Brendan Gleeson

25 March 2011 – Favourites: Brendan Gleeson, former director of the Urban Research Program at Griffith University, is one of the more challenging thinkers on Australia’s urban systems. On the eve of his departure for a three year secondment to the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, in December last year, he addressed an Arup New Agenda workshop at UTS with some provocative observations, stemming from his work and his latest publication Lifeboat Cities.

Key among his challenges is that we will need a urban lifeboats to get us through the coming environmental storm

Following is an edited transcript of his presentation

What I’m going to do is to speak to some of the ideas in that
book Lifeboat Cities. It was originally called Waking From the Dream: To the Next World. “To the next world” comes from an idea or theme from James Lovelock’s last book.  But Lifeboat Cities was actually the title of one chapter in the book.

There is a bigger picture at play in the book. It thinks about the kind of society that we engendered through globalisation and modernisation, particularly during the last 10, 20, 25 years through the era of neo-liberalism, and what have been some of the consequences of that.  So possibly the global financial crisis, and then Rudd pronouncing famously the end of neo-liberalism. I’m not certain about that as a proposition, but certainly it seemedtime to )take stock and think about what we’ve done with society.  At the same time, we were becoming more self-aware as an urban species.

Most human beings now live in some form of urban setting, so we are an urban species. Most people who live in the cities live in a suburban setting.  I had an earlier book called Australian Heartlands in 2006, looking at the suburban experience in Australia and the challenges around that.  The challenges that are going to confront us, but also the ones that are also manifest that are here, like climate change, resource depletion, resource insecurity, are going to be encountered in cities.

One idea – and it’s certainly not mine alone – is that there’s a form of critique that holds cities to be the source of many of our problems. But I think we have to change our thinking and subscribe to the idea that cities are going to be not only the front lines of change, but ultimately the solutions to the challenges.  And could one really sensibly call the climate crisis a challenge ? It really invites much stronger language. I’ll leave that one with you.

My role as an urban academic, and leading a formation of urban academics at the Urban Research Program at Griffith, which I’m shortly leaving although I’ve remained a member of that community, is really about questioning conventional wisdom. So perhaps some of the propositions I might put to you today, distilling some of the ideas and arguments in the book, are thus:

Overproduction not overconsumption
Climate change is a crisis of overproduction rather than straightforwardly a crisis of over consumption.  There’s a large part of the book early on that makes that argument. In fact, in many ways, if you look at the social experience particularly during neo-liberalism, we have at least some areas or departments of our society and economy where we could make the argument that there’s a crisis of under consumption, particularly in the area of human care and natural renewal.

Cities are the solution, not simply the problem. Densification –an ugly term – but the idea of urban density is one of the biggest areas of contest and debate. Also this idea that the suburbs are really the front lines of change.  I think for a progressive community, using that as a small “p”, the new agenda, this collective, I think a really important argument to me is that we really have to take this suburban situation, the suburban set of questions that fall out of that, very seriously. I do think that there have been sections of the progressive social movements, broadly defined, that have wanted to wish suburbs away. And I think that’s a highly problematic idea.

Paula Hamilton once described Australia in a book she wrote many years ago, as “a nation of cities”, which we most definitely are. We are one of the most highly urbanised nations in the world, and also suburbanised. We’ve about 23 million people and about 80 per cent of our people live in a suburban setting, whether in a major metropolitan region or even in one of the sea change regions, they’re living in essentially a suburban fabric. That’s tentatively what we roll out as an urban offering.

What is rather singular about our urban system is the high degree of metropolitan primacy, which means a very small number of cities account for a very large proportion of our population. So we’re not only in cities, we’re stacked into a few cities. We don’t have that sort of meso-level stratum of a million-people-sized cities like they would in the US, another whole urban stratum, if you like.

Most of our cities are experiencing – with the exception perhaps of Adelaide – compulsive growth. Certainly in South-East Queensland that’s the case. We’re experiencing record levels of immigration. Demographers are still struggling to explain a big spike in the range of essentially the birth rate, the rate of natural increase for which we don’t really have a clarifying explanation yet.

