arch-peace editorials: Victoria’s Bushfires: time to reflect new urban strategies

Although it is believed that some of the bushfires that affected the State of Victoria may be the work of arsonists, this was a natural disaster in the sense that it was triggered by an dreadful combination of climatic conditions such as a very dry season, thick and dry native forest in country Victoria and around Melbourne’s periphery, strong winds and an unprecedented heat of up to 48C.

As these harsh climate conditions with its disastrous consequences become more frequent, Australian authorities and politicians are now quick to name climate change as a contributing factor.[1] In view of a future increasingly exposed to a harsher climate, calls for the review of emergency laws, the upgrading of fire evacuation plans and building regulations are been considered. However, are these expedient responses dealing with the complex issue of suburban and outer suburban living?

While a handful of scientists show caution in declaring that this disaster is due to climate change, others assert that:

There does seem to be a human element to bushfire risk. In terms of human contribution it is clear that most of the global warming since about 1950 is likely due to increases in greenhouse gases. Higher temperatures clearly increase the risk of bushfires.[2]

Reconstructing the same, “brick by brick”

Australia has abundant land and for the 200 years of colonisation settlers have had no need to compromise—not on the size of their houses and land, nor in terms of privacy, material costs or the cost of services such as transport and schools. This uncompromising attitude is part of an entrenched cultural trend that defines our suburbs, outer suburbs and suburbs within rural habitats, with its remarkable nature corridors and bush. While these conditions offer some fine aspects which define the Australian way of life, it also precludes other modes of living, particularly those associated to sharing resources, social equity, accessibility, urban vitality and the chances of achieving environmental sustainability.[3] One example of this is car dependency with all its detrimental effects. Larger pieces of land in the outer suburbs or “suburbs in the bush” are more affordable. As George Megalogenis notes, the population in the worst affected areas lived in an extension of “Mortgageville: communities with more children, and parents with less education, than the national average”.[4] This is an urban periphery foreign to the city skyline, forgotten by the urban professions and their educational institutions. For instance, how often do architectural design studios focus their explorations on the needs of these populations?

Responses as to what should be done to rebuild the destroyed houses and townships vary. While it is perhaps too soon to reflect on how and why this disaster took on such devastating force, reflection is needed. Comments focusing on at least two different dimensions of the problem emerge. Overall, one centres on the upgrading individual structures through better technology and regulations, while the other points at planning issues by questioning the wisdom of reconstructing in the same manner.

For example, Victorian Premier John Brumby recommends that building codes need revision. Architect Lindsay Johnston discusses fire resistant houses and the construction of underground bunkers in areas prone to bushfires, while also adding that urban sprawl exacerbates the danger for these communities.[5]

Similarly, scientists such as Professor Andy Pitman suggests that fireproof underground shelters and different building regulations for houses near bush areas should be considered, simultaneously questioning the suitability of rebuilding in the affected areas.[6] Dr. Nichols on the other hand warns of the “real chance that some communities may never be rebuilt”, while also noting that “the devastation in Victoria presents a sombre opportunity”.[7]

It is that sombre opportunity that I want to discuss. An opportunity that offers the chance to put in practice what our urban professions, ecologists, educators and members of the general public have been discussing for years. The understanding that devastation brought on by climate change cannot be overcome with yet more technology that reinforces the mindset that generated it. That perhaps it is time to think of collective rather than individual solutions to our predicaments.

Promises such as “Together we will rebuild each of these communities — brick by brick, school by school, community hall by community hall”,[8] may offer some needed consolation to the victims and hope that their lives might one day return to some normality. However, in view of the facts it is pertinent to question what should be reconstructed in the context of Australian culture, ecology, climate change and the long term well-being of those affected today.

A collection of scattered buildings don’t make a town

What we witnessed in the last month were heroic and tragic personal efforts to save the family house. Among those, one case comes to mind, where a group of people in Flowerdale survived thanks to a call for the nearby residents to stay in one building, a pub, while concentrating all efforts on saving that one building: a notion of collective that emerged out of despair.

When you fly across Europe what you will see is a very different urban, suburban and rural morphology to that of Australia. The European landscape is pierced by circles and lines, where the circles are the towns or villages, the communities and the lines the roads or connectors. In Australia, lines connecting sparsely located properties crisscross the earth. Sporadic grouping of buildings such as the post-office, pub, supermarket, sometimes a school and bank, indicate something similar to a centre—but without a centre. In Australia these have been referred by some as “townships”.

What is also peculiar to Australia is that these linear “centres” have very few or no residential buildings whatsoever. While in this morphology a relative sense of community can exist, this is greatly diminished by distance, a resulting car dependency and the placing and function of buildings.

If we superimpose the analogy of the pub in Flowerdale, to a slightly more densely populated town or village, in which people also have their residences, it would not be too far fetched to think that this imaginary inhabited town could be more easily protected than a road with spread out buildings and even more scattered houses placed within large to very large properties. In this late example, not only the efforts of residents but also those of emergency services are broken up and weakened. I cannot but to agree with Nichols when he says:

I'd like to think at the end of the day that governments recognise that keeping a community together may well be worth the many millions of dollars it might cost to bring that about.[9]

The morphology of our cities, suburbs and satellite suburbs within rural land follow a planning trend. Rampant urban sprawl and its detrimental effects are well documented. Whether different planning regulations can assist to prevent tragedies such as the one we just witnessed is worth investigating. But planning the future of suburbs, wherever these are located, cannot continue being the result of rushed decisions by politicians, or a privilege reserved to one set of professionals.

