Future Sydney: A paragon of resilience

To respond to the increasing frequency and severity of climate-related events, Sydney will need to undergo a serious transformation.

Art by Ellie English (@Pyxelart).

Living in Sydney or Australia more generally over the past two years has begun to feel eerily apocalyptic. Narratives of climate disaster are starting to unfold: the 2019-2020 fires, growing economic inequality and most recently the widespread flooding of south east Queensland, and New South Wales. Suddenly, the climate crisis is shaping the lives of many across the country, making it harder for those in power to ignore the impacts of these disasters.

However, our government is showing no signs of enacting meaningful climate policy. To make matters worse, even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped today, the global average temperature would stay elevated for at least a thousand years. To manage this situation, we need urban governance authorities to devise new ways of responding to the increased frequency and intensity of climate events. In the city of Sydney, building resilience also means addressing many other economic, political, and social challenges.

The concept of urban resilience refers to a city’s ability “to return to desired functions in the face of a disturbance, to adapt to change, and to quickly transform systems that limit current or future adaptive capacity”, according to Michigan based resilience scholar Sara Meerow. The concept of urban resilience has always been important, but given the scale of climate change-induced disasters and consequent human suffering, there is greater urgency to developing new strategies.

A similar concept is that of climate adaptation. Where climate mitigation is about limiting emissions, adaptation is about living with and responding to the consequences of fossil fuel  emissions. Adaptation strategies are inherently tied to the concept of resilience because they focus on limiting vulnerability to climate change. Our leaders seem to be reluctant to enact policy which efficiently mitigates the greenhouse gas effects . As the planet continues to warm, both mitigation and adaptation are important concepts in urban governance. 

When thinking about ensuring the long-term habitability of Sydney, not all adaptation strategies are made equal. The NSW government currently runs a handful of adaptation strategies, but they are implemented at the individual level. Current governance around climate adaptation reproduces neoliberal ways of thinking by shifting responsibility for climate adaptation away from those in power and to the individual citizens of Sydney. For example, to respond to urban heat and extreme heat events the NSW government recommends that citizens stay out of the sun, try to stay indoors, move to the cooler parts of the house or use air conditioning. These recommendations make assumptions that leave the vulnerable more at risk. A recommended adaptation strategy like using the air conditioner assumes that this is an option for everyone, whilst simultaneously continuing to increase emissions. This is called maladaptation, when the adaptation strategy actively impacts the vulnerability of others. 

All of this presents a fairly gloomy picture for the future of Sydney. Fortunately, this does not have to be the case. With increased fervour, community groups are calling on the government for action. Citizens of Sydney are claiming their rights to a city free from the catastrophic effects of climate change. So, what if Sydney got it right? How would we build a resilient city that will be habitable for all in a future of increased extreme weather events, rising temperatures, and growing socioeconomic inequality?

Urban Heat

Sydney is a dynamic city, with its urban footprint, various demographics, and microclimates all undergoing significant change. In particular, Western Sydney has seen enormous growth in recent years and is showing no signs of slowing. The current growth rate is 1.9%. At this rate,Western Sydney will be home to more than 3 million people by 2030, according to the NSW Department of Planning and Environment. Coupled with the NSW government’s “Metropolis of Three Cities” plan, we are likely to see Sydney continue to sprawl further and further out.

Unfortunately, a lot of new developments in Greater Sydney are victim to the urban heat island effect. This phenomenon manifests in urban areas which are warmer than its surroundings due to darker material surfaces, lack of vegetation, wind shielding, lack of evaporation, and anthropogenic heat caused in the cities via car exhausts, heaters, and computers among other things. The urban heat island effect has a disastrous synergy with climate change and rather than utilising known methods of adaptation, poor urban planning in Western Sydney increases the heat. 

Dark roofs in Western Sydney contribute to the urban heat island effect, raising by temperatures by up to 4 °C inside the home. Source: The Guardian.

This has resulted in areas of Sydney reaching record and inhospitable temperatures. In 2020, the surface temperature of Penrith smashed previous records for Australian temperatures that had stood for over 80 years. On 4 January, Penrith was the hottest place on earth, reaching temperatures of 48.9 °C – almost 5 °C above the previous record. Between 2011 and 2020 Western Sydney saw a 13% increase in heat-related mortality. In Australia, heat related mortality accounts for more deaths than all other natural disasters combined

Citizens of Western Sydney deserve the right to liveable and cooler cities. However, achieving resilience may be possible in the form of grassroots activism. Organiser Emma Bacon founded Sweltering Cities, which aims to campaign against poor planning and neoliberal advice in response to urban heat with a vision of “cooler, more equitable and sustainable cities with planning and policy that puts people at the centre.” One of Sweltering Cities current projects involves a widespread survey on urban heat in order to understand the experiences of Australian residents to inform better ways to manage temperatures in our cities. If you would like to help the Sweltering Cities create a more resilient Sydney the survey can be found here

Honi reached out to executive director of Sweltering Cities Emma Bacon. When asked about how resilient Sydney is to rising urban heat she said: “Even on the coast, reports predict that in the next 50 years, homes that are being built now won’t be safe without mechanical cooling (air con, fans etc). Our current planning system isn’t creating a resilient city, rather it is facilitating the development of more at-risk communities.”  