Having spoken to demographers about this, there’s different issues at play. But it seems to be prolonged and sustained. So the increase in population has been driven by that long running typical high level of immigration, very high by historical rates. But after a long period of flat-lining and decrease in natural increase, we now have rising levels of natural increase. Which again is another singular feature of our situation, relative to overseas.

Now, the growth challenge, as you know, has been met in a variety of ways in our cities, and I tend to attempt to expound upon that in great detail, and we can work that out in discussion. But certainly urban consolidation, urban compaction, densification –they’re all unlovely terms – has been one response to this compulsive growth in our metropolitan and overseas populations.

Most immigrants want to move straight into our cities. And that densification, which I think we really have to think about carefully, because it’s almost metaphorical; it raises all sorts of different – issues – and linked in ways we don’t always comprehend – about the general intensification of life in Australia and the changes to the possibilities and forms of life in Australia.

But materially it takes two forms: more high density dwellings in redeveloped areas; but also the almost universal growth now of smaller housing at the greenfield and the fringe.. Often large houses on small blocks. The South-East Queensland Regional Plan has been one response to these growth pressures.

Turnaround It’s probably fair to say that Queensland wasn’t a place where directive metropolitan planning has much of a history, but certainly there’s a big turnaround both in public opinion and in the resolve, if you like, of the state government to do something about that and put in place a real blueprint, a quite directive metropolitan plan for the South-East Queensland region.

We’ve just published a book A Climate For Growth (that urban scholars in Queensland)  , with a set of essays from people reflecting about the different dimensions and paradoxes of the growth challenge in South-East Queensland. Peter Spearritt has a fascinating chapter that talks about the duplicity we often see in official public policy. So on the one hand we had the Beatty and then the Bligh Governments with their strong and avowed commitment to climate change, sustainability, and certainly materially moving on some of those things – the Wild Rivers legislation and a range of other things in the climate area.

But he starts with the motif – and I don’t know if you flew into Brisbane over the last few years before they in shame took down their signs …“The climate’s great for growth”, .  [The sign had these humanoid large cranes walking across the outback horizon. So at some point, someone tapped the government on the shoulder and said, “You’re sure about that?” And these things were removed. But it’s a sort of metaphor for the challenges, paradoxes often, in our position.

Mean urban developments
Tony Hall is an adjunct Professor from the UK who joined us  few years ago as an adjunct professor in the centre. He has just released what I think is a really important book, looking at the experience of densification in Australia, particularly smaller housing on the fringe, The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard. From his planner/urban designer perspective – he was also a local councillor in the UK – he raises all sorts of critical questions about what we’re getting out of this big shift. He’s basically saying we’re getting, in his view, a much meaner form of urban development without any particular environmental gains, and big social problems in these areas.

It is fair to say that a lot of high density housing, this kind of stuff put up in the late ‘90s in the inner west in Sydney, has proved to be quite problematical, not much loved and embraced except often by the desperate. It is very poorly designed in terms of the needs of families and children and the people that care for children

Despite the misty-eyed stuff about urban villages and social networking and inclusion and diversity, the reality of compaction has often been quite different. And that’s been an enduring theme in our work. Now it doesn’t place me as an opponent of consolidation, but certainly myself and other urban colleagues have been raising some critical arguments and evidence about how that’s actually turned out.
Overproducing housing – at least in size

So at the same time that we’re having this approach to housing, we’re also building the biggest homes in the world on some of the smallest lots that they can be put into. So by one view of this, by one assessment, we’re overproducing housing, at least for those that can access it.

At the same time, there’s a duality in that we have a rising and to some extent hardening stratum of our population that cannot access housing. There are people in absolute housing poverty, and homelessness, and that has grown. But we also have other social dislocations, a very difficult prospect for first home owner/buyers – declining affordability.

I’ve just stepped down from the board of the Queensland equivalent of Landcom, Urban Land Development Authority, which the Queensland Government set up a couple of years ago to actually deal with housing affordability problems. We’ve had a very polarised debate– the development industry just want to let it rip and release more land, making what I think are ultimately fallacious arguments about the influence of land supply and housing accessibility and prices. On the other hand we have the people who are ferocious compactioners. So we’ve ended up with a quite polarised urban debate.

