resistance from vested interests and path-dependent bureaucratic structures will be fierce and frustrating, but that doesn’t make them right: the catastrophe taking shape everywhere between the Arctic Circle and the Murray-Darling Basin is entirely non-negotiable.

When climate change or vicious price shocks at the foothills of peak oil take unleaded through $5 a litre, it will be too late to appreciate the heartbreaking irony written into the sign by the highway in Mandurah.

The time for lonely demonstration projects by the side of the road is over. With persistence and goodwill it is possible to see our way through to the resilient city: the design and re-working of ecologically sane, human-centred communities that will be genuinely at home in the 21st century.