Collins St, 5pm

A trip to the National Gallery of Victoria is not complete for me, unless I stand in front of John Brack’s Collins St, 5pm. It’s an iconic, powerful meditation on urban life, as relevant today, as when it was painted in 1957. Stand long enough in front of, and you’ll hear the clack of shoes on concrete, the rustle of slacks and skirts in the wind, and the general hum of a population with a singular destination in mind, home.

Cities have fascinated me for a long time. I have too many books on them. I am a city slicker, having grown up in the city (well, the ‘burbs, which is a whole other experience). I love the variety, the density, the challenge, the anonymity,  and the opportunity. These are the things that make cities work. There is nothing better for me, when I am in a new city just to walk, and walk, and walk, and look, listen, touch, smell and taste. I’m also fortunate that I live in the world’s most liveable city (whatever that means).

Of course, not every city is safe, thriving, exciting and full of opportunities. Cities also pose major challenges to us in disasters. Despite what a “cute” national identity narrative might want to suggest, we are an urbanised nation, one of the most urbanised in the world. Over half the population lives in cities, either formally, or in many places, informally sleeping rough, or shanty towns and slums. There is a complexity at play. And a visibility. They will bring a greater array of services, but equally, a greater scrutiny, given the proximity to media outlets and politicians, and a greater disruption when things go wrong.

There is a perception that cities are unfriendly, and that people won’t help others. It’s more of a code of conduct, to make sure the city functions. As Don Delillo said in Cosmopolis

“Eye contact was a delicate matter. A quarter second of a shared glance was a violation of agreements that made the city operational.”

I have had heard it said that our Know your Neighbours step in rediplan won’t work in the city, because people don’t want to know their neighbours. But we saw the kindness of strangers in the Bourke St incident in Melbourne, where people stopped to do first aid, or in New York after 9/11 when the power went out, people opened their doors to others, and helped out. People have networks, they just may not be geographically focussed. Or it will depend upon stages of life. I lived in 15 different places between the age of 18 and 33. I can’t say I was very connected to any of the places, didn’t know anyone in them. I have lived in the same place for the last 15 years, and cannot go to the shops without running into someone I know.

The risks are also somewhat hidden. WE don’t perceive threats. But they are real. Which makes it hard to encourage people to prepare. Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane all have earthquake risks. Only Adelaide has experienced one in the last 60 or so years. One today, would cost over a billion dollars. Given the push to greater density, we are seeing more open space paved over, paving means more run off, and into drains that are either designed in the last century (or the one before that), or poorly designed and maintained. Much of the natural watercourses have been paved over and shoved into drains. But, when they fill up and overflow, hydrologists tell me they want to revert to their natural water course, and heaven help what gets in the way. Brisbane and Darwin have experienced cyclones, and even southern states have experienced cyclonic winds. All major cities have a bushfire risk, indeed the 1967 Hobart Bushfires burnt almost to the CBD. And heat and cold wave has significant impact in cities with substandard housing, and large homeless populations. Once your ambient temperature in your house drops below 15C, if you have heart disease, your risk of dying jumps dramatically. Many people are placed at risk from legacy decisions of 50-100 years or more ago. What is more unfortunate, given what we know now, councils are still making decisions that are not ideal from a risk perspective.

And we are seeing that cities are at risk of terrorist attack (think New York, London, Paris, Istanbul, Mumbai, Madrid, Beirut) as these are all symbolic of the country’s culture and power structures. Or as we saw in Melbourne in January last year, where someone used a car to kill people with malicious intent. The risks are less than dying in road accidents or being affected by natural disasters, but we spend billions on counter terrorism, compared to a few million on counter disaster. The impacts aren’t much different.

Many cities are in transition. Changing economies away from manufacturing to services, hospitality and retail, change the composition of landuse. We are seeing more and more contested spaces, and the public and private uses blurring. In a somewhat strange set of circumstances, the state government had to apply to Apple to have a flagship store in Federation Square, the main piazza in Melbourne. Role reversal. The smart city is also emerging as a major influence of city agendas. The collection of data, and the use of technology to improve services and useability is a major leap forward. That is, of course, if you are on the right side of the digital divide. Infill development with less green space, more impermeable surfaces are increasing our heatwave and flood risks. Rising sea levels will make some places untenable. And these impacts are not distributed evenly. Poorer suburbs are likely to have a greater vulnerability to heatwave.

Modern life with bigger cities, and longer commute times, leaves less time for leisure activities, and people often feel stressed from running around, getting stuck in traffic etc. Wellington in New Zealand runs a day where they have a walk home from Wellington to Lower Hutt (as this is what people would have to do if there was an earthquake). It’s a family fun day, and they mix in preparedness messaging. I was wondering what the cute little guy was in 7/11s in Sendai. I found out that in the case of earthquake, the city has arranged with 7/11 to provide water and food to people who have to walk home.  My cousin, when he owned a number of bike shops in London, found that his best days sales, ever, was when the transport system was shut down after the London Bombings. People had to get home.

We also see a massive reliance on lifelines in cities. The loss of power in Adelaide was major, no ATMs, no lifts, no traffics signals, no transport, no doors opening. Starting thinking about what this means.

I think a lot of our emergency management planning, and our volunteer driven emergency management models have emerged from a very rural focus. “Disasters only happen in the country” seems to be a prevailing view. Turn out a few volunteers to do a bit of stuff in a hall. Sure it’s a bit more complex than that, but the issues around rehousing, rebuilding, stimulating economies, when to reopen or run events. Mardi Gras went ahead 6 months after Katrina. It was important to New Orleans. Would we cancel the AFL Grand Final if there was a pandemic influenza?. Talking to my colleagues in Hong Kong, they said when they turn out to a single building fire, they have to think about supporting and rehousing up to 500 people or more. This is the sort numbers we might grapple with for an entire community. We saw when responding to Bourke St tragedy, the experience of some of our volunteers was not appropriate for what they had to deal with. Aggression, conflict de-escalation, mental health issues, as well as significant distress. Being in red (the same colour as the volunteer tourism guides, we also got asked a lot of directions). Some of my international colleagues had a bit of a giggle about the “tough deployment on Bourke St, but when you are standing between two homeless men discussing with increasing aggression the events that happened, you need all your skills.

Urban resilience is starting to emerge onto the disasters agenda. In Adelaide, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC undertook work that looked at multiple futures for Adelaide, and what the challenges are. Both Melbourne and Sydney are participants in the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities Program, looking at how to manage the shocks and stresses in cities  (which are not only ‘disaster related” (I hope to do a separate blog on this). The NSW Wales Office of Emergency Management has funded Inner Sydney Voice to look at ways of increasing resilience in public housing in the inner city. And of course, the homelessness research that we have undertaken has an strongly urban focus. We have identified three drivers for our future work, climate change, increasing disadvantage, and urbanisation. Later in the year we are involved in co hosting the Urban Resilience Asia Pacific Conference in Sydney. So, momentum is gathering.

My favourite time in the city is when it is dark, and quiet. The magic of the city lights, twinkling like stars.  After midnight, or before dawn, when only the people who have to be awake, are awake. The shiftworkers, the street cleaners. I feel alive these moments. And nobody captures this better than The Blue Nile


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