At the same time, communities are seeing change around. In the street next to my house in Brisbane, there’s a post-war, mostly returned soldiers’ housing, war service housing, detached dwellings, fibro on blocks. At the moment (the block split)  redevelopers are going through and removing houses from blocks. Basically, they’ll split that block and put two massive houses on that. And there’s a palpable sense of dismay in the neighbourhood. It’s a community that’s ageing in this place, witnessing this change. And attached to that a rising level of anxiety which is starting to come up in our social assessments about the intensification and increasing complexity of urban life for many people.

The toll does not work for all
We’ve moved to cashless, free-flow tolling on Queensland motorways. We’ve just had the first data reporting how that’s gone in terms of patronage and usage. And it’s some incredible figure. I think it’s like 25 per cent of people just aren’t managing to pay tolls, and they don’t know how to pay tolls. Is the government really going to pursue all these people? There’s evidence that old people have stopped driving in certain parts of Brisbane because they just can’t deal with the complexity of this.So a general sense of intensification and increasing complexity of urban life, but it’s a tale of winners and losers, not just losers. Those people who are very adept and adaptive at living in this kind of environment can exploit all the new possibilities that have come through that.

Balance? What balance?
I think we’re going to continue to see this kind of consensus around a compact city ideal which guides most of our metropolitan planning. This really means a balanced – and I normally reach for my gun when I hear the word “balance” – but an idea of balance that will attempt to accommodate a slowly rising proportion of new urban development with the existing metropolitan fabric while still allowing the greenfield land supply tack to continue at least for a time. I don’t think there’s going to be any great upset or challenge to that. I don’t think, in terms of my discussions with the national government, they really know what to do about this situation.

Our debates – we’ve got two; a sort of parallel universe issue. On the one hand we have a high degree of policy consensus around this compact city ideal, which has really guided metropolitan planning in Australia right back to Amendment 150 to the 1986, I think, in Melbourne, which changed the Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme, and adopted that principle of consolidation with balance by further guided planned greenfield development. So we’ve actually had that policy setting for a long time.
My colleague, Clive Forster, University of South Australia or Flinders talks about this parallel universe problem, that we have this strong degree – and it’s holding quite fast – of policy consensus around this compact city ideal, and the idea that these cities will all evolve to be nice, neat, multi-nucleated polycentric well-managed and planned urban regions.

But there’s still a lot of unmanaged dispersion going on in our cities, particularly in non-residential development. They’re becoming much more decentralised and complex rather than a planned way. But, you know, we’ve got two universes: the reality of metropolitan evolution and development and this continuing policy consensus.

A  paper that a couple of colleagues and myself  including (Marcus Spiller, a consultant with SGS Economics and Planning)  did [last year] examining the issue of metropolitan governance in Australia is on our website and can be downloaded for free.

The paper calls for a rethink of metropolitan governance in our cities and points to  a governance deficit, a democratic deficit in our cities.

Planning in climate change, not for climate change
My colleague Wendy Steele who co-edited, A Climate For Growth with me talks about planning in climate change, rather than planning for climate change, and I think that’s a very helpful shift in terms of the rubric of thinking about where we are in terms of the urban professions and climate change. But certainly we have a very exposed national urban system in terms of climate change.

We have in Queensland for example, depopulation of the interior and the growth spike is in coastal areas, but particularly adjacent to the coast. There has not been a lot of thinking about issues of sea level rise and storm surges, except in good old Byron [Bay]. [Note: this presentation was prior to the Queensland floods] The Black Friday fires which got to the edge of Melbourne, , our second largest metropolitan region were a pretty frightening manifestation of what climate change might look like, whether it’s directly attributable to climate shift –  I’ve certainly spoken to people in the CSIRO who think it is – or whether it’s simply a postcard from the future., I don’t know, but it’s certainly something you’d think would focus our mind.

