Local Knowledge is Not a Thing of the Past

Author: Rosemary Kennedy

Date: 03 May 2010

Thoughtful design of housing and the urban environment has so many benefits for a place such as southeast Queensland, with its benign, subtropical climate. In this article, Rosemary Kennedy discusses the research that has led to a new handbook on subtropical design and how it will help us to manage the impacts of climate change in SEQ.

With South East Queensland’s population projected to grow to 4.4 million by 2031, the way we shape our city to accommodate both the rising population and the vicissitudes of climate will directly affect the wellbeing of current and future generations of Queenslanders.

The population is not only growing but demographics are evolving – there are more single-person households, and fewer families with children. Household electricity consumption and peak load is soaring as Queenslanders default to the air-conditioner for thermal comfort, while housing affordability is on the decrease, and the cost of electricity and water is on the increase. Urban form and the dominance of the car contribute to heightened pollution and carbon emissions, and detrimental effects on health. Land development pressures are resulting in ‘placelessness’, where urban development across Australia and in other countries is similar, regardless of climate or culture. Both ecological integrity and social fabric are under stress due to further risks posed by climate change.

To grapple with these extraordinary challenges, urban sustainability and liveability require deliberate attention to ‘place-based’ planning and urban design. It is clear that we need to create new approaches to urbanism and infrastructure rather than replicating existing ways of doing things that are fast becoming outmoded in the 21st Century.

Not surprisingly, many mainstream values, for example affluent society’s distorted expectations of indoor thermal comfort, make it difficult to envisage, let alone realise, an alternative urbanism to the one dependent on the private motor vehicle and air-conditioned buildings. But if we do not imagine, and take steps toward a preferred future, then the region’s social, economic and environmental future will be less than pleasant for both current and future generations.

The SEQ region’s generally moderate macro-climatic characteristics will be further negated or aggravated by climate-defensive approaches to the built environment, where homes become hermetically sealed fortresses, internalised and dependent on energy-consuming air-conditioning to be habitable, and where comfortable pedestrian access in streets and other public spaces is non-existent.

One way to address these mounting urban problems is through reconnection to, and creative engagement with, the climate, culture and landscape, especially when that climate is currently as benign as that experienced in Queensland’s south-east corner. Certainly, extreme weather events occur, but generally the climate is equable, without the extremes of heat or cold experienced in other climate zones.