A Critique and Vision for Armidale
Dr Marty Branagan,
Centre for Peace Studies,
Centre for Research into Aboriginal and Multicultural Studies,
University of New England.
with additional material by
Dr Dorothy Robinson
Solar Armidale Project &
Armidale Air Quality Group
and Mark Cooper
Recommendations in Brief
Rather than just fast-tracking conventional business, fast-track environmental repair and ethical and sustainable businesses. Attempt to reduce the region’s ecological footprint, and increase biodiversity. All decisions should take into account whether they increase or decrease climate change and biodiversity.
To avoid the masses of advertising materials distributed weekly, issue ‘No Junk Mail’ stickers freely. Or issue stickers that indicate people who actually want this material (so the emphasis is on people to show they want it).
More encouragement for recycling.
Reduce landfill through (rates) incentives, user pays; find more appropriate site, away from World Heritage Area and scenic tourist route.
Support Waste into Art, but make it more prestigious, with bigger prize money and an annual exhibition at NERAM and NEAS
Recycle fluoro globes.
All food scraps from local restaurants, cafes, hotels should be composted via worm farms.
All council-sponsored events should avoid adding to landfill through the use of over-packaged tea and coffee, plastic plates and cutlery etc
More emphasis on environmentally-friendly design: Raise (in steps) BASIX targets to 100%, as in other countries like UK. More policing of BASIX to insure for example that buildings are insulated, solar-passive etc.
Apply BASIX to all new buildings large and small, and retrofit pre-existing buildings.
Minimise tree removals: Any tree clearing must be offset by (at least) ten-to-one tree planting elsewhere to prevent further climate change and loss of biodiversity.
City of the Arts?
Install on public walls mosaics with nature and sustainability themes, such as those at Nambucca Heads and Scotts Head.
More sculpture, for example at the entrances to Armidale (based on the Walcha model)
Encourage more murals, especially those by youth at risk and indigenous youth
Bring back the position of officer for Third City of the Arts: Cathy Ovenden was bringing more money into the community than it was spending on her wage, and was responsible for cultural enrichment and all its attendant benefits: tourism, employment etc
Native trees, conserve local ecology
Establish a Botanical Gardens for endemic native plants and fauna (eg at the corner of Crest Road and Erskine St)
Discourage any further tree clearing for roads or road widening
Plant more native trees along creeklands and bikepath, north of bridge on Marsh St, around swimming poo, Civic Park, sportsfields, Faulkner nr Donnelly St, Jeffrey St
We should emulate the entrance to Canberra, or the streets of Willoughby, which are teeming with natives. Promote the uniqueness of local flora and fauna, and their importance for local ecosystems.
Widen nature strips.
Plant trees in middle of wide roads, as in the picturesque main street of Sawtell.
Sustainability radio shows on all stations (like Adam Blakester’s superb one on 2ARM on Wednesdaty evenings)
Permaculture in schools
Involve all senior and higher junior school students in Clean up Australia day
No woodstoves in new homes
If woodfires must be used, access only Certified Sustainable Firewood by an organisation such as the Firewood Association of Australia
Better policing of woodsmoke infringements, and widespread illegal clearing for firewood
Investment of public money should be in local (eg New England Credit Union) and ethical companies such as the Australian Ethical Investment or Maleny Credit Union. Avoid unethical or environmentally-destructive companies such as Coke, Bunnings (old growth forest logging in Western Australia), or companies with links to arms manufacturing, tobacco, alcohol, or sweatshop labour.
Support locally-owned companies over multinationals or large chains (the opposite of Centro’s policy)
Encourage to the area sustainable industries and research: solar, wind, mudbrick, rammed earth, permaculture, biodynamics. Organic agriculture sequesters carbon dioxide in the soil, as opposed to much of conventional agriculture. Encourage chicken, kangaroo, pig for meat, rather than beef.
Strengthen planning regulations : does the community benefit or does a large foreign-owned corporation? (see UNE article attached at end).
