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close this bookCrucibles of Hazard: Mega-Cities and Disasters in Transition (United Nations University, 1999, 544 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the document1. Introduction - James K. Mitchell
View the document2. Natural disasters in the context of mega-cities - James K. Mitchell
View the document3. Urbanization and disaster mitigation in Tokyo - Yoshio Kumagai and Yoshiteru Nojima
View the document4. Flood hazard in Seoul: A preliminary assessment - Kwi-Gon Kim
View the document5. Environmental hazards in Dhaka - Saleemul Huq
View the document6. Natural and anthropogenic hazards in the Sydney sprawl: Is the city sustainable? - John Handmer
View the document7. Disaster response in London: A case of learning constrained by history and experience - Dennis J. Parker
View the document8. Lima, Peru: Underdevelopment and vulnerability to hazards in the city of the kings - Anthony Oliver-Smith
View the document9. Social vulnerability to disasters in Mexico City: An assessment method - Sergio Puente
View the document10. Natural hazards of the San Francisco Bay mega-city: Trial by earthquake, wind, and fire - Rutherford H. Platt
View the document11. There are worse things than earthquakes: Hazard vulnerability and mitigation capacity in Greater Los Angeles - Ben Wisner
View the document12. Environmental hazards and interest group coalitions: Metropolitan Miami after hurricane Andrew - William D. Solecki
View the document13. Findings and conclusions - James K. Mitchell
View the documentPostscript: The role of hazards in urban policy at the millennium - James K. Mitchell
View the documentAppendices
View the documentContributors
View the documentOther titles of interest

6. Natural and anthropogenic hazards in the Sydney sprawl: Is the city sustainable? - John Handmer

Editor's introduction

Sydney is the largest in a chain of well-watered coastal cities that surrounds the dry interior of Australia. Remarkably free of severe natural hazards in previous centuries, it is now beginning to experience increasing problems with wildfires and floods as new, underserviced suburban housing spreads out and pushes inland toward the Blue Mountains. It is also affected by a wide range of worsening technological and social hazards that challenge municipal myths and international stereotypes about the high quality of urban living in this mega-city. As Sydney struggles to find an appropriate formula for sustainable urban development in the twenty-first century, it is beginning to confront issues that have heretofore received too little attention from urban specialists. Chief among these is the role of environmental hazard in the concept of sustainability. Without an adequate accounting of environmental risks and hazards, the search for sustainability runs the risk of pursuing an unobtainable utopia.

Sydney in the early 1960s... was no more than a harbour surrounded by suburbs - its origins unsavoury, its temper coarse, its organisation slipshod... [but, there is now] a new vision of Sydney... resplendent, festive and powerful... the most hyperbolic, the youngest in heart, the shiniest [of the cities left by the British Empire].

(Morris, 1993)


Sydney is the largest and most important city in Oceania. With 4 million people and international institutions of politics, commerce, finance, communications, and the arts, it is arguably the best example of a "world'' metropolis in the southern hemisphere. The city is being propelled into an increasingly important role in the global economy by several perceived advantages. These include modern information technology and a time zone that encourages synchronous economic relations with Japan and the emerging markets of East Asia (Lamont, 1994). At the national scale, Sydney is Australia's pre-eminent city and the major destination for immigrants. At the metropolitan scale, it is an inexorably expanding low-density sprawl of bungalows (i.e. single-storey ranch-style houses) that cover an area exceeded only by New York, Los Angeles, and London.

Although Sydney is subject to a wide range of environmental threats, it is not especially susceptible to natural hazards. None the less, many Australians conceive of their nation as one that regularly does battle with a harsh natural environment, characterized by devastating floods, bush-fires, and drought (Hughes, 1986, pp. 13, 110, 559). This attitude is reflected in general expectations that natural hazards occur - even in the country's major cities - and that society will set aside resources to cope with them. Though less deeply embedded in the country's self-image, technological hazards, pollution hazards, and social hazards are also important attributes of Sydney. In addition, there are substantial and growing lifestyle inequalities among city residents, but they have not yet produced the vast ghetto areas and gross neighbourhood disparities of many other mega-cities, especially those in less developed countries.

