Will we see Urgent Short-Term Fixes (modified status-quo approaches) or Longer-Term Change for a better future? I suspect the extent of private and public loss will politically, pragmatically and humanely drive us towards the former. If the mandate were “changes”, what should be the re-defined interface of floodable river and city form: retreat or advance/reinvent? Most of the design/ planning dialogue so far appears retreatist, although that’s not what anyone has said, nor should, in the current post-traumatic climate. The Brisbane River is at the very “heart” of this city! The national daily said we “loved the river too much”. Surely the issue is not too much but how well, how expertly, how creatively we do this loving? To turn our back on this historical, topographical, environmental and emotional central thread would surely be absurd.
Professional and editorial talk suggests lifting houses and city entries, and having lower storeys as car parks or other floodaccepting uses. There is little talk as yet of the consequent loss of built form and public realm integration, no matter how stylishly managed by the designers; or of its impact on urban grain, community safety, democratic accessibility, residential presence in the city, civic quality or more. And lurking is a Buchanan-esque scenario.
Why not provide significantly more public open space along the low-lying bits of the river? Brisbane has less parkland near its centre than many cities but the rhetoric says creating more is not economically viable. Doesn’t this deny the liveability demands of increased urban densities? Or the role of highamenity environments in a competitive global economy? Or the emerging knowledge about the health / nature connections?
Is replacing at-risk housing an all-or-nothing response? Are there not ways of designing denser mixed-use precincts that deliver high amenity public realm and manage flood risk!
Much of the edge of the River is privatised and inaccessible to the community. Sadly, the dramatic substantial public investment in the floating Riverwalk pontoons has ended up in Moreton Bay, with the real possibility of not being replaced. Where is the discussion of neighbourhood structure, esplanades and promenades, designing for democratic access, legibility, and the like?
Beyond engineering solutions
There is definitely the mood for engineering solutions – both smart little ones and more heroic ones – that will “save us” next time. We were lucky this time and shouldn’t assume we’ve seen the most extreme event. So all the technological wizardry is welcome … provided we don’t lose urban amenity big time. Cunning design is needed from elegantly multi-disciplinary work. In the current context, however, hard-nosed “practical” engineering is king and simple solutions generate community optimism. What we might call “design” risks being called unnecessary delay and relegated to lipstick luxury status. I energetically hope not…but I fear the mood is that way, unless all good folks conspire together.
But wait! We delight in the freedoms of our democratic society and its understandably riskaverse human systems. We accept compulsory acquisition of private land for pipes, busways and freeways…but not yet for river parks or new urban precincts, even if they not only increase community amenity but reduce future private problems and consequent public costs. I do not underestimate the difficulties here, but wonder where the balance between private rights and the overall community good (that so underpins other decisions) needs to lie when it comes to some things that have historically not been seen as “essential” urban outcomes. This may, as yet, be beyond contemporary strong leadership.
And the community’s emotional needs? We must celebrate our river in the face of more and nastier events. And one essential part of our healthy and pragmatic response must be to openly and honestly celebrate its potential destructive power, including through good Aussie humour, as in he “Watermark” in front of Brisbane’s Powerhouse (above).
Such was the unforeseen damage in many places some pollies called it a war-zone. This is not a war easily, perhaps ever, won. Stay tuned for further dispatches from the Front.