Local: Implement an optional Green levy (like in Willoughby, or Brisbane bushland levy)
Federal and state: Divert to social needs and sustainability subsidies currently given to mining, cars, fossil fuels
(Automotive industry subsidies $1600 million
Company cars tax concessions $1100 million
Aeroplane fuel tax concessions $800 million
Mining and oil refinery subsidies $800 million
Public transport $100 million
Solar energy $200 million
Wind energy negligible
Energy efficiency $100 million
military spending ($60 million a day in Australia, and rising: forty times as much as we spend on the real threat of climate change).
Raise environment to equal priority from bottom of heap
The Youth Performance Café (which Cathy Ovenden attempted so hard to initiate) is still needed.
Expedite the new skatepark.
Aboriginal Social Justice and Reconciliation
Use for new street names some of the names that the Council has had supplied to it by local Aboriginal Elders years ago, but has never used.
Central and Civic Park, for example, could have much more interesting Aboriginal names, that would add a unique, local flavour.
Improved bike-paths and lanes.
Plan new subdivisions to be more pedestrian friendly (like Davis, California)
Long-term: Fleet of minibuses for public transport, with more extensive (and perhaps flexible) routes (between a conventional bus and a taxi).
State: Cheaper trains: so a family of four finds it cheaper to travel to Sydney by train than to drive
Encourage electric bikes, electric cars
Better signposting on roads for fauna eg turtles on Walcha Rd. When I raised this issue, I was buck-passed between Council and Department of Roads, and neither followed it up
Maintain character of city: Discourage ugly monoliths like a number of new developments
No Bunnings at end/beginning of Waterfall Way (where road past World Heritage parks enters heritage town): it degrades both. At the very least, it needs to be heavily screened with trees (and a certain number of jobs for the local Aboriginal community should be mandatory, if as Richard Torbay asserts, it is to benefit it).
Fines for companies whose trolleys are found in the creeks.
Discourage demolition of homes, to reduce landfill and wasting of resources. At very least, all materials should be recycled.
Ban the growing of Genetically modified crops in the region, to avoid contamination of organic and conventional crops. The council is supposedly considering this, but has been very quiet on the issue.
Ban plastic bags in supermarkets, as has communities in Tasmania.
Ban use of rainforest timber (on human rights as well as environmental grounds), and old growth timber, in all publicly-funded projects, and preferably ban sale of such timber. I have seen children in Borneo starving, sick, substance abusing to the point of death, and forced into slums because of this trade.
At Federal level, reinstate Community Waster Grants programme (axed by the Rudd government) to supply funds for water efficient projects by schools and community organizations.
Armidale could market itself as a quiet town through stronger restrictions on leafblowers, chainsaws etc in residential areas eg Noise-Free Sundays, to start with.
Reduce grass areas that require mowing, through native plantings and mulching. This would reduce CO2 emissions, fuel consumption, water consumption. When replacing mowers, buy electric ones.
Scientists and conservationists warned about climate change 25 years ago, and tried to reduce plastic bags 15 years ago. They have been vindicated. It is now time for all three tiers of government, and for corporations to recognise the seriousness of environmental problems, and to act to reduce them (not just commission new reports).
Seek out, pay for and implement advice from sustainability, landcare, and conservation communities
More Detailed Critique
Recommendations are marked in bold typeface
1. Native tree plantings
Council should be congratulated for recent tree plantings. However, it is disappointing that, with the exception of some areas (Dumaresq Creek – which I discuss later – and the Cemetery) many of these involve exotics (non-natives). Indeed, many of our native trees on the streets and in backyards have been removed recently for developments or (presumably) for public liability reasons. Despite the best efforts of some Council employees, if removed trees are replanted, it is often by non-native trees. Some areas, such as the bike path, Civic Park and McDonald Park, would presumably be ideal for plantings of native trees.
The recent preservation of bushland near highway on north side of town is a positive step. Many citizens, Council employees and Councillors show they appreciate the local environment, but they are battling against a development ethos which show little evidence of appreciation of the ecological importance of maintaining native trees endemic to the region. These trees are intrinsically valuable, as well as being vital for many species of fauna, birds (and their song) and insects, and to maintain the balance of the local biosphere.
