Sustainability struggles for its place in the Queensland sun
Mick Daley | 18 September 2017
Queensland has been through the mill: a previous government that stripped the very words sustainability from the state’s lexicon, and a planning regime that continues to be heavily skewed towards developers. Now it faces the challenges of big population growth and major climate challenges. As the ABC’s Four Corners prepares to air its revelations on corruption on the Gold Coast, Mick Daley does his own investigation into how the struggle for sustainability is faring.
Google “Queensland’s future” and you’ll be inundated by government and soft media sites promising a sleek, modern Sunshine State.
You’ll find the Queensland Plan, a 103-page aspirational document whose 30-year sustainability vision is based on startling growth projections and climate change challenges.
You might linger over the Department of Energy and Water Supply’s target for One Million Rooftops to have solar installations by 2020. Or marvel at the chief scientist’s forward-looking appraisal of appropriate urban design and integrated floodwater management.
If you pay their digital subscription fee there’s a feast of features in the (Murdoch-owned) Courier Mail, breathlessly enthusing over how Queensland’s burgeoning population is being funnelled into carefully planned suburban corridors guaranteeing security and prosperity for all.
The Palaszczuk government has ordained its Advance Queensland initiative as a $420 million driver of economic growth, employment and innovation projects. It seems a carefully calculated agenda; a big push across political divides to promote Queensland and Brisbane in particular as a glamorous flagship for sustainable developments and planning responses to climate change.
Such a concerted online presence invariably sets journalist’s alarm bells ringing. It prompts an analysis of what comprises an authentic drive for sustainable modernity and what might go the way of Tony Abbott’s desire to be the “infrastructure” prime minister.
An opulent example is the planned $2.5 billion entertainment precinct at the Roma Street Railyards, the brainchild of entrepreneur Harvey Lister. It’s a high-profile embrace of hi-tech, hi-life futurama, but amidst this big-spending optimism Greens councillor Jonathan Sri sounds a warning note:
“The problem with this whole construction boom is the profits are only flowing to a fairly small class of people, so ordinary Brisbanites aren’t really benefitting. The same goes for a lot of the infrastructure projects, where private companies are getting overpaid to deliver infrastructure.”
Big challenges ahead, in population and climate
Queensland is certainly faced with formidable challenges. It’s set for massive growth, with the population at 6.14 million and rising. South Brisbane’s population is expected to treble as it welcomes 18,000 newcomers by 2031. It’s not alone.
Ipswich’s Ripley Valley will swell to 76,637 by 2031, with Ipswich itself doubling in size to 520,000 residents by 2041, to almost the size of the Gold Coast. Satellite towns like Logan and Moreton Bay will also double their populations by 2031, while Greater Brisbane’s will rise to 2.95 million.
The massive suburban developments are expected to be big employers, with 20,000 new jobs promised for the Ripley Valley building boom. But while the developments go up, Queensland’s extensive coastline and tropical climate will remain vulnerable to the worst outcomes of climate change.
The entire state is effectively in a cyclone belt, prone to storm surges and intense rainfall events. The 2011 Brisbane flood showed how much havoc the subtropical monsoon, amplified by warming oceans and inland drought, can wreak.
Scientists from the University of Queensland warn that new research shows a high likelihood of further such events, requiring mitigation planning of a sophisticated order.
Gold Coast cyclones could be catastrophic
Climate scientist Andy Pittman of UNSW warns of the dangers of new constructions that aren’t future-proofed.
“When a category 5 storm comes through the Gold Coast it will be catastrophic … we haven’t built the Gold Coast to be resilient to cyclones.”
Brisbane, like any modern Australian city, is a vast construction site, constantly under development. Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk told the Courier Mail it’s in the process of redeveloping a massive “world-class transport infrastructure” including a new $944 million metro system and “90 congestion-busting road projects’’.
This big spending is emblematic of the state’s bustling economy, which earned $62.6 billion dollars in exports in 2015-16, becoming the nation’s highest export earner. A 23 per cent boom in domestic tourism delivered another $75 million to the local economy.
Another corollary is that Queensland’s public service is the fastest growing in the country (after the Newman government slashed 14,000 jobs from the public sector in 2012).