Suggestions that focus on building regulations, or on more technology (whether sustainable or not), are part of micro-solutions. These solutions should not obscure or replace the need for a macro-scale debate and revision. It is at the planning and urban levels where community and expert discussion could take place, where questions about what is possible and wise and how should we shape urban, suburban and suburbs in rural communities can be addressed. This is what I would call the sombre opportunity that can and needs to be grasped. This is a collective and too often discounted approach to solving a problem.

Focusing on an armoured building or more disaster prepared individuals is one step in the same old direction—the individual object (building) and the person who does not compromise. Nor are these answers affordable to the social demography described by Megalogenis. These solutions dismiss what we have just learnt through this experience, that together with the destruction of lives and houses, the ecology, food production, water, power supply, public health and communication are also threatened.

Other, perhaps vital consequences of these bushfires will not be known to us for a long time. This is a complex situation and while we may aspire to find simple solutions we can no longer afford to be simplistic in the process of finding them.

Rethinking how to live in the local environmental context

Perhaps we now have, after we have witnessed and suffered from Black Saturday, the opportunity to think about how we live and question whether our way of building in the bush is suitable to the environment in which we live. Well thought through large-scale strategies offering direction for micro solutions (building design, building code and technology) is an option worth pursuing. This is not a theoretical proposition, it is factual and necessary. The world provides examples that can be used to start the discussion.

For instance, some basic and enduring principles in the design of communities can prove handy. Towns grow from a centre—a civic centre. The civic centre (which is not a building but space) is not only the place where some services congregate. The civic centre is a public space of cultural meaning. Meaning that is endowed by its location within the town, by the diversity of activities surrounding it—from civic to commercial, cultural, residential and recreational. It is a natural centre that cannot be avoided—a civic place towards which people and activities gravitate, where nature is present and under control. It is a safe space for the playground, a gathering after school, for the elderly, the town market and cultural activities. While many of the affected communities in Victoria relied on the sport oval as a place of congregation during the bushfires, no sport oval can compete in importance with a town’s civic centre. Sport ovals are generally on the outskirts, isolate and surrounded by passive edges. They serve specific purposes. Therefore, they do not rate high in everyone’s cognitive maps and less so for those just visiting the area.

Rethinking Victorian bushfire affected communities will necessitate considering population density and the provision of new options for living arrangements. Countryside isolation may suit some. However, most sections of the population would find added social engagement and support in a denser town that has the right balance between services, infrastructure and housing accommodation— while still enjoying the attractions of the bush.

Higher density justifies the provision of services, among them public transport connecting with major regional centres and other communities. Public transport is about communication, socialisation, connectivity and about environmental sustainability. Lack of access to public transport goes hand in hand with poverty and social exclusion. However, I have yet not heard any politician addressing the issue of public transport as an intrinsic social need—how can such an essential service still be ignored?

We can use our creativity to find solutions within the constraints that we now face and to create suitable living environments for the local conditions. Real creativity emerges out of working with the constraints posed by the problem and not when the context and constrains are severed from the problem. If natural local conditions and climate change represent the context—particularly when most scientists agree that human activity is partly to blame—how can we assist in the minimisation of such change?

Should we consider compromising some aspects of the way we live? What are the disadvantages and the benefits in view of the recent tragedy? I suggest that these and other questions need to be widely discussed. That the responsibility for finding solutions cannot sit with planners and politicians alone—it needs to involve the large community including an extended professional community. The dimension of this tragedy has given us an unfortunate glimpse into a challenging future in which individually toughened houses will not suffice. Today we have the opportunity to learn from this disaster and to try new approaches.


1. See comments By Victorian Premier John Brumby in, Kerry O'Brien, "Brumby Warns of Worse to Come," ABC News, 7:30 Report (9 February 2009).
2. Kevin Hennessy from the CSIRO in Jonathan Pearlman, "It will only get worse as climate changes,"
The Sydney Morning Herald 9 February 2009.
3. G. Davison discusses Australian cities and its deficiency in regards to social spaces. See Graeme Davison, "The European City in Australia,"
Journal of Urban History 27, no. 6 (2001). Note that Australia has one of the highest green house emissions per capita in the world.
4. George Megalogenis, "On the Edge,"
The Australian 14 February 2009.
5. Oscar McLaren, "Bushfire Tragedy Rewrites Rules for Architects,"
ABC News (11 February 2009).
6. Andy Pitman, co-director of the University of New South Wales' Climate Change Research Centre, in Adam Morton, "Climate change must be 'a factor' in deciding whether to rebuild,"
The Age 10 February 2009.
7. David Nichols in McLaren, "Bushfire Tragedy Rewrites Rules for Architects."
8. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in, B. Nicholson and D. Rood. “We'll Rebuild Brick by Brick.”
The Age 11 February 2009.
9. D. Nichols in McLaren, "Bushfire Tragedy Rewrites Rules for Architects."

Published in:

Maturana, Beatriz. "Victoria’s Bushfires: Time to Reflect New Urban Strategies." On Line Opinion (27 March 2009), http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=8707.

A shorter version in Architects for Peace (editorial), 17 February 2009: find here. Also in

Planning News, p.12-13, 9 March 2009.


Anonymous said...

A compelling discussion Beatriz.

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