Urban and regional planning for the climate emergency

September 8, 2017

There is a climate emergency. The massive forest fires in Canada, the Lucifer heatwave engulfing southern Europe and Australia experiencing its warmest July on record have all happened within the past fortnight. Yet, Australia’s carbon emissions continue to rise.

The growing movement to prevent the Adani Carmichael coalmine, as well as fossil fuel divestment campaigns, show we are making headway. But activism is not enough.

While recent campaigns have focused on shifting to renewables, the effectiveness of a renewable energy revolution will be greatly reduced if we do not take a more integrated and wide-reaching approach to tackling the climate emergency.

Whether it is a cattle station the size of a European country or a growing urban sprawl such as Melbourne, land-use planning has to be a fundamental component of that approach. Changes to land-use policy are also essential for a myriad of other non climate-related reasons.

Regional land-use planning

We must work with some urgency to preserve the agricultural land close to our major cities from encroaching development, while partnering with farmers to better manage the landscapes they steward.

Land clearing is accelerating in New South Wales and Queensland, an indication that farmers are being squeezed and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from the land.

We need to create a society where farmers are given incentives to sequester carbon as well as provide food. This may mean we will have to pay more for what we eat. Making housing affordable would go a long way to making this possible.

It may also mean we provide subsidies to enable landholders to manage the land in such a way that their primary focus does not always have to be on food production. This will help to draw down some of the billions of tonnes of carbon that is necessary to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. It will also better enable long-term food security while helping tackle biodiversity loss.

In our urban spaces there needs to be an emphasis on ending urban sprawl and poorly-planned, poorly-developed urban intensification, which destroys robust housing, productive gardens, green open spaces and drives up property prices.

Population

Underlying this is the need to take a holistic approach towards the way changes in population interplay with land-use planning: this plays a major role in the way greater Sydney and Melbourne (extending to Newcastle and Geelong respectively) are shaping.  

It is a common misconception that nation building is all about population growth. It is becoming obvious that well thought out, well funded land-use planning and development is imperative to be able to create affordable, equitable and carbon neutral multicultural communities.

Unfortunately, the neoliberal ideology that encourages population growth as a means of boosting gross domestic product (GDP), is the least likely to invest the billions required to ensure that public housing and public transport infrastructure can keep up.

This is one reason why 50,000 cars are being added to Melbourne’s roads every year. As long as population growth is driven by neoliberal economics we will continue to see poor land-use planning and development outcomes. This is all the more ironic when there are enough empty houses and vacant spaces to house thousands more people.

The federal government uses the increased infrastructure expenditure that accompanies rapid growth as an excuse to cut the foreign aid budget (as well as other services) when it should instead be directing that aid to helping communities become more resilient through improved education, healthcare and land management. There is strong evidence to suggest that this approach leads to increased access to family planning services and a slowing of rapid population growth in those countries where fertility is at its highest.

Our approach to population policy should be dictated by compassion, understanding that properly directed foreign aid is the most socially equitable and ecologically sustainable first step. It really is the only way we can make any long-term difference in light of the fact that the world’s population is currently growing by 80 million a year.

We should regard migrants as people in need of homes, community and support, rather than drivers of economic growth based on the false premise that population growth increases per capita GDP. In doing so we can help to drive greater investment in public housing and public transport.

Furthermore, it would enable incoming migrants to return to having the opportunity to establish the resilient communities that have so transformed and enriched Australia.

Resilience

Encouraging resilience also requires we re-examine the assumption that intensification of the existing built form is always a good thing. Should we be demolishing robust houses and bulldozing productive gardens at a time when we need to be heading beyond zero emissions?

The forthcoming book RetroSuburbia by the co-founder of permaculture David Holmgren, emphasises the need to start using what we already have as a resource rather than emitting the huge amounts of carbon required to replace streets of houses and gardens with streets of apartments — especially as the durability of many being built today is questionable.

While “increased walkability” is often touted as a reason for increasing densities, most of the inner suburbs where this densification is happening are already walkable and already dense enough to the extent that the public transport that services them is overcrowded for large stretches of the day. This is not to say there is not room for some intensification, especially if it is well designed and affordable, but the inner suburbs do not require the radical Singapore-style overhaul that some planners and policy makers are advocating.

In Melbourne, there is currently a push to increase densities in the middle suburbs. But many of the houses are sufficiently robust, and hence retrofittable, and their 70-year-old gardens will become an asset, especially as our reliance on urban food production increases.

It is also counterproductive to clear entire streets when none of it is for public housing. In fact, the only way lower income people can afford to live in these suburbs is through share-house arrangements. These are often the same houses that property investors start developing first, forcing the tenants out.

Sadly, many residents who grew up in these areas are labelled NIMBYS (Not In My Backyard) for protesting this change when they react to the erosion of their connection. Many residents — but not all, as there are some genuine NIMBYS — are open to some degree of change once they know that it is not uncompromising or unending.

This is positive because there is a substantial amount of housing stock in the middle suburbs that is arguably not worth saving. However, zoning laws do not discriminate in terms of which houses are worth saving and as long as there is a profit to be made from subdivision, any attempt to be more selective in terms of what is demolished and what is preserved will be seen as unfair.

Public housing

It therefore makes sense to prioritise developing public housing within the existing built form. This will reduce the risk of gentrification while helping to provide affordable housing. In doing so we could be selective about which houses should be replaced and preserve the houses and gardens that inspired so many to settle there.

Increasing densities should not always be interpreted as the construction of high-rise when town houses and three storey co-housing projects in Melbourne’s middle suburbs work well.

Positively discriminating in favour of public housing within existing suburbs may also provide developers with the incentive to free-up the thousands of acres of brownfield sites (land that was once developed but is no longer in use) that are vacant throughout metropolitan areas.

Urban regeneration projects on these sites should include a substantial component of public housing and on larger projects, open public space and space for commerce (as well as cycle and public transport links). This increases walkability and helps to reduce commuting times.

This is not to say that we should not build new communities beyond the metropolitan fringes. But they should be in the form of new towns, with a diversity of housing types, positioned along existing regional railway lines with their own commercial centres.  

Crucially, they would not be built on food bowls or areas of natural significance. Their construction would be accompanied by massive bush regeneration/replanting projects in the form of connected internal parks. These would also act as nature corridors. These parks would provide access to areas of non-human nature beyond the fringe that many in Melbourne’s inner suburbs take for granted — the Yarra, Edgars or Merri Creeks.

Projects such as this, however, take time especially if we want to create truly ecologically resilient, equitable communities.

If the climate emergency accelerates, Sydney and Melbourne may not continue to be viable places to live. Whatever happens, we have to fiercely interrogate current land-use planning. The main emphasis has to be on making what we already have work better for us, while embracing new ideas and discriminating in favour of public housing.  

[Mark Allen has worked as a town planner for both state and local government. He is an environmental activist and co-presenter of City Limits on 3CR.]

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