At issue in this book is whether the massive urban agglomerations that are fast becoming the favourite habitat of humanity are also becoming more vulnerable to disaster. And, if this is so, with what implications for sustainability (WCED, 1987; Harrison, 1992)? Increases in the number of environmental disasters are often seen as evidence of weak or declining sustainability. But such damaging events may be offset by increasingly sophisticated responses and loss-redistribution mechanisms that operate, at least in richer countries, through global networks of reinsurance and commerce. Which trend dominates in Sydney and what is the connection between hazard management and urban sustainability? In order to answer these questions it is first necessary to clarify some broader issues.

Hazard in the modern mega-city

Are mega-cities necessarily more hazardous?

Major cities seem to be intrinsically hazardous because they combine large concentrations of people with vast - almost unknowable - ranges of risk-laden commercial, industrial, and transportation activities (Alexander, 1993). In addition, many cities have grown with scant regard to aspects of the biophysical environment such as flooding, unstable slopes, and topography that exacerbate air, ground, or water pollution. Uneven effectiveness of institutions for managing cities and urban hazards complicates the picture (Blaikie et al., 1994). For example, in many places poor urban construction practices and inadequate building standards persist in the face of substantial risks because of ignorance or uncertainty about hazards. Elsewhere, sound standards exist on paper but cities lack the institutions necessary for effective administration and enforcement. Alternatively, appropriate legal, bureaucratic, professional, and educational institutions may exist but fail to function. Finally, even the best efforts of hazard managers may be frustrated by the fact that rules and regulations - the cutting tools of programmatic action - usually fail to affect the informal sector of city life. Taken together, these factors are likely to produce a city that is increasingly susceptible to hazards.

Vulnerability in the context of sustainability

Susceptibility to hazard does not guarantee that losses will occur. Affected communities must also be vulnerable. Vulnerability is a complex concept that connotes both susceptibility to immediate loss and the inability to draw on physical, human, psychological, or institutional resources that might be applied to prevent or offset such losses. In the intellectual world of hazards research and the operational world of disaster management, the concept of vulnerability is frequently paired with its opposite - the concept of resilience (i.e. the ability of a stressed system to resist change and return to a pre-disaster state). In the past, city-wide disaster-related changes have usually been few and have rarely amounted to more than "fine-tuning'' of the total urban system. However, very substantial changes have occurred in city neighbourhoods and in the lives of individuals, families, and other groups that were affected by such hazards as earthquakes (Yong et al., 1988), toxic chemical releases (Shrivastava, 1992), and dam failures (Erikson, 1976). Vulnerability to disaster is increased by factors such as poverty, war, and the denial of basic human rights (Red Cross/Red Crescent, 1994). These chronic problems preoccupy many urban residents, leaving them unprepared for periodic disasters. In this connection, slow-onset hazards that are almost imperceptible at the outset (e.g. famines, epidemics, environmental de gradation) may pose the most difficult problems.

The relationship between urban vulnerability and urban sustainability is complex and little understood. As defined by the Bruntland Commission (WCED, 1987), sustainability is a prescription that rests on two moral principles - intergenerational equity and intragenerational equity - plus the assumption that environmental integrity should be maintained (WCED, 1987). The concept of sustainability is itself subject to much debate, with the result that standard policy-implementation tools and institutions have yet to come to grips with its wide-ranging implications (Dovers, 1995). Perhaps more important, the idea of sustainability poses special problems for disaster managers, whose primary function is to ensure the safety and security of people who are subject to forces that are capable of undermining existing settlements and social arrangements.1 Resilience in the face of sudden-onset hazards (i.e. quickly getting back to normal after a destabilizing event) may not be a good indicator of a city's ability to achieve sustainability in the long run (Handmer and Dovers, in press). The reverse is more nearly correct; it may be necessary to make fundamental changes in the way a city operates to ensure that it is in a better position to cope with future disruptions.

