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AFTER THE FIRES...Australia must stop and think.

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

While people's hearts are in the right place, rural townships need to build climate resilience through innovative approaches to community, not the rebuilding of Australia circa 1950.

Fulbright Scholar and award-winning architect and urban designer questions the Australian penchant for extreme low-density bush-living as an inherently unmanageable settlement typology in the age of climate change.

These scenes need to become a thing of the past ~ total devastation in Victoria, Feb 2009

In the wake of the ongoing catastrophic bushfires in Australia, where wave after wave of human, animal and property losses are being reported in an unprecedented fire season where entire towns are being obliterated, a bitter debate about the cause and remedy of these bushfires is raging amongst the public, especially so since the Federal Government itself has been so withdrawn - fuelling confusion, blame games and the extreme partisan mud-slinging for which the nation is famous.

With blame shifting within his own party, clearly there has been a monumental dropping-of-the-ball by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Indeed he and his ministers' ignoring of expert warnings and multiple requests for a unified approach to the impending catastrophe stands out as extraordinary, particularly the ignoring of the second letter of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, a group of over 23 former Fire Chiefs and senior emergency rescue officials nationwide who implored Morrison for an urgent meeting in September of 2019.

The second letter written on behalf of the 23 former Fire and Rescue chiefs around Australia drafted by Greg Mullins, former NSW Fire & Rescue Commissioner, which was also ignored.

Amongst the unfolding drama of the third New South Wales State of Emergency and unprecedented military assisted evacuations, fund-raising for the rural fire services (RFS) and victims of the fires has taken off with large amounts of money being raised by empathetic Australians and foreigners alike, but given Australia's dependence on coal ~ the world's biggest contributor to climate change ~, for how much longer can and should individuals enable Australia's "coal addiction" through their kind generosity?

The dishing out of both 'public' and private money is an expedient salve to our symptoms, but no remedy for the underlying problems. Even with the best intentions, sometimes the rebuilding of devastated towns can create even less sustainable communities, as is the case in Murrindindi Shire in Victoria that has burdened its citizens with higher rates on unused amenity.

for how much longer can and should individuals enable Australia's "coal addiction" through their kind generosity?

With Scott Morrison's Jan 6th announcement of $2bn in aid, an equally critical question is: should celebrities, members of the public and even our poor island neighbours be subsidising rural recovery and rebuilding of whole towns without a questioning of the very nature of human settlements in these rural areas that are so prone to fire disasters?

While experts are effectively unanimous in their determination of the human causes of climate change that have precipitated this disastrous fire season, and while these calamities were predicted with a fair degree of accuracy in 2008, the growing consensus is that these conditions are now the “new normal” and that Australian’s should just deal with it through effective 'land management' and the ramping up of emergency services as if this alone is an acceptable remedy. It is not!

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, there was a moratorium on all construction within the city of London until new planning guidelines were drafted to deal with fire in the future. This resulted in a shift away from timber framed buildings to stone buildings, amongst a number of other fire walls and emergency access provisions and laneways for fire trucks, effectively the introduction of a fire-oriented town-planning code.

The Great Fire of London, 1666, painting by Lieve Verschuer, 1667.

The 2017 Grenfell fire in London too, resulted in a review of aluminium sandwich panel construction around the world with hundreds of thousands of buildings being ordered to be re-clad.

Taking the view that Australia, and in turn the world, will likely not be able to reduce its CO2 emissions fast enough to reverse climate disruption, more fire seasons the likes of which we are currently experiencing are likely to continue, and the same applies in California, Southern Europe and South Africa who are also experiencing increasingly destructive wildfires. We therefore need to ask ourselves as tax-payers (who should only be supporting reasonably sustainable communities) two questions:

1- Is there another way of rural living that can allow greater resilience to fire without the need for ramped up back-burning programmes and increased emergency services to the public account?

2- Is there another way of building communities that are better equipped to deal with local emergencies primarily through their own human resources without the need for national defence intervention?

Both questions deserve a resounding 'yes' and in answering them we need to implement only the solutions that facilitate robust, resilient and self-reliant communities.

A multigenerational approach to off-grid communities where; the youth are encouraged to stay because there are viable career opportunities for them, it's a place where grandparents can grow old and be productive and connected, it's a place where through collective building and efficient sharing of resources there is more to go round. In short, it's an eco-social approach of viable 24/7 communities instead of ‘every-man-for-himself’- type isolation.

In a world where millions of people are choosing nomadic lifestyles because they are able to work remotely and have a desire for the great outdoors, a new relationship to the natural world can be achieved with community-building that encourages year-round activities and robust place-specific social networks, not just seasonal tourism.

The Hukkan walled village communal-living typology in Southern China.

At a formal level, there are plenty of historic examples of inherently resilient collective-living such as the Hukkan Tulou earth structures of China, or the medieval walled cities in Europe, North Africa and the Middle-East which kept the bad stuff out. Australians need to interrogate the lightweight glass-and-timber pavilion amongst the eucalyptus ~ hardly a defensible typology going forward given what we now know.

Typical housing within the city walls of Obidos, Portugal.

Australia needs to think again about allowing generally empty holiday homes to be scattered around the bush where the clearing of fuel loads on such properties doesn’t happen until it is too late.

We don't need yet another enquiry on the 2019/2020 fires telling us that back-burning was insufficient.

As generous as the pro-bono design services of Architects Assist may sound, we also don't need quick rebuilding of what clearly is not ideal. There will be many people who's homes are simply not rebuildable as their lifestyles had in fact become unmanageable due to old age and population decline in rural areas, and they should be encouraged to live communally with others. The design process for achieving that is a not knee-jerk recreation of what was, but rather highly consultative and searching.

What Australia needs is a total moratorium on rural construction* until there is:

1-an effective national policy on completely phasing out coal mining in favour of renewables - and the rehabilitation and possible relocation of those communities.

2- an effective rural development policy that can address the imbalances to urban tax payers for rescue and rehabilitation of "hobby farms" and unsustainable communities.

3- an urban planning review of each town as inherently viable or not and remedy thereto.

4- resilient communal housing planned for those who can no longer cope with running their homesteads and keep up with the bush maintenance required.

In short, it’s time to reinvent Australia’s relationship to the bush from scratch. If it is anything but truly hunter-gatherer in the traditional mode of the first peoples, it has more than a few design challenges.

Yes we can learn from indigenous back-burning practices, but the romance of living in the bush in the age of the anthropocene needs a radical rethink if it's going to be done at all. This fantasy cannot and should not be subsidised by tax payers, the coal surplus, or the random generosity of strangers. We absolutely cannot continue with business as usual as it is a major cause of the very crises we are experiencing.

By all means people should have a responsible connection to nature and the opportunity to live in beautiful places, and indeed, live off the land, but the how of doing so needs urgent attention. It can no longer be every-man-for-himself, with the odd hand-out from a public who will grow increasingly weary of the current style of patent mismanagement of Australia's natural and human resources.

Don Albert is the design principal of SOUNDSPACEDESIGN Architecture, Urban Design and Interiors and is the Editor-in-Chief of Climate Change Cities.

*meaning permanent structures that would require general development approvals.

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