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The realities of living in Australia's first 200km city

By Peter Spearritt - posted Tuesday, 14 March 2006

With its attractive sub-tropical features, South-East Queensland still remains a temptation too good to resist for many. But the thousands of newcomers arriving each week may end up disappointed with their choice. At least, that is, if there are not much stronger efforts to make rapid development more sustainable.

The Melbourne map company, Melways, is confronting the residents of South-East Queensland with the reality most still won't admit. They are now residents of Australia's first 200-kilometre city, stretching from Noosa to the Tweed River. There is no equivalent here of the National Parks that have prevented Sydney joining Newcastle and Wollongong. The Sunshine and Gold Coasts are now, courtesy of the freeway system, integral components of Australia's first linear coastal city. Such an urban form places extraordinary demands on water and energy supply.

Melways has recently produced a Brisways, vastly superior to the clumsy UBD street directory. Brisways puts Brisbane and the Sunshine and Gold Coasts in one giant map sequence. Even more tellingly, their first edition has just one street index for the whole city. Hapless southerners, lost in the wilds of Pine Rivers or Sanctuary Cove, no longer have to leaf desperately from index to index to find where they are.


It can be hard to know where you are in South-East Queensland. So little green space has been preserved in some of the new developments, that the only identifiable part of a once majestic landscape is the road system. Like outer suburban development almost everywhere in Australia, the developers, the builders and the sub-contractors have never met a pedestrian, and obviously assume children can drive, so the only way to navigate is with your Brisways.

Brisbane prides itself on being green. Sydney has its magnificent harbour, Melbourne its grand parks and gardens, while Brisbane embraces sub-tropicality. Lush vegetation is central to the local self-image. Even Seidler's new Riparian Plaza, with its six floors of Brisbane river view car parking, feels obliged to host instant mature palm trees in its forecourt. These almost obscure the four storey high circular drive allowing the Porches and BMWs to wend their way to their river view berths.

The recent summer showers haven't filled the three dams north of the city; in fact they are now at less than one third capacity, their lowest level ever. The prospect of a much browner city now looms, with the next round of water restrictions banning the use of the hose. Sprinklers have been banned for ages. Canberra can cope with brown, re-embracing its past as a parched sheep station. But a Brisbane without its sub-tropical lushness is awful to contemplate.

At precisely the time when we need more imaginative approaches to water conservation most of the city's developers have turned their back on sub-tropical design. Their energy intensive office blocks are predicated on cheap water and cheap electricity. At least the “iris entry” gated estate, the 66 floor Aurora apartment block looming above the Customs House, will prevent water inspectors from getting in unnoticed as the well-heeled occupants frolic in their spa baths and admire their under-used heated lap pool.

Tough luck for both investors and owner-occupiers when Energex and the state government finally have the courage to properly charge peak load users for apartment and office block air conditioning systems. Building structures with ceiling fans and cross ventilation will not eliminate the demand for air conditioning in a hot and humid summer climate, but it would greatly reduce the over reliance on expensive cooling systems. The air conditioning units are cheap but the electricity infrastructure costs associated with keeping up with such a dramatic rise in summer demand are massive.

The tragedy is that South-East Queensland houses some of Australia's most innovative architects, though admittedly they have had more success with sub-tropical designs and materials for small groups of houses than they have in tackling mammoth apartments and office blocks. Nonetheless better positioning of buildings and better design can at least reduce energy demand.


With a few notable exceptions, the broadacre developers are no better than the apartment crowd, and some of course are one and the same. Pandering to the neo-Tuscan epidemic, they happily get rid of eves and skimp on external shading, even though these are a very effective way of cutting down radiant heat. Water tanks are sometimes offered as an expensive optional extra, but their heart isn't in it. It is so much easier to cover most of the site with a concrete slab and add a few varnished wooden slat inserts, a tokenistic attempt at sub-tropical style. Put a couple of palms in terracotta pots out the front of the double garage, and you could be in Tahiti.

Some of these problems do reflect mindless consumer demand, but the developers have been loathe to even attempt consumer education. If the investors or owner-occupiers want two car spaces per unit, then that is their democratic right, at an appropriate price. What kind of society is it that kow tows to consumer preference whatever the consequences for the shape, structure and environment of its city?

Sydney and Melbourne have been unwilling or unable to stop developers offering multiple car spaces in new apartment blocks virtually on top of major public transport nodes. What hope has South-East Queensland, an urban society fashioned around the car?

The Gold Coast high rises are littered with unused parking spaces, because many southerners happily eschew the car and the traffic on their beachside holiday. No one in their right mind would voluntarily drive on the Gold or Sunshine Coast at the height of the holiday season, engulfed as they are by a sea of traffic. It is so much more relaxing to walk along the beach or promenade amid the Gold Coast's belated attempts at traffic calming, from Tedder Avenue near Main Beach to Coolangatta.

Southerners holidaying on either coast, or even those inspecting their investment properties, are shielded from some of the realities of life in South-East Queensland. Most stare in disbelief when you tell them that the Glasshouse Mountains National Park merely preserves the rocky outcrops, with rural residential mansions dotted between them as farmers cash in on the demand for an antebellum lifestyle among retirees. Ironically, there is nothing the antebellum mob hate more than the prospect that their neighbouring five-acre block might turn itself into a mini-suburban subdivision.

New building in South-East Queensland should suit the climate and decrease rather than increase demands on scarce water and increasingly expensive electricity production. If we are entering a hotter and drier era, there is no sign that most apartment or office developers give a damn.

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This article was published in The Brisbane Line on March 9, 2006. An earlier version also appeared in The Courier-Mail under the title 'Now a wide brown land' on February 17, 2006.

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About the Author

Professor Peter Spearritt is Executive Director of the Brisbane Institute.

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