More could be done from all three tiers of government to enforce maintenance of native vegetation (particularly endangered ecological communities), and develop appreciation of the role native trees can play in drought relief through recycling rain, in reducing climate change, in reducing dust, air and noise pollution, in producing oxygen, giving shade, adding character to areas, being aesthetically pleasing , and raising the property values of areas. It is the leafy suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, after all, that are the most desired ones. The streets of Willoughby, for example, are filled with native trees, with significant areas of remnant bushland as well (see http://wepa.org.au/ or http://www.willoughby.nsw.gov.au/Environment.html).
Climate change is now widely accepted as scientific fact. It is an issue that affects all of us, through unpredictable weather, droughts and flood, impacts on farmers and food prices (with bananas a recent example), and increased insurance premiums. Biodiversity decline is another issue that affects global and local ecosystems, and we are, according to Dr Norman Myers (former NASA scientist), in the middle of a decline of catastrophic proportions, far greater than the “Great Dying” of 50 million years ago, when the dinosaurs and associated kin died out forever.
Council should be complimented for its successful application for a $55,000 Commonwealth grant for a regional climate change study, which will be augmented by NESAC funds to bring the total to near $90K. Work on that project will kick off in 2008-2009. There is also a smaller NSW grant to Council to do a sustainability plan for its operations, with maybe more to come.
More importantly, however, if Council is to address global warming and biodiversity decline, it needs to adopt a stronger policy of minimising native flora and fauna loss, such as through clearing land, and removing trees and shrubs and other habitat. Where this is absolutely unavoidable, council or developers need to replace each plant with at least ten elsewhere, preferably within the urban environment, but elsewhere if unavoidable (eg Malpas Dam is greatly in need of revegetating). They need to be far more diligent in replanting than they are at present in removing vegetation. Information should be freely available as to how many trees are removed annually, how many are planted, what proportion of these are native to the region, and how many survive. We need a global effort to address climate change issues, and council policy can be an important step.
The "Sustainable Councils, Schools & Communities" project is worthwhile, but needs personnel, such as Environmental Education Officers, to make it more effective. The bushland in the state’s 600,000 ha of Travelling Stock Routes, which are in danger of being sold off, should be preserved as wildlife corridors and public rights-of-way.
Water is essential to rural life, and the Armidale region, where major rivers begin, is significantly situated. Dumaresq Creek should be recognised as a vitally-important natural feature in the town. Armidale Urban Rivercare Group and Council should be complimented for their years of hard work in removing exotic vegetation from the creek and replanting with natives. However, given the urgency of climate change and species extinction, this work needs to be greatly accelerated, with much greater funding (for full-time employees), support and publicity (to attract volunteers), from all three tiers of government. There is also a need for personnel to co-ordinate the work of the various governmental and community groups involved in environmental restoration, as specified in the Armidale Greening Plan.
The rubbish in the creek should be removed regularly. Supermarkets should be fined for each trolley that is found in the creek. Attention could be drawn to the creek through building footbridges across it, and placing more benches and sculpture along the banks, so people can rest and appreciate it. A footbridge between the two parks near the Visitor Information Centre would prevent the dangerous practice of children clambering across rocks in the creek.
2. Sustainable food production and ethical employment
Similarly, efforts to introduce permaculture into town yards should be encouraged. At present, some yards with productive fruit and nut trees – on basalt soils or soils built up over years of fertilising, mulching etc - are being swallowed up by developments (eg one just near Tillbrooks shop). Council should endeavour to recognise the importance of permaculture in reducing food transport costs, both environmental (petrol production, air pollution etc) and financial. Such recognition could include information about permaculture, bio-dynamic farming and organic gardening in local papers, and an annual prize for organic gardening. This would tie in with what is clearly a growth area in the region, where there are now at least two functioning organic food cooperatives. We could be a leading centre for sustainable food production and research, particularly if we were to work with academics in this issue at the University of New England, such as Professor David Brunkhorst and Dr Paul Christiansen.