1 This is exemplified by the contents of recent reviews of disaster management in the United States (National Academy of Public Administration, 1993) and Australia (Australia, Senate Standing Committee, 1994). Where mitigation is considered, opportunities for significant change exist. But usually changes are very minor, at least in terms of the pattern of human settlement and activity.

Different types of support network operate at different scales, so issues of scale are important in determining urban sustainability. For example, some of the resources that are used to assist disaster recovery originate at national and international levels of the private sector (e.g. insurance and government aid); others employ local kinship networks to channel private donations and NGO remittances from equally far-flung sources. When a disaster is highlighted by the mass media, especially the media of developed countries, there can be near-global mobilization of resources. This is especially so where major cities are concerned, because these are generally linked to national power structures through densely patterned systems of elected leaders and non-governmental organizations.

If a wealthy community suffers damage it will usually be well insured and is likely to have adequate surplus resources for reconstruction and recovery. If these means do not suffice, such a place will almost certainly be very well connected to effective political and bureaucratic systems that can deliver demanded assistance. Paradoxically, however, frequent one-way transfers of resources to prop up wealthy urban areas may be indicators of unsustainability!

Sydney as a mega-city

Spatial and temporal setting

Modern Australia was founded on 26 January 1788 at "Sydney Cove,'' with the arrival of the First Fleet. This convoy of 11 ships brought some 1,000 men and women convicts with their goalers on an eight-month voyage from England. The objective was to establish an urban penal colony in the vicinity of Port Jackson. In the eyes of the native people, this was an invasion that dispossessed them of their land; arguably they still constitute Sydney's most underprivileged group.

Port Jackson was chosen for settlement in preference to the flat swampy area of Botany Bay, just to the south, which is now the site of the international airport and a major industrial complex. Key rationales at the time were the need for secure anchorages, good building sites, and a nearby source of fresh water. The port is an extensive, well-sheltered deepwater harbour with a number of arms, separated by prominent and well-vegetated sandstone ridges. Three-quarters of the city's population lives within 5 miles of tidewater (Rose, 1993, p. 205). North of the harbour and along the coastal suburbs the sandstone plateaus are steeply scarped. Many of the more rugged slopes have provided fine building sites for the wealthy; they also provide parks and pockets of bush-land - with attendant bush-fire risks. The coastal area is also well supplied with excellent beaches. Not surprisingly, the beaches, harbour, and national parks within and on the outskirts of the city are a major recreation resource. Together with the harbour and its unmistakable images of bridge and opera house (photo 6.1), the ocean beaches and adjoining expensive suburbs are globally recognized symbols of Sydney that are used to attract international commerce and to market the city.

The climate too has always been a part of Sydney's image. In the words of an officer who accompanied the First Fleet:

The climate is undoubtedly very desirable to live in. In summer the heats are usually moderated by the sea breeze... and in winter the degree of cold is so slight as to occasion no inconvenience, once or twice we have had hoar frosts and hail, but no appearance of snow... Those dreadful putrid fevers by which new countries are so often ravaged, are unknown to us. (Tench, 1790)

However, Sydney extends well beyond the harbour - some 50 km or more from the central business district (CBD) (fig. 6.1). Much of the northern part of the city is not greatly dissimilar to the area that surrounds the harbour. But the sprawling suburbs and newer dormitory areas on the undulating clay plain to the west show none of the attractiveness and offer few of the services found in the central and northern districts. The west is drained by major rivers and streams, the Hawkesbury/Nepean to the north and Georges to the south. These often deliver damaging and disruptive (but not devastating) floods. In addition, they are gradually being poisoned with wastes generated by the growing city (Borthwick and Beek, 1993; Warner, 1991).