But at the same time, another parallel universe problem. We’ve had all this banging of cymbals and gongs about the infrastructure deficit. There is a big infrastructure spend going on in Queensland, not without its problems, but it’s a parallel universe. There’s absolutely no thought going on. No-one’s even bothered to try and do the sums on the $20 billion  – well, last time we checked; it’s probably going to be closer to $30 billion –  for the TransApex scheme of tunnels and road bridges and the like in Brisbane.
And there’s a $60 billion dollar South-East Queensland infrastructure plan which proposes all sorts of infrastructure, some of which I’d welcome, but there really isn’t much attachment to all this ambition of our conversations about climate change and climate risk.

Overproduction from a system hardwired for growth
What about climate change? How are we going to think about that? The book makes the argument that climate crisis is not straightforwardly a crisis of over-consumption, but a crisis of overproduction, from a market system that’s hardwired for growth and which  is largely material growth. Even the things that we think are the non-material elements of the economy – the contemporary economy –ultimately have material manifestations and implications. We’re coming at it from the wrong end of the spectrum to see it, in the first instance, as a crisis of overconsumption.

If you read the book and you don’t find that argument persuasive, at least think about how far all our politics and advocacy and work around consumption have got us, which is nowhere. It’s proving to be a very unfelicitous course, in terms of trying to turn around this thing that is about to go over a precipice.

I do think we have to go back to the fundamental political economy of the system and think about the fact that we have a self-valorising constantly expanding  economic system that’s hardwired for growth. It doesn’t seek a steady state or other forms of optimisation which sees a plateauing of resource use.
We’ve seen in the global financial crisis what happens when consumption does decline, despite all our thinking and talk of rhetoric and action and advocacy around the need to rein in and restrain consumption.

In fact, reining in and restraining consumption at the levels demanded by climate science is simply not feasible in our political economy. I think we’re going in the wrong direction.  And there’s work –and I know people in Arup have done great work in this area too – on ecological modernisation, the idea that we can decouple growth in material use and energy use from economic growth.

But sadly, I think the premise is problematic, and all the evidence that we now have is that that’s not happening. I noticed in the Arup library today this little report featured on the new bookstands.  Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson, who’s an economics commissioner in the UK. You can download that report free off the web. He really shows that everything’s going in the wrong direction, that material use in many critical and sensitive and often quite damaging departments of the global economy are rising even faster than GDP.

If the premises are that global is a crisis of overproduction rather than in the first instance a crisis of overconsumption, and that the speed of global heating, as James Lovelock calls it, means that straightforward technical or iconocratic market instruments and the like can’t head off the crisis in time we’ve stillgot argy-bargy going on in almost every polity around the world about the prospects for emissions trading schemes and the like.

We sometimes talk about Europe, but go to Europe and they say it’s all a disaster there.
Theevidence coming from climate science and influential observers like James Hansen of NASA  is that we have about five or six years to  go to make radical emissions cuts to head off a kind of tipping point –  a term that’s overused and abused.

Delusional ambitions
But if you take that what’s planning going to do? Well, we’ve got a big problem. I think the horizon of ambition has been truly delusional because it hasn’t thought through – we haven’t thought through as a community – the causality of the climate crisis, the energy problem, and the growing crisis in our resource base. So if you take my idea that it’s a crisis of overproduction, you know, we’ve got a big problem with planning, because it’s trying to influence consumption and change in the built environment, the built stock. But this  is fixed capital so this happens very, very slowly. In a good year, in a typical Australian metropolitan area, only about 3 per cent of the built stock turns over.

In planning,  though, if you look to all the metropolitan strategies, Melbourne 2030, the SEQ plan, Sydney’s strategy this week whatever it is, the new Adelaide strategy, they’re talking about a 25 to 30 year period to achieve  fairly modest changes, very worthy changes but very modest structural changes to the structure and form of metropolitan regions over those periods.

So we’ve got a big problem there in terms of the climate crisis breaking upon us as well. Planning doesn’t have instruments, (a) to affect built environment change fast enough, but (b) even if it did, it’s probably not attacking the problem where it needs to be attacked, the root and branch at the problem of our crisis of overproduction, which is really a political-economic problem.