Where Council and MPs are encouraging industry into the region, it should ensure that the companies involved are ethical, using for example the guidelines of Australian Ethical Investment, which do not support companies involved in uranium mining, old growth forest logging, third world sweatshops, arms dealing or similar practices. Locally-owned rather than multinational corporations should be given preference, to ensure that decisions are made in the community, and that profits remain here. Under such guidelines, Coca Cola, with its poor social and environmental history and its monopolistic practices (see www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=34604), would not be permitted to turn our precious water into unhealthy and addictive products. Similarly, Bunnings is a company which has contributed to the unsustainable logging of old growth forests (see www.lexicon.net/peterc/Letters/buypassb.htm. or http://www.geco.org.au/boycott.htm). Council should encourage industry involved with renewable energy (eg solar, wind power, biogas) and environmental or cultural innovation. Council should also encourage local initiatives such as the Solar Armidale Project, set up to stimulate a local industry to manufacture solar air heaters and retrofit them into existing buildings in conjunction with ceiling and wall insulation to replace excessively polluting woodheaters (http://www.3sc.net/solarm/sshdemo.htm). In this post-industrial society, employment creation should also involve permanent part-time employment as well as full-time employment.
3. A cap on population growth
There needs to be a cap on population growth and development. The current trend is to maximise subdivision rather than sprawl into grazing country. Both have their problems. Maximising medium density housing (often involving poor architecture to increase profits for absentee landlords) can lead to serious social dysfunction. It is no coincidence that areas such as Girraween, where many lower-income people are crowded into flats – with little provision for children’s or youth recreation - are those areas with most domestic violence and abuse.
Town planning for sustainability and social cohesion requires a knowledge of what size population to plan for. There is much evidence that a steady state population is more desirable than boom-and-bust development. Scientists have for some decades now rejected unlimited growth as impossible on a finite planet. Many regions are already reaching their carrying capacity, with water in particular becoming scarce. Becoming smarter environmentally would increase our carrying capacity in Armidale, but there is little evidence of this occurring in Armidale. Rather, much of the development seems inappropriate. Coastal towns which have gone along this path have lost many of the reasons for their initial attractiveness.
We can already see in Armidale increases in traffic (a friend, recently returned to Armidale from years away, believes the town is already much less people-friendly). As population grows, this will further increase, bringing more frustration as well as accidents, noise and air pollution, and parking problems. Greater population also puts immense pressure on regional recreation areas. Some once-quiet areas now echo to the sound of dirt bikes on weekends, while at Mt Yarrowick four-wheel drives plough straight through picnic areas and across the creek.
Firewood is also becoming scarce, with some suppliers ringbarking forests to continue supplies. If all new houses are required to have adequate insulation and are designed on passive solar principles, heating costs should be less than half the cost of existing houses. Council should therefore require that all new houses use non-polluting heating to protect our health and reduce the environmental impact of firewood collection.
The practice of demolishing houses to build units is also highly unsustainable. It wastes precious resources and contributes significantly to landfill (see http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/39433889d406eeb9ca2570610019e9a5/82D6EAD861A050C9CA2573C600103EA1?opendocument).
Council should resist further population and housing growth in Armidale, but should support rural towns which are declining in population.
4. Sustainable energy and materials
Council should be congratulated for offering financial incentives for wood stoves to be replaced. For most people, however, this is not enough to purchase a solar system for electricity and hot water. Council supporting the solar industry would help bring the cost of solar power down. All new developments and council buildings, such as the proposed library, should be designed for maximum environmental sustainability, using solar passive design so that they don’t need woodheaters (which should not be permitted because of the health impacts of the air pollution and the impact of firewood collection on the environment). Council should also encourage solar power, and environmentally friendly materials, such as plantation timbers, rammed earth, mudbrick or strawbale. The new Oorala Centre at UNE, and houses on the Steiner Sustainable Housing tour are good examples, with the latter tour drawing visitors nationally and internationally. The state-wide BASIX regulations is a good initiative, but must apply equally to large companies as it does to individual builders – perhaps more so, given that larger companies are generally more able to afford to build sustainably.
Such initiatives could be a niche market for Armidale, and should be encouraged and supported by council. Environmental sustainability and education could be a focus for council, and this would draw researchers, tourists, individuals and councillors from around the world, just as occurs with the eco-town of Davis in California, or with the various councils that embraced waste recycling early. Making an early and committed stand would be the key to drawing such attention.