Photo 6.1. Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House (reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Australia)

Open space is another historic attribute that was bequeathed to Australia's biggest city. "Sydney is indeed fortunate that the army and navy appropriated so much foreshore land in the 19th century and that... they have resisted the temptation to build on it'' (Spearritt and DeMarco, 1988, p. 122). Today, the city retains much natural bush-land around the harbour and in close proximity to the city centre. Other types of national park are located near the central area and on the northern and southern boundaries of the metropolitan district. These fulfil recreational and aesthetic purposes and provide habitat for indigenous species. They also increase the potential for bush-fires, and offer refuge for the feral fauna and flora that are making inroads on native species and reducing natural biodiversity.

Fig. 6.1. Sydney and surrounding public lands (Source: Government of New South wales and others)

Consolidation and expansion

Early Sydney was essentially an unplanned settlement (Hughes, 1986, p. 296), but Lachlan Macquarie - a British governor - was responsible for drawing up a system of housing codes, street widths, and land plats that guided the growth of today's inner city, beginning in the 1820s. By the 1830s, increased trade and commerce fuelled continuous steady expansion (fig. 6.2). The "free settlers'' and "emancipists'' (freed convicts) formed a society that offered far more opportunities and social mobility than England's - although native people were not included on equal terms. Local government was well established by the mid-1800s, and it came to be quite different from the British model. In Sydney, many of the traditional functions of British city government were passed to or shared with separate statutory authorities; these include roads and bridges, transport, water supply, sewerage and drainage, and aspects of flood mitigation. Such bodies are still important features of Australian government and they go some way towards providing area-wide coordination of public services in the absence of municipal government on the metropolitan scale. They can usually be relied on to execute their narrowly defined missions; but they are also slow to respond to new agendas of environmental concern and public participation. Indeed, lack of political accountability has sometimes led to power struggles between the separate public authorities and the elected governments (Day, 1991; Lowe, 1984; Smith and Handmer, 1991).

In Australia, the chief role of local government has been to promote economic growth. Social reformist concerns about slums, which led Ebenezer Howard and others to pioneer the profession of urban planning as a means of human betterment, were not part of the vision of Australian leaders during the 1890s. During the 1920s and 1930s, land-use planning gradually gained legislative acceptance in Australia, but the Great Depression and the Second World War cut short opportunities for the beneficial exercise of public power through effective planning.

Post-war expansion

Rapid population growth dominated public agendas in Australia and Sydney during the post-war period. This was fuelled by federal government immigration policies that reflected the popular slogan "populate or perish.'' Paranoia about a possible inflow of migrants from Asia, entrenched in the "white Australia policy'' and other racially inspired programmes, disappeared only slowly. As late as 1961 even the major Australian current affairs weekly, The Bulletin, sported the motto "Australia for the white man'' (Horne, 1989). None the less, by the early 1970s these views had been replaced by a firm public commitment to "multiculturalism.''

Fig. 6.2. Growth of Sydney's population, 1790-1995

Sydney was, and still is, a favourite destination for immigrants. Currently population growth rates are around 0.7 per cent per annum, and new arrivals are accommodated by westward expansion of the city (fig. 6.3). For example, the area of Cabramatta is popularly known as "Vietnamatta'' (Mellor and Ricketson, 1991). Strategic planning might have improved the quality of living in these western districts, but it was never attempted; growth was simply accommodated rather than managed. Partly as a result, western and southern sectors of Sydney rank low on a wide range of socio-economic and environmental indicators; the poor facilities of the western suburbs are legendary.

