Beck Dawson

Sydney’s chief resilience officer Beck Dawson’s job is to plan for the worst. Here’s how she’s helping Sydneysiders ride out the many chronic stresses and acute shocks the city faces.

Speaking to The Fifth Estate for the How to Build a Better World podcast, Ms Dawson said “it’s been a really crazy few years”.

Back in 2015, when she first took on the role of Sydney’s chief resilience officer, she had to constantly explain what resilience was.

“That ceased after the 2019-2020 bushfires,” she told The Fifth Estate in our podcast, How To Build a Better World.

“I don’t need to explain it anymore,” she said. “Now, people are just asking me ‘how do we do this differently?’”

“And what kind of options have we got to build safer places?”

Dawson’s role basically involves worrying about the potential disasters that might befall Australia’s biggest city, and taking action to help build community resilience in the event the worst happens.

This is a cross-jurisdictional effort, involving 33 local councils in metropolitan Sydney as well as the state government, business and the community, with links to a global resilience network as well. 

So, what’s Sydney up against?

Let’s start with big heat events, which are likely to affect 100 per cent of the Sydney population, and have been identified as high risk events for the city, Beck said. Along with other extreme weather events such as storms and flooding.

And that’s before we mention things like digital network failures or terror attacks, and, of course, pandemics.

The fight against heat

Beck has been involved in some interesting work to build resilience to heat, including a project examining heat-busting building materials, such as surfaces that reflect rather than absorb heat, and how these options could be encouraged via planning regulations.

Dawson’s team has also been involved in the Cool Suburbs project, a collaboration by the Greater Sydney Commission, Resilient Sydney and Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils to create a rating tool that basically helps determine whether developers are “cooking or cooling” people in their planned developments.

“And you can look at it in design and identify all the different things you can change about your development that would really improve its cooling potential.”

A bunch of councils have also got a new program up and running to set up local resilience hubs where people without access to airconditioning can shelter on a hot day.

These are public spaces easily accessible by buses and public transport.

These hubs are meant as alternatives to shopping centres, which although are excellent places to escape hot weather, also encourage spending.

“And so there’s also a need to provide some public spaces that’s available to people who perhaps don’t have the money to buy a seat in the movie theatre,” she said.

Looking forward 

Beck said Sydney’s dependency on liquid fuel was one vulnerability “keeping me awake at night”.

She said 93 per cent of all journeys, as well as most freight, was dependent on fuel arriving on a boat into Port Botany where it is transported across fuel stations all over the city.

The risk of relying on long complicated global oil supply chains has already been exposed this year, with petrol costs skyrocketing over $2 a litre in March.

The other thing she worries about is the response to destructive events such as floods, and having enough building materials and labour to rebuild communities after these events.

She said there were a lot of structural issues to work out when it comes to Australia’s ability to respond to these events. 

For example, there aren’t enough pod houses in the country to house the people who need temporary accommodation in the wake of the flooding in the Northern Rivers.

“I think about that a lot.”

By Rose Petrass from a podcast by Tina Perinotto

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.