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Green Urbanism Down Under
Learning from Sustainable Communities in Australia
By Timothy Beatley, Peter Newman
ISLAND PRESS Copyright © 2009 Island Press
All rights reserved.
A Different Land, Similar Challenges
My first real appreciation of the value of living, working, and researching in another country came in 1996–97 when I lived in the Netherlands. It was a tremendously productive time learning about and understanding in great detail the innovative green and sustainability practices there. That experience resulted in a book called Green Urbanism, which documents the urban ecology and green urban planning work in thirty European cities. Yet, the more essential outcome of my time there was an understanding of the possibilities of a profoundly more sustainable existence, one without dependence on a car, where one's own foot power means gleeful independence and a healthier life. I also learned what a sustainable home could look and feel and sound like.
As unlikely as it seems, Green Urbanism Down Under in many ways builds directly on my time in the Netherlands, and while the lessons are not the same, they are of the same kind. Australia is a nation confronting many serious sustainability and environmental pressures and challenges, but like the European cities I explored, there are many positive stories of hope, of innovative practice, and of concerted positive and passionate work toward sustainability.
Also like my European experience, I've learned more from my time living in a different country than I have from researching the technical details and bureaucratic vagaries of programs and policies. I return to my home country with lots of good ideas, with creative new ways of addressing problems, of building communities, of looking at people and places—many things that I would not otherwise have imagined or seen as possible.
The history and development of Australia and the United States have much in common that makes Australia's parallel sustainable lessons and partial urban and landscape solutions relevant in the United States. Australia is also a large country, though with a much smaller population (Australia has about 21 million residents versus more than 300 million in the United States). Common roots in the legal system and social and cultural legacies of Great Britain also suggest parallels, and an arrival in a new world with a similarly exploitative ethic makes the two countries quite alike in some not so commendable ways.
Many of these historical parallels apply equally today. Ironically, both nations have until recently been governed at the national level by conservative governments that have been antagonistic to international environmental accords and agreements—for example, the United States and Australia were for a long period the only two industrialized nations that chose not to sign the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty. (In 2007, when the new prime minister took office in Australia, one of the first things he did was sign the Kyoto Treaty—encouraged considerably by Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth and by the growing political importance of and popular concern about global warming.)
Both countries remain highly resource consumptive and have similar types of population and development pressures. Whereas the ecological footprint of an average Australian is smaller than that of an American (a bit less than 8 hectares per person compared with about 10 hectares for an American), both countries qualify as mega resource consumers, holding the dubious distinction of second and fourth place, respectively, among the footprints of nations. Although the cars and homes may not be quite as large in Australia, and the energy consumption not as great, excessive patterns of consumption found in the industrialized world are present in both nations. Both nations are heavy consumers with huge per capita footprints (with the Australian mark on the world much lower, of course, because of its relative small aggregate population size). When it comes to global warming, the story is quite similar. Australia's per capita greenhouse gas emissions are immense, just slightly behind those of the United States and second among larger industrialized nations (World Bank, 2007).
Australia, like the United States, is highly urbanized, leading again to useful policy and planning parallels. In fact, an even higher percentage of Australian residents live in cities—nearly 90 percent (compared with about 81 percent in the United States) (United Nations, 2007). This is perhaps not surprising given the hostility of the inland landscapes and rural climate and environment in Australia as well as the country's settling occurring in a more urban period of history. Also like the United States, Australia's population is heavily oriented toward and clustered around the coast (figure 1.1).
The basic governmental structure in place in Australia will look very familiar to Americans. Australia is a constitutional democracy, with a parliamentary governance structure. Debate still rages about replacing the queen as the symbolic head of the nation, but the governmental contours are understandable to Americans: six states and two territories, with many local government authorities (councils and shires) within and beneath them. States are unusually large compared to those of the United States, which helps explain the government's success promoting regional-or metropolitan-scale planning. Nevertheless, the importance of state governments in both nations suggests that much can be learned that would apply in the United States. The impressive efforts at promoting sustainability at the state level in Australia, in particular, have promise for application in American states.
So there are many positive and creative efforts at managing resources, guiding urban growth, and stimulating innovative thinking and action to reduce ecological impact that Australian cities offer to us in the United States. We need not make huge cultural, economic, or political leaps to imagine their application. All of the ideas described in this book are feasible and possible in the United States.
