Back to the future: climate change and regional inheritances

This is the second in a series of posts by AUSCCER’s Chris Gibson on climate change and regions, building on papers presented in recent weeks at the 4th International Conference on Sustainability Transitions at ETH Zurich, the annual Institute of Australian Geographers conference at the University of Western Australia, and the 2013 National Climate Change Adaptation (NCCARF) conference in Sydney.

In my last post I made the case for focusing on regions as a scale of climate change response. In this, I wish to consider briefly the issue of how to rethink future responses in light of the past.

Regions inherit numerous legacies from previous generations: their physical infrastructure, economic base, demography, political culture, workforce skills and social mix. Regions will, with some urgency, need to assess the strengths of their institutions, rethink residential, transport and environmental planning, and document vernacular cultural assets that may prove helpful in adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of climatic extremity.

How well are we positioned to ‘retrofit’ regions, physically, economically, and culturally – and how quickly can it be done? The task is to figure out which bits of regional historical inheritances will count towards transition and adaptation, and which bits will somehow need to be jettisoned.

My sense of needing to pay attention to inheritances was heightened recently when attending the 4th International Conference on Sustainability Transitions, in Zurich – both in terms of the content of the conference, and in the host city itself.

A back lane in Zurich’s medieval Old Town.

The conference was held at ETH Zurich, a global Top 50 university in a leafy but densely populated and affluent district a short distance from the medieval Old Town. As a visitor from Australia (where geographical distances are comparatively huge and population densities low), I was struck by the effectiveness of Zurich’s compact city form, as well as the extant layers of historical detail in its built environment. Trams arrived every minute (with real-time information on digital screens at each tram stop) and connected ETH with all quarters of the city. Rates of walking and bicycle use are very high and there are many old public squares and cobbled pedestrian-only streets – remnants of a pre-mass transit age that gift the city gorgeous streetscapes and a lively public sphere.

A tram departing from the university, ETH Zurich.

The Zurich case also appears to reinforce the perception that climate responses are most creative at the city-region scale. Zurich’s citizens voted in a 2008 public referendum to introduce into law the concept of the 2,000-Watt Society – an environmental governance edict based on equality principles that provides a quantifiable and fixed deadline of reducing emissions to one tonne of CO2 per person per annum by 2050. In a pertinent case of how to link universities and city-region responses to climate change, the initiative stemmed originally from ETH before translation into urban governance. Zurich’s city executive is now compelled to support this goal across the full spectrum of service and infrastructure provision, even if it means higher costs. One consequence is that now Switzerland is seen as a global leader in passive building design for energy efficiency.

Of course, it is much more possible to set such contemporary carbon-reduction goals with a conducive underlying urban fabric and comparatively efficient governance structures. Both are key historical inheritances.

In Australia, by contrast, the clunky structure of federal and state government – a legacy from Federation in 1901 – constructs significant barriers to acting on a city or regional scale in the manner of Zurich. Other than Brisbane no other large capital city has a single governing entity. Meanwhile non-state capital cities and regions must grapple with metropolitan powerhouses for equitable distribution of central resources.

In our own regional context, the Illawarra, built inheritances are starkly different from European cities. The sequential eras of sail, tram, rail and cars have all patterned the landscape. There is huge potential for serious investments in cycle infrastructure, building on our already blossoming bike culture. But the underlying urban fabric is likely to remain extensive, car dependent and low density. Put simply, advantages of compactness cannot be realised without more radical demolitions and displacements. (Moreover, coastal regions like the Illawarra will likely be forced to contemplate different sorts of demolitions and displacements, driven by modelling on the scale and intensity of flood and storm related damage.)

Where the compact cities discourse has appeared in regional planning practice, it has emulated a European urban utopia – but has had to superimpose it upon a largely suburban, decentralised footprint. I would argue that the result is confusion between, on the one hand, new high-density apartment living and in-fill development (premised on the idea of reducing car dependency – though that hypothesis very much remains to be tested), and on the other, new extensive suburbs on greenfield sites with high car dependencies, decreased lot size and increased floorspace. Neither option works.

Might we need to revisit, and learn from, the past? In a couple of weeks I will be taking urban heritage students on my annual walking field trips around Wollongong, discussing past paradigms of planning and home design, and how the urban built fabric embodies attitudes of the time regarding our relationships with nature. Suburban areas inherited from both the garden city and post-war boom eras retain substantive spaces for gardens, compost heaps, line-drying of clothes and other vernacular sustainability practices. As colleagues Sumita Ghosh and Lesley Head have demonstrated through GIS modelling, the archetypal traditional suburban Australian garden is, somewhat counter-intuitively, ‘more capable of supporting environmental and ecological functions through better connectivity of green spaces and availability of onsite land areas for local food production’.

Federation house, c1900-1910, north Wollongong. This regional variant on the garden-city era home used wood rather than brick, on much larger blocks than which characterised the previous Victorian era – with the intention of encouraging gardening, clean air and self-sufficiency in home food production.

And yet, at the Zurich sustainability conference this disjuncture between the Australian and central European experiences was a point of contention in my own presentation. I presented results from our household sustainability project at the conference, and among the results shared was a summary of our findings on who does the work of sustainability in households (drawing on our 2009 quantitative survey data). That summary is, in simplistic terms, that more of the work of acting on pro-environmental practices is undertaken by households led by women, by low-income households, and/or by households living in detached dwellings within traditional low population density suburbs. This latter finding echoes Lesley and Sumita’s earlier GIS analysis. Yet it was only this latter finding regarding detached houses that sparked debate at the Zurich conference, being as it was a challenge to the orthodoxy of European-style compact city thinking. One participant at the conference in particular (who quizzed me at length afterwards) appeared to be stunned by the conclusion that anything other than a compact city form could be beneficial from a sustainability perspective.

Clearly then, what we are talking about are different kinds of compact cities and regions, on different continents, where morphological, infrastructural and cultural inheritances vary considerably. I learnt a great deal from visiting Zurich, but was also reminded that some regions will have to work much harder to catalyse transformation, with fewer resources, and with a mix of lingering inheritances and impediments that may be deeply paradoxical.

You can follow Professor Chris Gibson on Twitter @profcgibson. Chris’ first post in this series was Climate change and regions. Find out more about Professor Chris Gibson.

One thought on “Back to the future: climate change and regional inheritances

  1. Pingback: Transition, adaptation, metamorphosis: framing climate change and regional response | Conversations with AUSCCER

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