Currently, action regarding urban heat resilience is not coming from the federal or state governments. Western Sydney community campaigner at Sweltering Cities and University of Sydney uni student Dani Villafaña said, “communities in our hottest suburbs are building local resilience. 

“From councils creating heat shelters for vulnerable people to students campaigning for air con for safe classrooms in summer, there are local programs. The problem is that the state and federal governments have no clear plans for addressing extreme heat, so local programs that could be expanded and replicated aren’t.” 

Communities across the globe are using direct action in order to reduce urban heat. For example, Depave Portland was founded in 2007 when a group of community volunteers began tearing up unused paved areas and replacing them with community gardens. The group removes dark pavement surfaces in order to reduce energy absorption from the sun. The vegetation they replace it with manages stormwater runoff and reduces the impacts of urban heat. The group often completes works without a permit. In doing so they make a direct claim that the citizens of Portland deserve the right to cool cities, challenging the neoliberal agenda focussed on individual responsibility.  

We already know how to tackle the problem of urban heat. There is no reason that in the future, Sydney could not formally implement the strategies enacted by grassroots organisations in its urban planning processes. With the budgets of local councils and the state government, the demonstrably beneficial work done by activists might extend beyond their postcode. If Sydney effectively adapts to urban heat, we will see a cooler and greener city for years to come.

Flooding

While droughts, heatwaves and fires represent one aspect of climate catastrophe, climate change is also a key factor in increasing extreme rainfall events. This was recently typified by the devastating floods in Sydney over the last two weeks.

The Sydney floods were caused by a low pressure system moving down Australia’s east coast, dumping rain wherever it went. With it came Sydney’s wettest start to any year on record, reaching 298% of the long-term average for data collected by the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) at Observatory Hill. 

As a result of the flooding and storms, over 50,000 NSW residents were told to evacuate their homes, with 40,000 of them from the Sydney region. Tragically, 21 people lost their lives in the extreme weather events. This is not to mention the damage to homes and small businesses of people in flood-affected areas.

Climate disaster is at our doorstep, so what can Sydney do to build resilience and limit vulnerability to such events? Once again, part of the NSW government’s response to flooding emphasises what the individual can do to stay safe: “Know your flood risk and have a plan in place if your local area floods”. While a sound recommendation, it does little to help flood-susceptible residents prepare or to mitigate the effects of floods in the first place. Rather than reproducing neoliberal talking points about what the individual can do, it should be the government’s responsibility to implement resilience strategies to protect those most vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Professor Nicky Morrison (WSU) and Doctor Patrick Harris (UNSW) completed a study on eight Western Sydney councils in order to assess flood preparedness. They found that while each council recognised the importance of building resilience, most strategies are in their infancy. Part of this is due to policy conflicts as Western Sydney tries to meet development and infrastructure demands, whilst implementing additional resilience policies. 

NSW state government planning policy takes priority over local government policy. According to development targets, the government intends to build 750,000 new houses by 2036. This state priority sits in tension with council goals for more water-permeable greenspaces. Sprawling housing developments will lead to many new impermeable hard surfaces like concrete and bitumen that do not efficiently direct water runoff from floods. Local governments do have plans to build adaptation strategies such as flood-risk hotspot mapping, community evacuation plans, and development restrictions for certain high-risk areas. Furthermore, large green open spaces that can be flooded with minimal impact on human life are often zoned. Such spaces, however, are quickly filled by development proposals in line with state government targets.

This being said given the devastating impacts of the recent floods, citizens are now protesting for both climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Flood-affected residents of Lismore and surrounds have recently placed flood damaged items in front of Prime Minister Scott Morrisson’s Kirribilli house in order to present those in power with the real world impacts of climate inaction. Resilient Sydney starts with grassroots and community-led movements, be it direct action or through protest practising citizenship in a way which claims the right to liveable and resilient cities. 

Economic Inequality and Disadvantage

A resilient Sydney is a city in which all are equally protected, where vulnerability is not exacerbated in pockets of the city due to the stratification of wealth and privilege. Unfortunately, those most severely affected by extreme weather events are generally more economically vulnerable. Enduring extreme weather is a traumatic experience, but recovering from one without a strong financial base is devastating.

