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View from Sydney, Australia

With more to lose than most other developed countries, Australia is failing to respond to the environmental and economic challenges brought about by climate change

Think of Australian architecture and most architects probably think of one of Glenn Murcutt’s exquisite houses set amid a forest of tall eucalyptus trees on the fringes of Sydney. However, much has happened in recent years to fracture the Great Australian Dream of owning a detached family house, whether in the bush or in the suburbs.

Most worrying is the gathering evidence of the effects of climate change. According to the first Garnaut Climate Change Review commissioned by the Australian Federal Government and published in February 2008: ‘Australia would be a big loser − possibly the biggest loser among developed countries − from unmitigated climate change.’ One year later catastrophic bush fires in the state of Victoria claimed 173 lives in one day, transforming a potential impact into a tragic reality.

One of a series of so-called ‘megafires’ in the country, they have become more frequent and intensified in the last decade, the result of a deadly combination of extended droughts and rising temperatures. Sadly, while there was a debate in the media at the time about the wisdom of building homes in ‘flammable forests’, there was no public reaction at all from the leaders of the architectural profession. Worse, neither have there been any concrete moves since to regulate or restrict further residential developments that might place dwellers at risk of fires. On the contrary, the survivors of the worst hit towns in Victoria have been encouraged to rebuild their homes in the same vulnerable locations.

The recent series of devastating floods in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria reflects much the same pattern of official neglect. Many of the townships and new suburbs affected by the repeated floods in Queensland, for example, were built on low ground and were therefore especially susceptible to sustained heavy rainfalls.

Despite the rosy picture painted abroad by Australia’s leaders, the domestic scene offers little comfort. After having been elected on a programme to address climate change, the Labour government of Kevin Rudd subsequently backed down under pressure from powerful industrial lobbies and a well-publicised chorus of climate-change scepticism, resulting in a change of leadership and concessions for a minimal carbon price. Disillusioned voters have since apparently given up on the prospect of any major actions being taken to counteract its effects and are increasingly distracted by economic problems, including astronomical house prices, a two-speed economy overly dependent on coal and iron ore exports to China, and the prospect of ever higher fuel costs as world demand outstrips diminishing supplies.

Australia of course is not the only country to be sleepwalking towards environmental disaster, nor are its citizens alone in being distracted by economic problems, but it is among those with most to lose. This despite active and vocal environmentalists like
Tim Flannery, who offer positive solutions as well as dire warnings about the dangers of ‘business as usual’. Australia’s greatest Modernist of the last century, the late Harry Seidler, was also among the first architects to recognise the real dangers of unlimited, low-density urban expansion dependent upon private transportation.

Following Seidler, a number of practices like Allen Jack+Cottier, Cox Architecture, Jackson Teece and Alex Popov are showing the way forward with modern, high-density residential and mixed-use projects. Both Foster + Partners’ masterplan for Central Park, a major, high-density development close to Central Station in Sydney, and Rouse Hill, a compact new town situated in the north-west of Sydney designed by Allen Jack+Cottier, also reduce the need for private transport. However, for the majority of families who can only afford the cheapest houses in Australia’s outlying and car-dependent suburbs, the outlook remains more bleak, circumscribed by the consequences of a steeply rising cost of living as well as rising temperatures.

 

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