arch-peace editorials

17 February 2009

Victoria’s Bushfires: time to reflect new urban strategies

By now most of you will be familiar with the natural disaster that affected the State of Victoria in Australia. Although it is believed that some of the fires may be the work of arsonists, this is a natural disaster in the sense that it was triggered by an dreadful combination of climatic conditions such as a very dry season, thick and dry native forest (bush) in country Victoria and around Melbourne’s periphery, strong winds and an unprecedented heat of up to 48 degrees Celsius. As these harsh climate conditions with its disastrous consequences become more frequent, Australian authorities and politicians are now quick to name climate change as a contributing factor.[1] In view of a future increasingly exposed to a harsher climate, calls for the review of emergency laws, the upgrading of fire evacuation plans and building regulations are been considered. However, are these expedient responses dealing with the complex issue of suburban and outer suburban living?

While a handful of scientists show caution in declaring that this disaster is due to climate change, others assert that,

There does seem to be a human element to bushfire risk. In terms of human contribution it is clear that most of the global warming since about 1950 is likely due to increases in greenhouse gases. Higher temperatures clearly increase the risk of bushfires.[2]

Reconstructing the same, “brick by brick”

Australia has abundant land and for the 200 years of colonisation settlers have had no need to compromise—not on the size of their houses and land, nor in terms of privacy, material costs or the cost of services such as transport and schools. This uncompromising attitude is part of an entrenched cultural trend that defines our suburbs, outer suburbs and suburbs within rural habitats, with its remarkable nature corridors and bush. While these conditions offer some fine aspects which define the Australian way of life, it also precludes other modes of living, particularly those associated to sharing resources, social equity, accessibility, urban vitality and the chances of achieving environmental sustainability.[3] One example of this is car dependency with all its detrimental effects. Larger pieces of land in the outer suburbs or “suburbs in the bush” are more affordable. As George Megalogenis notes, the population in the worst affected areas lived in an extension of “Mortgageville: communities with more children, and parents with less education, than the national average”.[4] This is an urban periphery foreign to the city skyline, forgotten by the urban professions and their educational institutions. For instance, how often do architectural design studios focus their explorations on the needs of these populations?

Responses as to what should be done to rebuild the destroyed houses and townships vary. While it is perhaps too soon to reflect on how and why this disaster took on such devastating force, reflection is needed. Comments focusing on at least two different dimensions of the problem emerge. Overall, one centres on the upgrading individual structures through better technology and regulations, while the other points at planning issues by questioning the wisdom of reconstructing in the same manner. For example, Victorian Premier John Brumby recommends that building codes need revision. Architect Lindsay Johnston discusses fire resistant houses and the construction of underground bunkers in areas prone to bushfires, while also adding that danger for these communities is exacerbated by urban sprawl.[5] Similarly, scientists such as Professor Andy Pitman suggests that fireproof underground shelters and different building regulations for houses near bush areas should be considered, simultaneously questioning the suitability of rebuilding in the affected areas.[6] Dr Nichols on the other hand warns of the “real chance that some communities may never be rebuilt”, while also noting that “the devastation in Victoria presents a sombre opportunity”.[7]

It is that sombre opportunity that I want to discuss. An opportunity that offers the chance to put in practice what our urban professions, ecologists, educators and members of the general public have been discussing for years. The understanding that devastation brought on by climate change cannot be overcome with yet more technology that reinforces the mindset that generated it. That perhaps it is time to think of collective rather than individual solutions to our predicaments. Promises such as “Together we will rebuild each of these communities — brick by brick, school by school, community hall by community hall”,[8] may offer some needed consolation to the victims and hope that their lives might one day return to some normality. However, in view of the facts it is pertinent to question what should be reconstructed in the context of Australian culture, ecology, climate change and the long term well-being of those affected today.

A collection of scattered buildings don’t make a township

What we witnessed in the last few days were heroic and tragic personal efforts to save the family house. Among those, one case comes to mind, where a group of people in Flowerdale survived thanks to a call for the nearby residents to stay in one building, a pub, while concentrating all efforts on saving that one building. A notion of collective that emerged out of despair.

When you fly across Europe what you will see is a very different urban, suburban and rural morphology to that of Australia. The European landscape is pierced by circles and lines, where the circles are the townships, the communities and the lines the roads or connectors. In Australia, lines connecting sparsely located properties crisscross the earth. Sporadic grouping of buildings such as the post-office, pub, supermarket, sometimes a school and bank, indicate something similar to a centre—but without a centre. What is also peculiar to Australia is that these linear ‘centres’ have very few or no residential buildings whatsoever. While in this morphology a relative sense of community can exist, this is greatly diminished by distance, a resulting car dependency and the placing and function of buildings. If we superimpose the analogy of the pub in Flowerdale, to a slightly more densely populated township in which people also have their residences, it would not be too far fetched to think that this imaginary inhabited township could be more easily protected than a road with spread out buildings and even more scattered houses placed within large to very large properties. In this late example, not only the efforts of residents but also those of emergency services are broken up and weakened. I cannot but to agree with Dr Nichols when he says,

I'd like to think at the end of the day that governments recognise that keeping a community together may well be worth the many millions of dollars it might cost to bring that about.[9]

The morphology of our cities, suburbs and satellite suburbs within rural land follow a planning trend. Rampant urban sprawl and its detrimental effects are well documented. Whether different planning regulations can assist to prevent tragedies such as the one we just witnessed is worth investigating. But planning the future of suburbs, wherever these are located, cannot continue being the result of rushed decisions by politicians, or a privilege reserved to one set of professionals.