Rainforest and old-growth timbers should be banned for environmental and social justice reasons (I have seen rainforest dwellers in Borneo starving because of inappropriate logging). In older Council buildings, Council should switch to Green Power. Council should reduce grassed areas through native plantings, and when replacing lawnmowers should buy electric mowers. Council could also run ads in the papers and on radio that condemn littering, exhort people to refuse plastic bags at supermarkets and to turn off lights, and
With Peak Oil causing prices to rise fast (to $200 a barrel and perhaps to $500 by 2020), and climate change evident, authorities need to encourage use of transport alternatives to cars. The recent roadworks have been extensive and useful, but public bodies now need to adapt towards alternatives such as buses and bicycles rather than individual cars – whose needs have been over-subsidised for many years (see http://www.getup.org.au/campaign/AustraliasBiscuitBudget&id=322). Bike paths should be maintained better, and extended to encourage this most efficient method of transport. Bicycling should also be encouraged by providing for bicycles on local roads, e.g. by painting bicycle symbols on the roads to indicate the best place for cyclists to ride (such as in the middle of the lane on single-lane roundabouts). In the US, these symbols are known as “Sharrows” – see http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0831/p14s02-ussc.html. In 2005, San Francisco decided to stencil 2,500 'sharrow' symbols on its streets. The Queensland equivalent is known as the ‘yellow bike’ symbol (see
5. Aboriginal Heritage
Council is to be congratulated for establishing sculptures and seats in the creeklands recently, and for the Judith Wright Memorial park. A similar park acknowledging the sustainable custodianship of this region for millennia by the traditional owners would aid both sustainability and race relations. This could occur in Civic Park, and include native vegetation and a sculpture made by indigenous and non-indigenous artists. Both Central and Civic Parks could be renamed with suitable local Aboriginal names, as could any new streets. A list of suitable Aboriginal names has been available to Council for some years, but the Council’s Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer believes few, if any, have been used.
6. Visual environment
Although Council goes to considerable lengths, within their legal powers, to try to preserve Armidale's identity and heritage, more consideration of aesthetics should go into development proposals. For example, the main highway through the town should be picturesque and unique (such as in Sawtell). It has some beautiful cathedrals, hotels and Central Park, but is marred with fast food joints, service stations, a supermarket (corporations which are far from sustainable) and neon signs, all of which could be enhanced by native trees. A major part of it is unimpressive, and could be anywhere on Earth.
The decision to allow the ‘Heights on Erskine’ development was unfortunate. As in Burley-Griffin’s design for Canberra, hilltops should remain as undeveloped natural areas for public enjoyment and aesthetic appeal. As such, the bushland on the corner of Erskine and Crest Rd should be preserved for its visual importance, as well as because it is an endangered ecological community.
Architectural Aesthetics (by Mark Cooper)
The council seems to be currently approving the building of townhouses by developers purchasing and demolishing groups of houses in very good condition in streets where there is a consistent streetscape with the result that the streetscape is being radically changed. From three house sights comes 6 to 8 townhouses. This will in turn no doubt affect the aesthetic of the town overall and with the continuation of this type of development, Armidale must eventually lose its current strong connection to its past and become less of an attraction for tourists as well as people wishing to move to a town with “character”.
Arguably a town’s “character” comes from the style of its buildings and materials used in their construction as well as their size and where they are situated in relation to their use and other buildings, and all these make up the aesthetics of any building. New buildings in Armidale seem to suggest that there is no overall plan for the city in the CBD and its suburbs which takes into account the history, streetscapes or building style of those buildings that we all say have “character”. I do not advocate stopping developments altogether, but rather that there be strong and consistent guidelines for any development in Armidale and that these would be developed from robust debate within the community taking into account the needs of the people who live here as well those wishing to build here and that these guidelines include a strong focus on maintaining whatever it is that people feel contributes to the style and therefore “character” of Armidale.
In my opinion, the CBD has already taken on the look of many towns and I am particularly disappointed that the architecture of newer buildings such as the Wicklow extensions, Cole complex, most of the Kmart complex, and now Centro, has little or no connection with where these buildings are situated; their lack of a sense of place is obviously missing. They are the same structures you would see in any bigger city and have again radically changed the streetscape into one of sheer walls, some reflective, some black, some painted concrete in colours and textures that do not show an understanding of nor connect with the New England environment. This must in turn affect the way people relate to these buildings.