Sydney today

Any examination of contemporary Sydney must take account of the city's strong population growth and remarkable areal expansion over the past few decades. Today, in the words of a local government representative:

Only Los Angeles can match [Sydney's] area. No major city in the world matches its low population density. Overseas visitors are surprised by a metropolitan area stretching 140 kilometers from new release areas near Wyong south to Appin. (Latham, 1992, p. 72)

Fig. 6.3. Competency in English (Source: Farrell, 1991, from 1991 National Census)

The city is a very low-density sprawl of nearly 4 million people, covering an area exceeded by only a few mega-cities. Most of Sydney's population (about two-thirds) live in detached houses on their own land blocks. The remainder occupy terraces, townhouses, apartments, or boarding houses (Spearritt and DeMarco, 1988). Property lots are now half the size of the early "quarter-acre blocks.'' Apart from a few commuter areas in the Blue Mountains and parts of north Sydney, development has generally avoided difficult topography. The city is bounded to the north and south by national parks that function as limiting green belts, but many people commute from well beyond these.

Settlement has encroached into flood-prone zones and fire-prone areas while the physical environment has become seriously degraded. Combined with increasing use of private transport and a lack of interest in environmental issues (until the 1970s), the result has been steadily increasing risk, exposure, and vulnerability to hazard. Decentralization has been fuelled by escalating central-city rents, but attempts to redevelop central districts have also generated local protests that raised awareness of heritage and environment issues. For example, the "Green Bans'' of the early 1970s saw unlikely alliances between the communist Builders Labourers Federation and a variety of groups with heritage and community interests (Roddewig, 1978). They were effective at blocking the redevelopment of areas such as the "Rocks'' - the site of Sydney's original settlement.

Whether Sydney will continue to expand as a low-density city is not clear. Certainly, there are countervailing trends at work. In the words of a contemporary student of Australian urban history:

Economic scarcity and the threat of environmental catastrophe have made the suburban sprawl seem as profligate and dangerous as it once seemed safe and boring. If the tide has turned against the suburban way of life, however, it is not just because we can no longer afford it, but because we have also begun to question the social aspirations and political arrangements that so long supported it. Declining levels and changing sources of immigration, lower fertility, and smaller government have produced a new urban agenda in which urban consolidation comes to seem not only virtuous but attractive. (Davison, 1995, p. 69)

Contemporary urban issues

Three overlapping issues have dominated recent debates about urban policy in Sydney: the acceptability of public sector planning as a means of guiding land development; links between low settlement densities and a declining quality of life; and the dominant role of motor vehicle transportation.


Post-war suburban development in Sydney was driven by the Australian dream of a detached home on a substantial block of land, connected to the rest of the world via long ribbons of tarmac. A private car rapidly became an essential part of the dream. The seemingly never-ending sprawl has, according to Leonie Sandercock (1979), turned land speculation into the national hobby: "One of the most sensational themes in the history of Australian cities has been the story of land speculation and the corrupt behaviour of politicians and public officials... associated with that speculation.'' Town planning schemes are accused of providing a "punters' guide'' to speculation because they identify areas to be developed far in the future. Indeed, speculation is one factor that has undermined the planning process because land is purchased in anticipation of rezoning, thereby driving up prices ahead of actual development. Among other results, purchasers may exert pressure for modification of plans to enhance their profits, and price inflation consumes funds that would have been available for public authorities to provide services (Stilwell, 1993). Until recently, profits from land speculation were untaxed.

Writing in 1966, a leading Australian planner, Peter Harrison, commented that, despite a "hopeful period'' after the Second World War, which resulted in "a good deal of intelligent optimism about reconstruction,'' particularly in Sydney, planning had little influence over post-war urban growth. Instead, the pattern was one of private speculative development serviced by public authorities (quoted in Ashton, 1993, p. 90). There are two main types of urban plan in Australia: statutory plans and strategic plans. Today, as in the past, statutory plans are the main development control instruments; they are little more than zoning schemes that set allowable uses. Australian planning has long seemed to be concerned about small-scale issues and to be essentially restrictive; it typically places controls on development applications made by individuals. This situation is changing only slowly despite important new reforms such as the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. This law has attempted to broaden the focus of planning beyond imposing controls on buildings and infrastructure to include developments of all types and to address issues of environment and social policy (Pearson, 1994; Stein, 1986). Strategic plans are much more complex than local statutory plans. They are policy documents that express visions of the future; they are intended to be proactive and performance oriented; and they typically encourage thinking about different means of implementation. There has been a long history of attempts to implement effective proactive strategic planning. But, when the plans were in conflict with the wishes of major developers and politicians, the plans typically gave way.