At the same time, of course, certain unique conditions and qualities of Australia, beginning with its special natural environment, make the environmental policy, planning, and sustainability responses different. Australia is an ancient land mass where aboriginal culture has continuously existed for thirty thousand years. Although Australia has a large land mass, and a relatively small population (again, only about 21 million), it faces extreme environmental problems and challenges.
It is the driest continent, with much of its interior a dry desert (though high in biodiversity) and relatively inhospitable for human habitation. Some 80 percent of its population lives in zones that receive less than 600 millimeters of rain per year, mostly along its coastlines. Water, then, has been from the beginning a special concern and limiting factor, and as urban populations have become more water consumptive and faced with a period of long-term drought, the issue has risen to special importance in places like Western Australia, New South Wales (NSW), and Queensland in recent years. Many parts of the United States face drought and water shortages in the future, and Australia has much to tell us about what to expect here.
Australia's energy circumstance is similar to that of the United States, with a heavy dependence on fossil fuels. And while there are exemplary projects and impressive steps in the direction of renewable energy, there seems little possibility that fossil fuel dependence will be broken anytime soon. On a per capita basis, Australia's greenhouse gas emissions are high, mostly due to its heavy emphasis on energy-consuming mining and mineral processing. Australian homes use about a third of the energy of U.S. homes and about half as much for household transport. Many good stories exist about how Australian cities have begun to change in their energy consumption; however, as nations and as a people, we are in a similar place—perhaps accurately described as a kind of denial—about the declining supply of oil, the perils of climate change, and the need to move quickly toward a sustainable postcarbon future.
Both nations have immense resources and capabilities to move away from fossil fuels. In Australia, it is estimated that fifteen thousand times the energy the country needs falls from the sun each year—an absolutely tremendous resource that is barely being tapped. In this sense, the two countries' circumstances are remarkably similar.
Australia's spectacular biological diversity, which many people think of first when picturing Australia, has been hard-hit, especially since settlement by Europeans. It is one of the world's so-called mega-diverse nations. About one third of the world's mammals that have become extinct in recent history have been in Australia. A combination of massive vegetation and land clearance, overgrazing, increased salinity, and the introduction of nonnative species has threatened this immense patrimony. The latest chapter in this story is the cane toad, an invasive species that is moving gradually across the country, threatening both ecosystem and biota.
Recent research by a group including the Queensland Herbarium, the NSW Royal Botanic Gardens, and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service on land-clearing rates in Australia paints a discouraging picture of land use trends. These studies indicate that Australia has the fifth highest land clearance rate, almost seven hundred thousand hectares per year, falling behind only Brazil, Indonesia, Sudan, and Zambia. This is changing in some positive and impressive ways, though, with inspiration for the American scene. Land clearance has been abruptly stopped in Queensland (as of January 1, 2007, it became illegal to clear any bush), and Australia now plants more trees than it clears, which is why the country is able to comply with Kyoto goals. Bush regeneration in cities and some large-scale landscape rehabilitation projects are now rapidly increasing and are considered in detail in this book.
The march of dryland salinity is astounding in its magnitude. Already some 5.7 million hectares have been affected, and estimates put the land area affected by the year 2050 at more than 17 million hectares, including 360 towns. Much of this problem results from the economic bind that farmers are experiencing. Heavy debt prompts farming for short-term return, without the luxury of thinking about longer-term landscape health. Reducing the portion of one's farm devoted to income-generating commodity production is difficult in the absence of some equivalent income source. (I discuss this issue in more detail in chapter 3.)
And so, like the United States, Australia is a land of contrasts—landscapes and ecosystems of immense beauty and productivity but under substantial stress and pressure (figure 1.2). It is a nation where, as in the United States, most people live in cities, and these cities overall have the same problems and face similar challenges: urban sprawl, car dependence, energy consumption, and air and water pollution. Yet, many creative and hopeful responses to these problems have emerged: creative efforts at conserving and protecting the country's landscapes and unique environments, and new and exemplary efforts at moving cities and urban populations in the direction of sustainability. Given the inherent similarities and extensive parallels between Australia and the United States, the potential to pro-ductively learn and apply many Australian models and examples is great indeed.
