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Meeting the carbon challenge? The place of your house in the city

By Juris Geste - posted Friday, 25 July 2008

The Garnaut prescription for dealing with our greenhouse emissions is indeed wicked. Professor Garnaut himself describes the challenges ahead as diabolical, equivalent to “tails I win, heads you loose”. There are all kinds of prognostications about costs and likely scenarios. If most of the Garnaut flagged actions and recommendations are implemented, many aspects of life as well as the economy will soon be different.

As more than 80 per cent of our population lives in urbanised centres, it is also timely to reflect what implications the new carbon trading future might have on cities and towns. We have examined various climate change options and energy source scenarios except the form of our cities and towns. After all, it is in our houses, our streets, neighbourhoods, shopping places, employment areas and play grounds - our “stage of life” - where this “new” future will be acted out. Should we expect that the arrangement of our cities and towns can continue as a projection of recent trends?

Our contemporary cities and towns (including our homes) are very inefficient users of energy. The percentage of CO2 contribution from personal transport depends on how you decide to divide the pie. However, about 15 per cent of an average household budget goes to personal urban transport and, as things are looking, it is only likely to increase. Our present urban places are the products of an era of cheap and plentiful energy. Thus it is worth considering what they might need to be like in the post carbon era.


But apart from local or national considerations, we must not overlook the reality that we are a part, and by population a very small part, of the global community. The global population is continuing to grow (from 6 billion now to the forecast 9 billion by 2050). This means the world consuming more energy together with other of the biosphere’s limited natural resources. I cannot help thinking metaphorically of the balloon that keeps inflating on and on. If it continues expanding, unless someone deflates it periodically, it will inevitably burst. Any global change related to climate, energy and other resources will impact on the way we live in our cities and towns.

Our own government as well as the rest of the world will take the politically expedient and safe short term courses which are unlikely to adequately prepare us for the times ahead. There is no evidence that self interest will give way to an exercise of global altruism and high mindedness. Those individuals and families who want to cushion themselves against the discomforts of having to make adjustments rapidly later will take the safer options early.

We have a choice of two strategies.

Retrofit our cities and towns on a broad scale

Even by 2050, the bigger proportion of our cities and towns will have already been laid out and built. What we in Australia do to newly built parts after 2008 will make relatively little difference to how our cities and towns perform in the low carbon era.

Retrofitting means adopting a very different mindset from the practices of the past. The tools and methods of the last 50 years will not yield the results we need in the post carbon future. But unless there is a strong grass roots push, this is unlikely to happen, largely because it is politically difficult and threatening. The pity of it is that much of the knowledge required is already available but very poorly distributed or understood.

Retrofitting means making neighbourhood centres and local areas less dependent on goods, services, amenities and opportunities that are from or are a long distance away. In the longer term (20-30 years) we have to wean ourselves off the high level of reliance on energy just for urban transport.


Using 1/7 of our income (and this proportion is likely to increase) just to move around does not make much sense. This change can only be brought about by rearranging the way we live in cities and towns. It means more than just putting additional buses on the roads or increasing train frequency. For public transport to work, we need to adjust our widely dispersed and segregated form of urban living. But because retrofitting takes a long time, we need to start it NOW, not put it off after tomorrow. And the cost savings will be billions - in dollars, tonnes of CO2 and travel time.

However, the more quantifiable advantages of retrofitting based on localisation principles are only the start. By adjusting our cities and towns away from a high volume personal transport dominant layout, we will achieve additional savings and benefits in:

  • better health through reduction of pollution, accidents and a more physically active life style;
  • increased social and cultural capital supported by higher quality of public space;
  • aesthetically richer and more satisfying places of human scale; and
  • greater safety, security and social cohesion with more integrated uses and activities.
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About the Author

Juris Greste is an urban designer with an architectural background and over 50 years of professional experience as a consultant. He has been a full time educator in architecture and urban design at QUT for about 12 year since 1977 and has continued teaching as a part time lecturer and contributor ever since. Juris has a Masters urban design qualification from Oxford Brookes University (with Distinction). He was an instigating member of the Urban Design Alliance of Queensland Inc - a multi-disciplinary association of built environment professional groups (and is its first Life Member); is the secretary of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies Qld. for the ninth year and recipient - 2004 Year of the Built Environment exemplar award. In 2007 he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) For service to urban design, particularly through raising community awareness of the need for high quality and sustainable environments, to professional associations and to education".

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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