Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The future is grey and green
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
If we started again, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY, our cities would look like Manhattan: dense, high-rise and highly artificial.
Just say species survival was in doubt. Say this most successful species ever looked like tripping the switch between success and failure. Say we were actually 30 years from climate catastrophe (according to scientist Tim Flannery) and 30 years from fossil-fuel starvation (according to the NRMA); what would we, hypothetically, do? What would we build?
I reckon if the human species were dropped onto Earth at this moment and forced to start from scratch, the first thing we’d do – before we even got the martinis shaken – is invent a religion of nature.
A religion of mother earth would make heavenly disciples of the sun and the rain – to be worshipped at shrines of fertility and compost – turn water tanks and worm farms into sacred objects and take the rules of eco-living as scripture. The holy sacrament would involve a ritual receiving of the rains and the various categories of waste and pollution would become the deadly sins.
It has been done, of course. We’ve been there. Much of humanity, for most of its history, has worshipped more or less this way. For Western culture, the shift away from this kind of Earth-linked religion to ambition-based Judaeo-Christian paternalism – what I think of as reach-for-the-skies religion – happened way back in the gap between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods. In fact, as I understand it, it’s what distinguishes the Paleo- from the Neolithic.
And, to be fair, reach-for-the-skies religion hasn’t been all bad. It’s what we have to thank, probably, for most of what we count as our successes: capitalism, liposuction, heated lavatory seats. TV screens wider than your house. And Google. At the same time, though, the same philosophical shift is responsible for what now looks like inescapable eco-catastrophe: climate change, superbugs, pandemics and weapons of mass destruction.
Unprecedented storms, unfrozen ice caps, untame sea levels; all of it unpredictable, uncontrollable and – quite possibly – inconvenient. Landslides in Venezuela, typhoons in Japan, hurricanes in Louisiana and Texas. Six degrees of warming (as opposed to separation) and, perhaps, 70 metres of sea-level rise. That’s 23 storeys, vertically.
The world has flooded before. There are enough great-flood myths, across all cultures, to give legs to the Noah thing. Inland seas, crusted saltpans and desert seashells all support the collective species memory of a great flood at the end of the last ice age, some 11,000 years ago.
That’s fine. But imagine Sydney with the water tickling the feet of the Blue Mountains. Imagine George Street flooded up to, say, Dymocks, with a bevy of new islands called things such as Bondi Junction, its great slab of Meritons across the top, and Bellevue Hill, with the Packers and the Fairfaxes to-and-froing by rowboat.
Personally, I’m quite looking forward to it. The sand dune that runs from Bronte to Redfern suggests this was once the edge of Botany Bay. Maybe it’ll be so again. This is great, because my house in Redfern suddenly becomes absolute waterfront.
But if, hypothetically, we did want to diminish climate change; and if we did, as a species, develop a green religion; and we had the zillions of people to house and feed that we do have, what would we select as the optimum settlement pattern? Answer: we’d build Manhattan. Not urban villages. Not Mykonos or Gozo or even Barcelona or Amsterdam or Paris, but Manhattan, which (with one or two possible exceptions) is the greenest city on Earth. A staggering 82 per cent of Manhattanites get to work other than by car.
As David Owen wrote recently in The New Yorker: “New York is more populous than all but 11 states; [but] if it were granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.”
This is self-evident, when you think about it. People living in a dense urban huddle cannot help but share energy, share transport and share space to a degree that is inconceivable in any other situation. People who live in cities use about half the electricity of people who do not.
People planning, building and living in leafy suburbia, on the other hand, may do so because they love nature. But they’re loving it to death. Australian apologists for suburbia such as Professor Pat Troy and KPMG demographer Bernard Salt argue that sprawl is ours of right. But look at the cost.
Sprawl means people have to travel further and more often, since low densities can support only a light smattering of services and they have to travel by car, since low densities make public transport unviable. This gives the roads lobby immense power, since roads become fundamental to life. And this, for the politician, kills any incentive to subsidise or even prioritise public transport; if no one uses it, there are no votes in it. Meanwhile, the incentive to build more, bigger and faster roads grows. But, as we know, the more roads you build, the more people drive. Supply can never keep up with demand, since demand is essentially limitless.
We tend to regard people at Byron Bay and Nimbin as the green types, living in mud-brick and growing their own, well, medications. And we tend to characterise cities as environmental disaster areas. But this is just habit. The crucial point is this: green living doesn’t look green. It is hard to accept because we are such literal creatures but green architecture is not made of mud-brick or adobe. It’s not federation bungalows surrounded by trees and birds and gardens, as much as this might look nature-friendly.
Green living depends on a highly artificial, heavily modified, densely urban environment. Green architecture is made of concrete and glass and high-speed lifts (which are among the most energy-efficient passenger vehicles in the world). It looks more like Blade Runner than Lassie. Green living looks like the concrete jungle.
Which is not to say it can’t be clean or healthy or even enchanting and romantic and picturesque. It can. And it’s not to say you can’t have street trees or water courses or luscious parks or densely planted garden courts. You can. Indeed, I believe, you must. But the key to it, the essence, is density.
We need to do everything in our power to encourage high-rise and high-density life. People should be rewarded – with cheaper energy, cheaper transport, lower rates – for embracing high-rise life. Sprawl, on the other hand, should be actively discouraged for the profligacy it is.
Around Sydney a line should be drawn, a sprawl-proof fence with big signs saying Beyond Which No More. There Be Dragons. You’ve heard of tough-love parenting? This is tough-love governance. Ministers who rezone green belts then flog them to their mates should be hauled before the parliament and sacked.
And there are other benefits. Necessity of this kind was once humanity’s constant companion. Now, for us, it is comparatively rare. And yet, perhaps through that early evolutionary training, dealing with necessity – not just surviving it, but using it to our own creative ends – is one of the things we as humans do best. It may be our best chance of relearning to build cities that hold meaning for us, springing from the new green religion as medieval cities sprang from scholasticism.
As the Australian Conservation Foundation president, Ian Lowe, says: “The future is not somewhere we’re going, it’s something we’re all creating.” Amen.
DRAWING: ILLUSTRATION: JOHN SHAKESPEARE