the centre
As we progress into 2009, and summer hits the south-east of Australia with full force, the issue of weather becomes unavoidable.

by Deb Foskey

Melbourne and other places in Victoria have experienced the longest period of 40+ degree days in recorded history.  Our need for comfort and the predominance of poorly designed housing has led to a mass turning on of air conditioners and consequent loss of power altogether for many electricity ‘consumers’ (weren’t they clients once?).

There are some interesting stories, such as the parrots gathering at a suburban swimming pool in their scores. Luckily the pool owner was also there and was able to rescue all but eight of the birds that fell in. All species must cooperate during periods of intense weather.

Big cities feel the impacts of hot weather in the power outages, the rail-dependent public transport breakdowns and cancellations. I imagine it is very unpleasant to find yourself by-passed on a crowded platform as yet another full train goes past without stopping. Those who can afford it are renting rooms in air conditioned motels. During the 2003 January fires in Canberra, neighbours in my street all visited the only house with gas connected (the electricity had gone) so we could have our drugs of addiction: tea and coffee.

Sadly, most buildings these days are designed on the assumption that they will be air-conditioned, and retrofitting them will be very difficult. However, it can be done, as Australian Ethical Investment has shown with its conversion of its very ordinary (but correctly oriented) Canberra office building which won a Banksia Environmental Award in 2008.  Have a look at Trevor Pearcey House to see how AE and the architects managed to reduce water use by 75% and energy use by 70%. Perhaps this summer’s experiences will entice other office managers to reduce their resource use (as water and energy are proving to be unreliable resources) – but office owners will need to be given enticements and regulation to provide this amenity for their tenants.

The Victorian Government looks as though it never really thought the present circumstances would ever happen – abnormally hot weather and a fire to boot – and seems singularly unprepared. In South Victoria, the fires are serious. Yesterday I was with a friend whose partner was protecting their house in a town too near the Delburn fires in South Gippsland. The smoke cloud was visible just out to sea from Orbost.

The positive theme that comes through in many of the interviews and news reports is that community caring and good communication are key factors in preparedness and ability to handle fire situations. Coping with climate change will throw up many challenges that will need to be dealt with at the community level. Communities organising locally seem better able to cope than the government. Government, even local government, is too far removed to deal with situations at a sub-town or suburb level.

Jane Jacobs had much of it right back in the sixties in her book The life and death of great American cities. Check out the Project for Public Spaces website for more about Jane, her writings and activism.

2009 must be the year that we stop building inappropriately and instead design communities – not just ‘developments’ – with social and environmental sustainability as their focus. We have many planners, writers and examples to guide us. The Transition Towns movement is a growing community-led movement which provides many tools for individuals and organisations to work with (see their website for further info).

Meanwhile, we could be finding out what makes successful local communities work. I believe we have understood the importance of working collaboratively as communities – whether connected by place or interest or kinship – since we started being conscious of being human. But from time to time, we seem to forget its importance and how to do it. The Howard years, wherein we were meant to see ourselves as individuals and (heterosexual, nuclear) families, have necessitated a new attention and relearning of the efficiency and sheer pleasure of working cooperatively. And 2009 is the year to do it.

Dr Deb Foskey will be writing the odd post for Herenow Collective. Her website is: www.debfoskey.com

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