As planners take steps to establish Brisbane’s international reputation alongside Sydney and Melbourne, they’ve issued a Brisbane City Centre Master Plan.
The grandest feature of this (non-statutory) guideline is its aesthetic for new buildings in the CBD, emphasising an embrace of the subtropical climate.
Eschewing traditional airconditioned “eskies” it emphasises the sustainability benefits of opening up walls and windows, using vertical and rooftop planters to create a “lush urban environment that attracts investment and tourism, celebrates our lifestyle and stimulates economic activity”.
It has its exemplar in the ambitious “building that breathes”, envisioned by top design firm Architectus at 443 Queen St (and a new government policy) where “clusters of screened pavilions forming fluted columns” will be embedded in Brisbane’s skyline by 2020.
This kind of construction fit the bill for a New World City glowingly described by Courier Mail columnist Greg Clark, an author and globalisation expert, in a recent op-ed.
He emphasises the role of exponential technologies to host future business sectors in agri-tech, sustainable energy, digital media, smart systems and urban design.
In short it’s an endorsement of the Palasczcuk’s government’s bid for leadership in the New World City pecking order, a euphemism for muscling in on the Sydney–Melbourne rivalry, the throw-down of the new kid on the block.
There’s a telling paragraph about the ambitions of Queensland’s growing regional capitals in the Department of Energy’s blurb for its Solar 150 initiative:
“During the 21st century no other state will have as many large cities as Queensland. Sure, more people will continue to live in Sydney and Melbourne than in Brisbane. But Queensland dominates with more cities in the nation’s Top 20.”
Certainly its solar initiative has tangible successes, boasting that Queensland has the highest number of installations in Australia. You have to ask how many of the 425,000 households already connected did so despite the federal and state government’s disinclination to support renewables while publicly endorsing coal-fired energy.
This enthusiasm for renewables seems a little disingenuous when set against the Palsczcuk government’s fervent backing of the controversial Adani Carmichael project, which financial analysts have decried as untenable. The Climate Council says the project will put the 2300-kilometre-long ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef at extreme risk of extinction and will create billions of tonnes of pollution, use billions of litres of groundwater and push Australia’s carbon budget to its limit.
While the Queensland Plan is upfront about many of Queensland’s future trials, it’s rather light on detail as to exactly how these will be addressed. It discusses planning frameworks and long-term focus but remains a speculative public relations document whose aspirations to sustainability are not shared by resident’s action groups.
Seriously questionable developments – like the bad old days
Elizabeth Handley of Brisbane Residents United says the free market approach to development means there is a regulatory failure where developers have a free hand.
“The government would say that they have looked at climate change but you’ve just got to look at some of the developments they’re approving. For instance, Queens Wharf, where one of the proposals is for building out into the river further. The Brisbane River is a serious river, when it floods it floods very badly. So the last thing you would think that any responsible government would do would be allow a narrowing of that river.”
Toondah Harbour – a highly sensitive mangrove wetlands
Steve MacDonald of the Redlands 2030 group says the absence of governmental oversight means that the proposed Toondah Harbour development in Redlands is “revisiting something that might have been possible in the 1960s”.
“This sort of development has been banned in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.”
The project would mean building on mangroves in Moreton Bay, removing natural defences that stop storm surges and flooding inland, as well as providing vital reservoirs of biodiversity and nesting grounds.
“There was no cost-benefit analysis done; the land involved is acid sulphate soils, it’s a RAMSAR [wetland of international importance] area and a residential community,” Macdonald says.
He maintains it’s a legacy from the Newman government that’s been worsened by the current regime.
“The Newman government introduced Priority Development areas and councils were allowed to nominate projects that had been caught up in red tape. They planned about 800-1000 units on the land. After the change of government a new framework for development was struck where it allowed 3600 apartments.”
Handley contends that the new planning legislation removes any community input or right of redress from dodgy developments.
“Whatever the council decides, that’s it; you just have to live with it. So they’ve removed the rights of people commenting on a development but they’re approving developments that don’t comply with the codes. That’s a planning system that is really out of whack.”
Queens Wharf Casino – a development that revolves around problem gambling
Greens Councillor Jonathan Sri says some of these glamorous, high-end developments are deleterious to Brisbane’s inner city communities.
