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. 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, like Kevin Hennessy from the CSIRO (The Sydney Morning Herald, February 9, 2009), 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.
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. 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 in The Australian (February 14), 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”. 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 urban sprawl exacerbates the danger for these communities.
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 (The Age, February 10). 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” (The Age, February 11).
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” (Kevin Rudd, The Age, February 11), 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.