People kept waiting for the rubbish collection after the Christchurch earthquake – but there were no useable roads

By Lynne Blundell

21 March 2012 ­– Communities must build resilience to natural disasters and can no longer expect governments to step in and save them. This was the standout message in a session on climate change adaptation and resilience at Green Cities this year.

Mara Bun, chief executive officer of Green Cross Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that empowerspeople to respond to environmental change, said we are now living in a time when communities need to step up and governments to step back.

“Communities have to learn resilience – the ability to bounce back from major events. Climate change and the effects of extreme weather events are tilting on its head what we expect governments to be,” Bun said.

We also need to be looking at new ways of rebuilding community infrastructure after extreme events.

“We have to wake up to recurrent patterns in weather. here is a need for more haste, less speed. Governments shouldn’t be rebuilding some infrastructure at all and by rushing in we are missing the opportunity to use new technologies and methods for building infrastructure,” said Bun.

David Singleton, chairman of the Australian Green Infrastructure Council, which has recently released a new tool for assessing green infrastructure, agreed. He pointed out that the public is confused by the sell-off of public infrastructure in recent decades, combined with the damaging effects of climate change.

“In the last 20 years infrastructure and utility services have been sold off to private industry because of costs and efficiency and the community has been left not knowing how to look after itself,” Singleton said.

Left to right: Mara Bun, Green Cross; Adam Davies, Manidis Roberts; David Singleton, Australian Green Infrastructure Council

The way the community in Christchurch, New Zealand responded after the earthquake highlighted this. People were still waiting for their rubbish to be collected some time after the earthquake even though infrastructure such as roads had been destroyed. “In the old days they would have put it in their utes or boots of their cars and taken it to the tip. We have to get to the point where communities understand that we are all in this together, ” Singleton said.

Uncertainty is a key issue, as infrastructure planners and designers can no longer be sure what intensity and frequency of weather to design for.

“We need a conversation with the community about what standard to build to. We now have to design for failure rather than to resist weather events. It is important that we spend some money on community engagement,” Singleton said.

Community engagement, particularly through the use of social media, is an area where Green Cross is very active, having recently received a grant to develop a natural disaster resilience portal on its website, Bun said.

The portal is part of the Harden Up  Protecting Queensland project, a multi-stakeholder partnership which aims–to encourage Queenslanders to assess their vulnerability to key natural disaster hazards and to take practical action to become more self-reliant. Users of the portal can access Australia’s latest climate data and projections to help plan for major weather events,

The initiative is funded by the Natural Disaster Resilience Program through Emergency Management Australia and the Queensland Department of Community Safety. Green Cross partners include the Local Government Association of Queensland, Insurance Council, Residential Tenancies Authority, State Library of Queensland, Suncorp Insurance, CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, James Cook University, Channel 10, the Federal Department of Climate Change, the Property Council of Australia and Volunteering Queensland.

Alex Harrington, Warren Centre

The program will work in with the Green Star communities tool.

“We are working to help people become more self-reliant,” said Bun. “In a recent workshop session in inner city Melbourne we found that people who had recently moved into Docklands had no idea how to cope with major events – they had no strategies at all – whereas long-term residents, inner city residents were very resilient,” Bun said

The Insurance Council of Australia was  also building a tool in conjunction with Edge environment to encourage the development of resilient buildings. Eventually the plan was  to offer a reduced insurance premium to those who took  practical steps to make their buildings more resilient to weather, she said.The new green infrastructure tool from AGIC will also allow the property industry to measure the ability of infrastructure to cope with climate change. This would allow investors to choose more resilient assets for portfolios and also feed into the insurance industry tool, David Singleton said.

“The insurance industry is very active and sophisticated in this area. There is a lot of money tied up in infrastructure,” he said.

Adam Davies, environment practice leader at Manidis Roberts, said there were many ways of making buildings, infrastructure and communities more resilient to climate change and extreme events. Factors to consider included:


  • Design
  • Materials
  • Maintenance

“But I think one of the most important things we need to think about is the stakeholders we put into particular areas. Older and vulnerable people, for example, are particularly at risk in places where extreme weather events are common,” Davies said.

“There also should be more co-ordination between those in the property industry who are planning and developing more resilient communities and the utilities sector. “No matter how well the property industry builds resilience into communities it will all fail if utilities are not doing the same,” he said.