Suggestions that focus on building regulations, or on more technology (whether sustainable or not), are part of micro-solutions. These solutions should not obscure or replace the need for a macro-scale debate and revision. It is at the planning and urban levels where community and expert discussion could take place, where questions about what is possible and wise and how should we shape urban, suburban and suburbs in rural communities can be addressed. This is what I would call the sombre opportunity that can and needs to be grasped. This is a collective and too often discounted approach to solving a problem.

Focusing on an armoured building or more disaster prepared individuals is one step in the same old direction—the individual object (building) and the person who does not compromise. Nor are these answers affordable to the social demography described by Megalogenis. These solutions dismiss what we have just learnt through this experience, that together with the destruction of lives and houses, the ecology, food production, water, power supply, public health and communication are also threatened. Other, perhaps vital consequences of these bushfires will not be known to us for a long time. This is a complex situation and while we may aspire to find simple solutions we can no longer afford to be simplistic in the process of finding them.

Rethinking how to live in the local environmental context

Perhaps we now have the opportunity to think about how we live and question whether this is suitable to the environment in which we live. Well thought through large scale strategies offering direction for micro solutions (building design, building code and technology) is an option worth pursuing. This is not a theoretical proposition, it is factual and necessary. The world provides examples that can be used to start the discussion. We can use our creativity to find solutions within the constraints that we now face and to create suitable living environments for the local conditions. Real creativity emerges out of working with the constraints posed by the problem and not when the context and constrains are severed from the problem. If natural local conditions and climate change represent the context—particularly when most scientists agree that human activity is partly to blame—how can we assist in the minimisation of such change? Should we consider compromising some aspects of the way we live? What are the disadvantages and the benefits in view of the recent tragedy? I suggest that these and other questions need to be widely discussed. That the responsibility for finding solutions cannot sit with planners and politicians alone—it needs to involve the large community including an extended professional community. The dimension of this tragedy has given us an unfortunate glimpse into a challenging future in which individually toughened houses will not suffice. Today we have the opportunity to learn from this disaster and to try new approaches.

Beatriz C. Maturana

Architects for Peace


[1] See comments By Victorian Premier John Brumby in, Kerry O'Brien, "Brumby Warns of Worse to Come," ABC News, 7:30 Report (9 February 2009).
[2] Kevin Hennessy from the CSIRO in Jonathan Pearlman, "It will only get worse as climate changes," The Sydney Morning Herald 9 February 2009.
[3] G. Davison discusses Australian cities and its deficiency in regards to social spaces. See Graeme Davison, "The European City in Australia," Journal of Urban History 27, no. 6 (2001). Note that Australia has one of the highest green house emissions per capita in the world.
[4] George Megalogenis, "On the Edge," The Australian 14 February 2009.
[5] Oscar McLaren, "Bushfire Tragedy Rewrites Rules for Architects," ABC News (11 February 2009).
[6] Andy Pitman, co-director of the University of New South Wales' Climate Change Research Centre, in Adam Morton, "Climate change must be 'a factor' in deciding whether to rebuild," The Age 10 February 2009.
[7] David Nichols in McLaren, "Bushfire Tragedy Rewrites Rules for Architects."
[8] Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in, B. Nicholson and D. Rood. “We'll Rebuild Brick by Brick.” The Age 11 February 2009.
[9] D. Nichols in McLaren, "Bushfire Tragedy Rewrites Rules for Architects."

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Ceridwen Owen said...

Thanks for your editorial Beatriz. The scale of the devastation is so hard to comprehend and it provokes many complex emotions. I'm sure the view you put forward will be unpopular with many people. It is part of the Australian 'dream' to live in the bush, visually isolated from neighbours, while maintaining many of the conveniences of social infrastructure. It is this mindset that will need to shift if we are going to rebuild along the lines you suggest. I'd like to think that this ultimately wouldn't mean "compromising some aspects of the way we live" but rather that it would add value and be seen as a positive shift in the morphology of our rural communities. Nevertheless, if it does happen, it is sure to take a long time .....
In terms of rebuilding, I think it is important to look at both the big picture and the micro scale. The desire to quickly rebuild 'brick by brick' is an understandable one and such rebuilding gives a tangible sense of recovery. The dilemma will be how both the immediate response of rebuilding individual's lives can be integrated with the macro opportunity of rebuilding whole communities. There is also the problem/opportunity of the very many existing established communities in other bushfire prone areas. Is there any response other than the fortification of individual buildings through fire bunkers and upgraded materials that can be considered in this context?

Mark Burnett said...

These issues are currently being discussed in an open idea campaign being run by circle of blue.

Circle of Blue are here:

The idea campaign is here:

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