Recent national elections in Australia offer lessons and portend much about future political and policy shifts in the United States. The victorious Labor Party candidate Kevin Rudd is ushering in a far greener administration, providing a positive example for the United States. The 2007 federal election was fought largely over climate change as the previous prime minister, John Howard, stood out with George Bush in opposing the Kyoto Treaty. The first thing Prime Minister Rudd did after taking office was to sign the Kyoto Agreement and pledge to help develop the next global agreement—garnering in response a standing ovation at the United Nations (UN) Bali climate conference, which was occurring at the same time. Al Gore, in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, mentioned the Australian experience and, in particular, the grassroots adoption of climate change issues that became so critical to the 2007 election. Some of the stories in this book demonstrate how this understanding has built on other environmental projects and causes.
Even the election process itself offers useful instruction. In Australia, voting is mandatory, and as a result the 2007 elections saw an astounding (in comparison to the United States) 95 percent voter turnout. Holding elections on a Saturday and significantly reducing the length (and expense) of such elections (they lasted only six weeks!) are other examples worth appreciating and perhaps emulating. As Aussie journalist John Barron observes: "Because everyone has to vote, there is no need to spend a billion dollars to inflame passions and divide the electorate just so people will pick a side and care enough to fill in a ballot come November" (Barron, 2007, p. B01).
Certainly the United States is also a source of many very good ideas and exemplary efforts and initiatives. There is undoubtedly much that Australia could (and does) learn from the United States in return. But there are many local-level lessons to be learned from Australia that rarely make it across the ocean. This book is about Australia's state of practice in sustainability, its trends and challenges, and its many positive stories and lessons. The audience is primarily American planners, citizens, and elected officials looking for practical guidance and tested methods for moving their communities and states in a more sustainable direction as well as the inspiration and hope that such photos, stories, and profiles of good practice can provide.
Much of what follows is an effort at storytelling, an attempt to relate some of these best or better practices and special sustainability programs and initiatives. It derives from six months of living and traveling in Australia and numerous interviews and site visits. I make no claim that what I have done here is comprehensive or exhaustive. It is not based on comprehensive surveys of practice or on systematic analysis of aggregate data relating to the performance of Australian cities and states (though broader data and evidence have been enlisted where available). Instead, it emphasizes unique and special approaches to urban sustainability and landscape conservation and creative, compelling ideas and programs. Along the way, I attempt to place these stories and ideas in broader contexts (reviewing urban trends and sustainability patterns within and outside Australia), but the strength of what follows is the particular people and organizations and the innovative ways they envision a more sustainable and hopeful world.
Following this introductory chapter, the book contains five main, substantive chapters. Chapter 2 begins to tackle sustainability stories and efforts in Australia's cities, providing a detailed overview of the array of green urban tools, techniques, and planning ideas in use in these cities and how effectively they have been applied. This chapter more than the others is based on my interviews and site visits in Australia's five major cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth. It examines a variety of urban sustainability programs and initiatives, including local sustainability plans and reports, green transport, urban greening (such as natural stream restoration), city farms and urban agriculture, solar and renewable energy projects, green building, and lifestyle and green living programs.
Chapter 3 extends this focus by looking at the same issues in the bioregions around the cities. It discusses some innovative efforts at landscape protection and conservation, ranging from an examination of efforts to conserve a magnificent fringing coral reef to new ways of seeing old growth forest to designing koala-friendly housing developments.
Chapter 4 examines innovative efforts at strengthening and nurturing the unique place qualities of Australian cities and towns and describes a host of specific policy areas, including efforts at promoting street life, public art, heritage planning, and initiatives for advancing place knowledge and place-based economic development planning, among others.
Chapter 5 considers closely the natural or bush qualities of Australia's major cities and the extent to which those cities have been able to preserve bushland and promote a sense of concern about and knowledge of the bush among their citizenry. Chapter 6 takes a hard look at innovative efforts at regional and state planning policy—specifically, the efforts to advance sustainability at these governmental levels.
The final chapter of the book, chapter 7, extracts overall impressions and broad observations from all of these Australian initiatives and experiences. It argues that many important insights and lessons derived from the Australian examples can be applied to landscape conservation and sustainable urban planning in the United States.
Following chapter 7 is a thoughtful afterword by Peter Newman calling attention to some of the things I have missed or underemphasized, and reflecting on the full significance of these Australian stories and examples.
Excerpted from Green Urbanism Down Under by Timothy Beatley, Peter Newman. Copyright © 2009 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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