“I think the Queens Wharf Casino is probably one of the best examples of what’s going wrong with Brisbane’s idea of progress. This is a huge project on 12 hectares of riverfront land that’s been given over to several thousand new apartments, a couple of thousand new hotel rooms, poker machines and table games, so the whole business model revolves around problem gambling.
“In contrast that land could have been developed as riverfront parkland or a new education precinct. It’s almost like the political establishment doesn’t have a vision of how to develop Brisbane sustainably in a way that doesn’t revolve around giving more power and profit to multinational corporations.”
There are ways to bring the community with you
Peter Skinner, head of applied research and design at Architectus, stresses that there are always going to be growing pains with a major city, but that there are ways to bring the community with you.
“I understand the development in the city creates concern and people who have a house and lifestyle are eager that they remain unchanged, but change is necessary because our cities in Queensland are sprawling way too far.
“We need to find ways to reconfigure our middle ring suburbs to enable more people to live there, so they’re in striking distance of work and shops. It’s now possible to double or treble the population in those suburbs and to improve the transport systems and green space. My interest is how to do that well.”
Skinner’s concern is that Queensland’s housing codes and emphasis on speedy development are ruining Brisbane’s green amenity.
Shrinking green space is not the answer
“In all the recent development proposals you’ll see the area available to building is increasing, the areas available to cars is increasing and the area that remains for trees and people is diminishing very rapidly. The Queensland housing code does nothing to protect open green space,” he says.
“By contrast the NSW medium density design guidelines insist on planting areas on every private block of land, at the back and the front. Often 40 per cent of the site is open space, the rear is 20 metres from the building across the way.
“If these guidelines were applied in Queensland they’d provide a much better urban environment. Our codes have no restriction on the floor area of buildings, no setback requirements and ludicrously small open space requirements. This all adds up to the fact that building codes are encouraging the death of green space in the city.”
Environmental Upgrade Agreements are working in Brisbane
Between the macro and micro ends of the sustainability scale there is some room for agility by business innovators. Environmental Upgrade Agreements (EUAs) are a means of funding sustainability upgrades tied into deals on council rates.
Incorp, which has had successful EUAs with corporations such as Westpac and Vodafone, is currently in a deal with the Queensland government over its 13,000-square-metre tenancy for its Department of Environmental and Heritage Protection at 400 George Street in Brisbane.
Sunshine Coast and Whitsundays doing well on sustainability
There is anecdotal evidence, particularly from the Sunshine Coast and Whitsundays, of councils stepping up to meet sustainability challenges. The Sunshine Coast Council has been working hard to lift the bar in its own footprint by building a 15MW solar farm and implementing world leading waste systems.
There’s a sense of a commitment to mastering smart city technologies and becoming more efficient in planning, mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change.
Striking a balance between development and sustainability needs to be more than an aspiration of the Queensland Plan. If a government is pushing for better outcomes then industry generally goes with them and developers have shareholders that seek to hold them to account. It seems like it’s starting to dawn on industry in Queensland that there’s a desire to do better. But in such a large scale project it’s vital to strike a balance. To urbanise, not to ostracise.
Bernard Salt, a social commentator and columnist for The Australian and Herald Sun, threw down the gauntlet in a recent op-ed in the Courier Mail.
“The doubling of our population base requires visionary planning. If we are moving towards a bigger Australia, and it very much looks like we are, then the planning and the thinking and the visioning horizon needs to lift a notch.”
Jonathan Sri believes the vision needs to lift more than a notch. He cites the South East Queensland Regional plan that provides for a growth in population of two million people over 25 years. Sri claims it concentrates far too heavily on Brisbane and urban areas, and does not allow for the decentralisation that would assist sustainable population growth.
“We should be looking at developing new regional nodes where there are good job prospects and high quality of life in regional towns.
“For that to work we also need proper investment in things like regional broadband and telecommunications infrastructure and rail that’s affordable.
“But the Palasczcuk government are focusing too heavily on Brisbane, so we’re going to see overcrowding and associated problems with rapid urban compaction.”
You won’t find that analysis in the first 20 pages of a Google search.