I know some people love Centro because it feels like they’re in a big city; while others do not go there because of the same reason. For those people who like the feeling, I can’t help wonder why they continue to live here; perhaps it’s because they are students who miss home, or others who wish Armidale were more like a big city. I thought that people were here because it’s not a big city. I have a very strong intuition that the same shops could have been built in a style much more sympathetic to their surroundings, with a much lower roof-line with more solar passivity for less cost and more people would go there.
This trend of unsympathetic buildings does not have to be and is thankfully not followed by all. Take for instance the new NECU building; Armidale blue brick or like, sympathetic façade and windows with an internal floor sculpture produced by a local artist. The people who designed and built it understand that buildings have aesthetic and social responsibilities to the surrounding buildings and the street they are in, as well as the people who work in them and also to those who use and/or visit them. A building is not just four walls and a roof, and every building should take into account these important elements. I would suggest that the NECU is a popular building society in this community because they understand the need for their business to appeal to their customers and part of that appeal is the building they trade from, and I think they have succeeded in achieving a strong connection with the public on these two fronts.
Similarly, there have been some new dwellings built in a style that in my opinion compliments the look of Armidale. That these are popular retirement homes and units seems to indicate that these developers know what that age group is seeking for their accommodation needs and they also have been sympathetic to the style of houses around them. They don’t look out of place. The new dwellings being built on Link Road are of a particular style and are similar to each other, but they suffer from the heaviness of low, tiled roofs that are in some cases the colour black. This is in a semi-rural area on the outskirts of a country town!! What a welcome to the city – a building estate which looks like any in bigger cities. I understand that the current BASIX guidelines dictate certain aspects of home design and colours, but if this trend continues the entrance to Armidale will lose its potential to attract rather than disinterest or even repel potential short and long-term visitors.
If Armidale is to retain enough of the style of its older houses and buildings for it to maintain its character and to appeal to tourists and those wishing to move to such a place as well as continue to acknowledge those who already live here, we need to make up our minds about what future developments should look like. The internal structure of any building could remain as a developer desires, but externally there needs to be a recognition of where the building is reflected in its size, the materials and colours used in its construction and most importantly how and where it fits in any overall vision of Armidale.
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Call for ’strong regulation’ on retail sites
Recommendations in a report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) could lead to more “shop cemeteries” in the main streets of towns, according to two academics at the University of New England.
The report – on the competitiveness of grocery retail prices – was released in July after being commissioned by the Federal Government at the beginning of the year. Among the measures it recommends is a further deregulation of retail sites as part of an attempt to increase competition.
Associate Professor Robert Baker and Dr Stephen Wood from UNE’s discipline of Geography and Planning say this recommendation could lead to a proliferation of “greenfield” retail development on the outskirts of towns. “Such a policy would further exacerbate the problems facing struggling main streets,” Dr Baker said, “and see the increasing invasion of pawnbrokers, $2 shops, tattooists, op shops, local MPs, and ‘adult’ shops into what is becoming the ‘dead heart’ of towns. The ACCC seems intent on creating retail deserts in town centres in the name of competition.”
“What Australia needs is strong regulation, not motherhood statements on competition,” he continued. “Competition policies like this are based on the economic ideology that ‘the market always gets it right’, but in fact the market usually gets it wrong. The ACCC needs to take on the hard decisions against the big players.”
It is those “big players”, the academics say, who could exploit any further deregulation of retail development by building more out-of-town supermarkets – still classified as “general stores” in out-dated government regulations.
Dr Baker and Dr Wood advocate a system similar to that in the UK, where the emphasis in supermarket development is on “what’s good for the community” and not “what’s good for the supermarket company”. “In Britain, priority is given to developments in town centres,” Dr Wood said, “and developments have to be sustainable in terms of the town’s population.”
“In Australia we’re continuing to operate in a policy vacuum in terms of retail planning, and it’s undermining main-street viability and vitality. What we need is a retail policy that has definitions, guidelines, and enforceability.”