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Can Brisbane become livable again if its population is not stabilised?

The West End Community Association ( is fighting the state Government and the Brisbane City Council to prevent their neighbourhood from being turned into a crowded, congested and polluted high-rise slum. Darren Godwell, a leader of WECA, believes that this can be prevented if more a more thoughtful approach to planning is adopted and decisions are left in the hands of local communities. He believes this is possible, even with the skyrocketing price of petroleum and even if Brisbane's population is not stabilised. He put forward these views in an article submitted to Brisbane's Courier Mail Newspaper on 22 May, which is included below. The article was not published. Another article previoulsly submitted to the Courier Mail which was not published in spite of its obvious relevance to the Brisbane City Council election campaign then under way was What price for City Hall accountability?

Greater Brisbane — Darren Godwell BHMS MHK currently serves as an Advisor to the World Bank on community development and lives in South Brisbane. For the first time in history, the majority of the world's population is living in cities. The challenges of city living have been with us for thousands of years but obviously we’re finding ways to deal with them.

In 1924 the Queensland parliament amalgamated the cities of Brisbane and South Brisbane plus a slew of other towns and shires to create the City of Greater Brisbane. Brisbane has usually been behind the eight ball when confronted with the pressures of population growth. In its first decades Council couldn't find enough money to pave streets, source sufficient water or sewer our suburbs. Clem Jones' election in 1961 came with a promise of the city's first town plan, paving the roads & laying sewers.

Today, the pressures of population growth again push the City of Greater Brisbane. How are the city's residents and ratepayers responding this time around? Unlike the 1960s, Brisbane is awash with plans. Politicians crafted the SEQ Regional Plan with its prescriptive Local Growth Management Plans. Every year City Hall employs hundreds of staff and spends millions of dollars to draft, consult, engage, write and implement plans. However, the modern City of Greater Brisbane demands more than bitumen and flushing toilets. People only choose to live in cities when they offer something better. Last century's civic preoccupation with roads, rates and rubbish was required but its not sufficient for our future.

Greater Brisbane will have to harbour a resilient city economy, protect a unique Brisbane lifestyle and sustain lives that are better for living in this city versus Barcelona, or any other city that competes to retain the most talented, creative, hard-working residents. This competition to offer something better is the civic challenge of the today.

Our new circumstances demand new ways of seeing the challenges of living in cities. Traffic congestion isn't a problem, the failure to have regular, reliable commuter solutions is our problem. The drought isn't a problem, the failure to have water management that befits the planet's driest continent is the problem. The skyrocketing price of petrol isn't a problem, the failure to unhitch our city economy from car dependency is the problem. Increased population density is not a problem. The problems come when we ignore the principle of local leadership over local development.

The closer to people's immediate lives we can empower residents the better off our streets, neighbourhoods and Greater Brisbane will be. The evolution of Brisbane's civic development will take us out of city hall redtape and towards greater responsibility for local development initiated by locals. Vibrant neighbourhoods and safe streets are created by ordinary people living their lives in the homes they love. Everything we do as a city must make these lives better for being lived in Brisbane.

It’s time to take the next steps towards making the city of Brisbane greater.


mike's picture

Goodness me Darren, I have a problem with your non-problems...

The drought isn't a problem? Did you REALLY mean to say that? The "failure to have water management" is just part of the issue. It's much much more complex than that. Wivenhoe Dam is in the wrong place (if you want water storage). It's a flood mitigation dam. It was built post 1974 flood to catch the 1 in 100 year flood that comes down the Brisbane. Other than that, it almost never rains there. So you start plugging houses into this dam, and you'll empty it, FOR SURE! I know, I was involved in its design when I worked for the then Irrigation and Water Supply Commission.

Being creative with 'management' will only work if you stop the growth. Twice as many houses consuming half the current water each STILL consumes the same amount. What then? Halve the consumption again? Besides, this drought, whilst not caused specifically by climate change, is certainly worsened by it, and cities are greatly responsible for elevated levels of consumption which cause elevated levels of greenhouse emissions.

"The skyrocketing price of petrol isn't a problem, the failure to unhitch our city economy from car dependency is the problem." Oh really? Do you realise we pour more petrol into our refrigerators than our cars? Even if we all gave up our cars (like I did) Peak Oil (and the resulting price hikes) will cause us all sorts of pain. I've left Brisbane because it's a terrible place to grow your own food. The soil's crap, the allotments are too small, and there's not enough water..... we thumb our noses at water restrictions here on the Sunny Coast..... we have nearly 50,000 litres in our water tanks, and they fill up at the sight of clouds!

The problems, Darren, really come when we ignore that we are living on a finite planet with finite resources, and then consume everything at an exponentially growing rate.

A pessimist is a well informed optimist

Thanks, Mike for reading the short article. I think your comment is about as long as the original op ed piece, obviously a poor reflection on the way I presented my concepts. People have chosen and are continuing to move into cities to live their lives -thankfully for the Sunshine Coast I might add. But that doesn't help the millions of Australians that live in our cities. Accordingly, I was seeking to take the experiences of urban life into relevant illustrations. Sadly, when living in the city you don't get too many opportunities to garden & farm - but that's a choice people make. Its my hope that by having a closer look at some of these lived experiences surrounding urban realities we might be able to move people to a better future. A future that is more sustainable. A future that does know its limits and bounds. And a future that enables more people to take more a lead over leading better lives. Mike, at present our State government is dependent upon 'growth' for 41% of its current tax revenues some $4.2billion, how do you think we should restructure our state economy & revenues to take the need for growth out of the need for government?

I have the same problem with these problems that are not problems, also with the people-centric thinking. Until/if we manage water shortage, it is a terrible problem with terrible repercussions. Also, none of the proposed solutions pay heed to the rest of the natural world and other animals; all our 'solutions' just take more for humans. The idea of Brisbane competing with Barcelona for the 'best people' conceives of a city as some kind of exchange house for manic enterprise. What about the other 99% of people who have to live there? What about the elderly people and children who need gardens, quiet and stability? What about the large number of people in dull jobs, who want to work fewer hours and have more time peacefully relaxing in a calm, pleasant natural environment?

I agree with the need to empower people locally, but if you have big business maniacly building all over the place, no-one local can stop them and residents would have to give up work and pleasure and spend all their waking hours making submissions to government and lobbying to stop the roads from being torn up and rebuilt and the subdivision to microscopic proportions of every neighbourhood. The reason for the impossible pace of development is the population growth. Without population growth developers would just go away. (God, I wish they would GO AWAY!)

And what about those of us who despair at what is happening to the birds and trees and other wildlife? What does the city hold for us, except more heartache. And the country is being torn up as well. So there is no-where for us to go.


Thanks for your article. You may not be aware of it, but the choice of living in the country is no longer there for many because big agribusiness and modern enclosures for so-called efficiency are forcing people off the land. One of the ways this has been done most recently is by disaggregating water from the land and forcing people to try to make unsustainable profits from farming or get out.

Have a look at two articles on this site:
Orwellian Waterworks: big-agribusiness and Victorian Gov, John Locke in Ellen Meiksins Wood's The Origin of Capitalism.

It is common to mistake a trend for a desire. In the industrial revolution people flocked to the cities as well, because they were chased from the land.

These trends are a feature of Anglo-capitalism and they will end when oil and coal run out.

You are right about power needing to be local, but the population growth is both unsustainable and democratically unmanagable. It is destroying our democracy, in my view. Good luck with your attempts to reestablish democracy locally.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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