Through densification and manipulation of not so much the structure but the form of the urban fabric we’re hoping to change, for example, household energy consumption. But the ACF work put the lie to some of that ambition, and most of you’d be aware of the Consuming Australia report, a globally significant report.

If you look at the average Australian household energy profile, only about 30 per cent of it is direct energy, energy you’re putting inthe petrol in tanks, the electricity from your sockets. The other 70 per cent is embodied in the goods and services that the household uses, over which planning has almost no influence.
In terms of where it does influence the energy budget, the evidence around its influence on direct energy consumption is contested.

Some high density is high energy
My conclusion is that it’s highly context-dependent. We know that we can build high-density environments. But they’re actually very bad in terms of their energy consumption per capita.The total household energy consumption was highest in the denser inner city areas. When this was announced, all sorts of knuckleheads and reactionaries galloped into the field claiming victory for the development sector, totally misrepresenting what this is about.

Some of you may be aware of our friend Wendell Cox. We’ve had big arguments with Wendell. We’ve got a paper on our centre website which demolishes his arguments around density, his pro-low density stuff.

It’s a highly nuanced issue
But the problem is with the highly nuanced and context-dependent argument, it tends to get lost in the heat and the polarised nature of the debate. But we do know, on the basis of post-occupancy analysis of the built environment, this big study done in Sydney a number of years ago, that we are building some very energy intensive high-rise stuff, hugely problematic. And some of this stuff is what’s been championed as sustainable and the solution to sustainability needs in the energy area.

What are we going to do? My pragmatic, I guess, position is that we have most Australians living in a suburban setting, in the suburban fabric.

Suburbs are the front line
We are planning in climate change; it’s manifest, it’s happening. The suburbs are going to be the front lines of that challenge.

We have to do something urgently now about the adaptation task and retrofitting, using that awful term, suburbia, to make it much more resilient and adaptive.

I believe that the main mitigation task is going to occur elsewhere, and I don’t think humanity is going to attempt that seriously until something horrible happens.

At the moment, where there’s a burning need for the urban professions, and where we can be most efficacious and have most influence for good, is in this task of preparing our suburban regions for the stresses and challenges that lie ahead with climate change and resource depletion, and also some of the injuries to the social fabric that have been inflicted over the last decades.

A steamroller is not the answer
I’m completely opposed to some of these visions, these Le Corbusier visions of steamrolling suburbia, high-energy intensive ideas of retrofitting. I think we have to think critically about that. Luckily for us here in Australia, we have David Holmgren and his permaculture work.

He’s been doing some very interesting work and thinking about practically how to retrofit the existing suburban fabric that we have, in quest of adaptation and resilience. He lays out I think a very convincing argument – it’s not a catastrophist argument – about a progressive energy dissent, and the needs for us to adapt to that new human scenario.

Some of you may be aware of the work that’s gone on in my centre from Dodson and Sipe, looking at suburban vulnerability, using their wonderfully named VIPER and VAMPIRE indexes [and maps],. really powerful heuristic interpretive device for understanding vulnerability to energy shocks and the like at the household scale.

It includes the price of money, interest rates, the price of petrol, and one of the indexes also has a social component to it.

The coming environmental storm is locked in
The middle portion of my book says we’re in for the storm. The climate change that’s locked in, that’s coming down the pipeline, that alone is going to make our scenario very unstable.

But I think we’re in for worse, because I don’t see any signs of us arresting our exponentially growing CO2 emissions globally any way in time. So I think the science is telling us that the scenario is looking increasingly bleak around climate change. So we have to reconceive our urban systems as lifeboats to take us through that.

And perhaps that connects to that idea of more democratically accountable but stronger and more effective metropolitan governance to help take us through what I think are going to be difficult times.
And we’re going to have to experience and have to practise resource rationing. I don’t think there’ll be any other way to do this. The last part of the book talks about what society we might found out of this, and I make the proposition that we should put much more effort and investment into the economy and the practice of care, human and natural care.

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