Governing City Futures Conference

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Population, climate change and the future of the low density city


Conference Report

By Zoë Sofoulis, Institute for Culture and Society

The Governing City Futures Conference offered informative, thought-provoking and at times inspiring perspectives, reflections, and reports of work in progress on key issues and debates around the planning, governance, design and renewal of cities, with views to sustainability and climate change adaptation/mitigation. Participants came from geography, social science, cultural research, design, architecture, and from government and university sectors, with about a third of the papers presented or co-authored by postgraduates or recent PhDs.

A highlight for many was Andrew Ross's opening keynote, based on his recent book Bird on Fire, a study of moves towards sustainability and urban revitalization in Phoenix, Arizona, where artists have played an important part. Mainstream green marketing solutions only reach the most wealthy 20% of residents, allowing them to create green 'resource islands' where they enjoy LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) whilst urban poor and immigrant populations endure polluted or low quality air, water and food and expensive energy. A green polity ought to redress the claims of the aggrieved in ways that benefit everyone: the key to sustainability was improving the lives of those most at risk. The paper's themes of creative industries, relations between production and consumption in the city and surrounds, and links between urban renewal and the revitalisation of democracies resounded throughout the conference.

'Population' and 'density', key terms in governmental approaches to city planning, came under critical scrutiny. 'Population' was often conceptualised in anti-immigrant and racist terms, though as Rob Cover observed, during (then Prime Minister) Rudd's advocacy of a 'Big Australia' in 2009-10, demographic features of population almost disappeared in the emphasis on the infrastructure demands of 35 million people.

The equation between urban sustainability and high density building was critiqued on several grounds: understandings of 'high' versus 'low' density varied in different cities, while a variety of housing designs and land developments could create higher residential density without high-rise buildings, which by some analyses were quite energy-inefficient. The turnover of housing stock was so slow that targets for low-emission housing or Liveable Housing Design standards are unlikely to be met, and more than one speaker argued better transport systems would deliver substantial shorter term gains for urban sustainability. The high-density, compact model of Aukland's future was contested by Matthew Bradbury's model of a polycentric city stretched along strong transport corridors. Jago Dodson observed that while planning debates recognised increased how population density produces social changes, they often ignored how social changes and social structures produce and shape the built environment.

In view of failures to develop concerted national and international climate change mitigation strategies, the anti-science infecting climate debates, and what Senator Scott Ludlam called the "capital-C Corruption" of planning processes in states like NSW, cities afford sites for pursuing innovative and sustainable solutions while strengthening democracy through participatory planning processes and citizen involvement—even by tuning into the sounds of mussels living in Melbourne waterways (Vicky Sowry's 'Echology' project). In the 'Governing and Democracy' session, the report by Robyn Dowling and Pauline McGuirk on their national study of local government responses to climate change challenges offered further hope in the effective pursuit of sustainability and mitigation/adaptation initiatives at a local or regional level, even while higher levels of government remained paralysed, and despite local councils' relative incapacity to inaugurate significant changes in infrastructure.

Aside from participatory and deliberative community processes, and emergent possibilities of social media and crowd sourcing, city governance remains anchored in forms developed for medieval towns or 18th century cities, according to the second keynote speaker, Michael Neuman. He advocated a 'network urbanism' where the archetype of a sustainable building was the tree: an open, dynamic but stable ecosystem that created its own energy, found its own water, and whose cycles linked with those of other open systems. Planning and building codes currently focussed on regulating detailed forms in the built environment, but we needed flow based codes about processes, exchanges and linkages that could help overcome the fragmentation resulting when different departments separately regulate different materials and infrastructures.

This was a well organised, focussed and congenial conference that encouraged learning and knowledge exchange. Asked for his opinion, Andrew Ross commented that it made visible a spectrum of approaches differentiated more by political than disciplinary differences, ranging from a "friction-free" planning discourse easily digestible by policy makers, through studies of creative industries, to more activist concerns with the "messy populations" of actual cities. Putting sustainability on the agenda of those who do culture and society work challenges us to make a choice along this spectrum.

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Conference Background

'Population' has been an abiding preoccupation in the settlement of the Australian continent. It has never been a fixed concept, but one capable of promiscuous connotations and discursive articulations. It has featured in debates about the balance between the City and the Bush; the appropriate 'racial' composition of the nation; about fertility, families and the role of women; about development and economic growth; and, in particular, about the rules around immigration and the nature and prerogatives of the nation state.

Globalization and the rise of the environmental movement, however, have changed the terms in which we discuss the idea of population. It is a key concept in global debates about planetary sustainability, climate change mitigation and adaptation, the curtailment of human freedoms in response to uncontrolled population movements and potential struggles over resources. In Australia recent asylum seeker debates and the emerging issue of environmental refugees have sparked conflicts over the question of what is an optimal national population with regard to economic growth and the continent's carrying capacity.

In recent times, in Australia as elsewhere population has become associated with urban problems and their management. It is a key concept in expert debates about desirable models of urbanity – low density urbanism, consolidation, sustainability and so on – and about patterns of urban consumption and infrastructure such as transport, water, energy and food security and carbon emissions. The prospect of increased population sparks populist defences of the suburban dream and the 'Australian way of life' and triggers fears about the impact of demographic change on housing, on traffic congestion, and on environmental resources. Those seeking to challenge parochialism argue for a human rights perspective and a recognition that climate change is a global issue that refuses the notion of national borders and protectionist mentalities and is one that necessarily requires urban solutions to adjust humanity to its new biospheric conditions.

Centrally important in contending with Australia's urban future, the notion of population serves at once as a statistical object of social scientists, a field of intervention for urban planners, a rhetorical resource for politicians and activists, and a spectre haunting a popular imaginary concerned with the imperilment of the suburban everyday. This conference asked: What is the future of the low density city? What are its prospects in a context in which ecological and population pressures make the infrastructure that under-grid such cities no longer sustainably, if it ever was? In the wake of these intersecting pressures, how are alternate futures for this urban form to be imagined and governed? How are its populations to be managed? Individual lives conducted? Resources circulated? How do these questions impact of relations of gender, ethnicity, and class and those between City and Bush? In addressing these questions this conference brought together international and Australian academics, politicians and other expert speakers and commentators in the fields of cultural studies, urban sociology, urban infrastructure and population to discuss the future of the low density city in an era in which climate change and the prospect of population increase operates as a major challenge to established forms of urban life.

Conference themes:

  • climate change
  • population
  • immigration
  • urban densification
  • urban environmentalism
  • urban planning
  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • City and Bush.

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Keynote Speakers

  • Andrew Ross (opens in a new window), Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
  • Michael Neuman (opens in a new window), Professor of Sustainable Urbanism, University of New South Wales


Conference Program

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Conference Convenors

Dr Fiona Cameron and Dr George Morgan with Professor-Emeritus Helen Armstrong and Dr Ben Dibley, Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney, Australia.

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