In 2005 after the catastrophic floods in Louisiana caused by Hurricane Katrina, Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) famously stated “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. Perhaps inadvertently, Ye was referring to the concept of environmental justice. The effects of climate change do not affect everyone equally, with poorer communities and ethnic minorities disproportionately affected. An infamous example of this was during Hurricane Katrina, where of the seven worst affected neighbourhoods, four of them had a population that was at least 75% black.

However, issues of environmental injustice also exist much closer to home. The impacts of heat in Sydney are not evenly distributed across the population. People of lower socio-economic standing are more likely to be severely affected by heat due to inadequate government planning in poorer areas, leading to more dark impervious surfaces, sparse vegetation, and cheap, but climate-insensitive architectural decisions. Additionally, low socio-economic status communities must choose between spending a large percentage of income on cooling costs or enduring the heat. Access to and use of air conditioning has been shown to significantly reduce instances of heat related mortality, but for many people cooling costs are prohibitive. Furthermore, people of lower SES backgrounds are more likely to be priced out of areas with access to urban greenspace and bodies of water which act to reduce urban heat.

Sydney and Australia more generally are seeing growing levels of inequality. This inequality exists along spatial bounds. Within Sydney, the Western suburbs are most disadvantaged. Urban planning consultants Urbis found that the most geographically advantaged neighbourhoods have access to four times the job opportunities, eight times the social support and ten times the education opportunities when compared to the most disadvantaged areas.

Resilience in Sydney must mean reducing vulnerability for all. Sydney as a resilient city ought to think beyond just reducing the effects of climate change, and consider how economic and societal structures disadvantage certain demographics. Any comprehensive urban resilience plan recognises that the burden of adaptation is more difficult for some to bear. Imagining a better future for Sydney would address income inequality across spatial bounds and ensure everyone is protected from the dangers of climate change.

Housing

Reading this article, you may feel disheartened about the future of Sydney. However, in the future, people who have grown up environmentally conscious will be in the driving seat and I am confident that if we continue claiming the right to liveable and resilient cities, policy will follow.

Housing is a key factor in mitigating risk and vulnerability. We all have personal experience in this – some houses are built to be cool and waterproof, while others have their ceilings cave in storms and become unlivable on hot days. Changing the way in which we perceive housing will also change levels of vulnerability to disadvantage and climate change. While the right to housing is recognised by the United Nations, governance structures do not always put this right into practice. In order to build a more resilient Sydney in the future, the right to housing should be restructured as the right to affordable, safe and climate resistant housing for all. Changing the way in which the right to housing is perceived will ultimately build a more resilient Sydney.

In practice, this will mean a complete redesign of the current public and social housing system, including but not limited to retrofits to existing social housing infrastructure. While to some this may seem idealistic and beyond what can realistically be achieved, we only need to look to Vienna to see similar policies in practice. In Vienna almost 3 out of 5 residents live in social housing and 44% of the city’s housing stock is made up of subsidised housing. On top of this most residents in Vienna only put 25% of their income toward rent, compared to Sydney’s 32%. The project was started in 1919 when the Social Democrats came into power and was funded by a housing tax, which today is estimated to cost residents of Vienna only 1% of their yearly income. As well as this, having such a large portion of the population in government subsidised housing forces the government to maintain quality and quantity of housing, leading to beautiful architecture like you can see below. Vienna’s public housing policy reduces stigma and improves the quality of housing for all.

The Alt Erlaa affordable housing project in Vienna demonstrates that beautiful homes can belong to poorer families too. Source: The Tyee (top), The World (bottom).

​​There is no reason why such a strategy could not be adopted in Sydney in years to come. The technology already exists and is improving at an increasing rate. The public housing system should be designed with sustainable climate control, solar energy, green roofs, smart technology and widespread insulation. This would reduce vulnerability to climate related risks as well as creating a society where inequality was less spatially segregated.

When asked about the role of campaigning and awareness raising Emma Bacon stated that the current state of our city is the result of long term poor planning and policy decisions. However, with a shift in power and with communities taking charge, this could change. 

“The issues we face today have been created by decades of planning decisions that prioritised profit over healthy communities and it’s the most marginalised communities that are facing the economic, environmental and health costs,” Bacon told Honi. 

“To address these problems, we need to change the power dynamics in our cities by supporting affected communities to have more of a say in their local environment and be empowered to build the liveable, equitable and sustainable cities of our future”.

While it is possible our future will be scary, I still have great hope for the future of Sydney. It is up to us as young people to change the future of Sydney and push for resilient and equitable cities which adequately consider the risks posed by climate events, such as extreme heat and flooding, as well as economic disadvantage. Technology and adaptation strategies already exist. It is now time for us to claim our right to a resilient city so we can live in our beautiful city for years to come.