arch-peace editorials

15 March 2006

Environmental development and sustainable society

Environmental development and sustainable society

Together with social and economic sustainability, the emphasis on environmental sustainability is present in most of today’s urban development frameworks. Environmental sustainability will be constantly reiterated throughout the documents that inform the proposals. Its goals graphically reinforced with images of ecologically blissful settings. Evocative images of clean watercourses, blue skies, timber bridges, native fauna and flora, are shared across the environmentally sustainable heading of the document and the marketing of the “place”. In some cases similar images will also appear under the heading of tourism, or eco-tourism.

What is not so evident in these documents is that an economic agenda has already shaped the aims and goals. Placing economic, environmental and social sustainability in the same sentence, does not mean that they have equal weight. Public space may already have been compromised by agreements between government, developers and private corporations such as supermarket chains, shopping centres, retail and large entertainment consortia. The likelihood of small businesses and milk bars that could in any form compete with the large retail bodies may have already been decided by similar agreements between the developer and the companies that will profit from those new estates. Likewise, the size and management of large green areas may by now be destined to support the economic interests of those setting the programme rather than the need of the public, their health and that of the environment.

Often, large developments happen in the periphery of the city, areas in which access to public transport is limited or non-existent. It is not unusual to find that the need for public transport systems may have been discussed only at a superficial level and that the proposal will not include strategies to ensure its viability.

Existing public transport in Melbourne is extremely expensive, more so if compared to the European public transport delivering the services under much higher petrol costs conditions. While it is right for people living in the city to insist that we all should opt for public transport alternatives, these do not represent real alternatives for people living in the suburbs. The transport options are nowhere near those enjoyed by “developed” countries in Europe and in some countries in Asia and South America, where the frequency and quality is such that no time-tables are required and driving becomes an unwise option. Note that I am referring to high standard public transport systems in those continents[1]. Transport options for people in cities of similar population to that of Melbourne are many and include: buses, mini-buses, metro (underground) and taxis, many cities also have trams.

If transport options are limited to cars in the outer suburbs, the remainder of the agenda for planning and development is set, cars dominate streets, garages dominate architecture, and traffic management designs street scaping. The types of services and amenities are predicated on two car families and a shopping mall becomes the cultural and economic heart.

When the interests of the public or the future dwellers are weighed against those of the retails and businesses, a short look at our suburbs makes it clear who the winners are. The demise of the corner milk bar provides a good illustration of the forces at play. The milk bar is not only convenient, it brings many other benefits to the neighbourhood. It assists in social interactions, it enhances the life of the street and the setting provides passive surveillance. If these do not seem much, the results are greater, kids can walk and meet, the streets are better used as a result, giving parents the confidence to send the kids out by themselves. So adults don’t have to drive to the supermarket for bread, milk and the newspaper, this way reducing the number of short car trips, which account for about 25% of all car trips in Melbourne.[2] Fewer cars on the streets and they become safer for kids and everyone to walk and ride along. Milk bars and other small business give people the choices politicians are keen to use in their discourses, and these can indeed provide for economic sustainability, that of the community. However, in recent major residential developments in Melbourne’s fringes, supermarket chains have reached an understanding with the developers that no small businesses such as milk bars would be supported within the estate.[3] Couple this with a petrol voucher discount system for shopping at the supermarket and you get the picture. Supermarket chains are now physically located in petrol stations. What are the chances of an integrated transport system in these conditions without a strong political will, backed by legislative clout.

In the last weeks we have had in Melbourne some very interesting and long due debates on the issue of transport, one newspaper article even debated the possibility of making public transport free of charge.[4] This article, together with James Button’s article “Warning as coal front approaches”[5] which discusses the launch of Tim Flannery’s book “The Weather Makers” and his recent lecture in Melbourne, provide a good picture on the current underdeveloped public transport system in Victoria and on our foolish avoidance of serious measures towards environmental sustainability. Tim Flannery’s words about Australia’s general awareness are "Australia is disconnected from much of the world on climate change. (…) Australia, on the other hand, has "done an immoral thing" by selling coal to the world but taking no responsibility for reducing the worst effects of coal-burning by signing the Kyoto Protocol".

While Flannery expresses optimism about the seriousness with which governments and citizens in many European countries are addressing global warning, he is not at all optimistic about the Australian approach, as he reads how the “Opposition Leader Kim Beazley had followed Prime Minister John Howard in announcing that energy from coal was Australia's future”.[6]

Somehow, Flannery has only confirmed what most of us knew. The extent of our political leaders reckless approach is of course better assessed by the fresh eyes of an educated guest, who can compare the efforts across the globe. However, public transport may provide the first break through an important issue, which can lead to a more serious debate about global warming in general and hopefully also some concrete strategies and policies.

Beatriz C. Maturana is the founder of Architects for Peace, an architect with a Masters of Urban Design from the University of Melbourne where she is currently a PhD candidate.

[1] For more on the Metro system in Santiago, Chile and links to other cities with Metros, refer to Architects for Peace topic: Metro Arts and Architecture: why doesn't Australia have one?

[2] Grant, John. “Transport planners out of step on walking”. The Age, February 1, 2006. []

[3] Note that while I know about these types of arrangements from my work experience in the field, I have not seen the actual agreements, as these are not accessible to all employees or the public. Awareness of the legal implications resulting from disclosing this information makes me wary and may be preventing others from discussing this important issue.

[4] Refer to arch-peace news heading: “Just what our ailing public transport needs”, The Age, Editorial, March 5, 2006 []

[5] Button, James. “Warning as coal front approaches”. Find the original article: The Age, March 11, 2006. []

[6] B. James. “Warning as coal front approaches”. The Age, March 11, 2006.


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