In the post-war period, there have been three major attempts at strategic planning for Sydney, with a fourth currently under way. All have fallen well short of their aims. For example, while generally accommodating further sprawl, the 1988 Metropolitan Strategy suggested that urban consolidation was to play an increasingly important role. Nevertheless, urban expansion remains the main thrust, and the identification of areas for further development fuels land speculation as before. Positive innovations include the fact that this plan paid attention to natural hazards and other constraints posed by the natural environment. Revisions currently under way incorporate considerations of "sustainability'' and there is emphasis on environmental and social equity issues. But even if the plan advocates active intervention in the development process and even if it receives broad endorsement by the public and the bureaucracy, history indicates that its chances of success are small. For, in Sydney, planners are politically weak and developers are well connected (Ledgar, 1976).

Urban density and environment

Concern that high population densities in mega-cities tend to exacerbate natural hazards may be misplaced in Sydney, as well as in other large cities of Australia and the United States. For example, in the outer suburbs of many Australian (and American) cities, densities are as low as 10 people per hectare. Such cities typically have very high private transport usage. By way of comparison, European cities have around 40 - 70 people per hectare and Tokyo over 100 (fig. 6.4).

Several processes are working to reduce Sydney's population density. One of these is gradual decrease of the central-city population. This has come about partly because of attempts to relieve inner-city crowding by constructing new homes elsewhere. Changes in lifestyles, central-city gentrification, and the falling size of the Australian family have also played a part. So too have changes in business practices. Even though a substantial proportion (30 per cent) of Sydney's CBD office space lies empty (Time, 7 February 1994), high rents, traffic congestion, limited parking, commuting time, and other issues have encouraged the partial suburbanization of work and commerce. The CBD's share of the metropolitan workforce fell from 23 per cent in 1971 to 12.6 per cent in 1986 (Stilwell, 1993) - although the change in absolute numbers was much smaller. None the less, the inner city remains a substantial population node. The 1991 census shows that inner-city areas - especially south of the harbour and in the eastern suburbs - have densities well over double those in the outer areas. Moreover, pockets of inner-city deprivation remain: for example, the Kings Cross area has long functioned as the city's red light district and is an important focus for the narcotics trade.

The counterpart to declining densities in the central city is the growth of very low-density, underserviced suburbs. During the post-war period of rapid house construction, much of western Sydney was developed with minimal urban facilities (Neutze, 1977). Environmental quality received little attention: many areas were left unsewered for decades and flood hazards were ignored by leaders who pleaded ignorance about them despite a substantial anecdotal history. As car use has grown, so has air pollution - with critical episodes occasionally exacerbated by smoke from bush-fires. Even though the bulk of the air pollution is generated around the inner city, it tends to drift to the western suburbs. These are also the areas that have found themselves battling against toxic waste tips (Smith, 1990), as well as enduring high unemployment and crime.

By the late 1970s it became clear that population movements and resulting demographic patterns in Sydney had attendant social costs. The New South Wales state planning authority argued that the expansion of outer urban areas should be curbed because inner districts possessed well-developed infrastructures that could easily accommodate additional growth at low cost. This policy would also have appealing environmental benefits because commuting and pollution would be reduced (New South Wales Department of Housing, 1991). The state government's response to this argument was at first to permit the construction of additional houses on existing single-family land parcels (so-called "dual occupancy''). Then it required local government to facilitate "urban consolidation'' (Pearson, 1994; Ryan, 1991). Both programmes are very unpopular and have provoked an intense struggle between state and local governments (Pearson, 1994; Ryan, 1991). Sometimes the outcomes have been perverse, with new areas in the outer suburbs being developed for dual occupancy. One commentator on Australian urban affairs believes that the new policies are merely "a desperate effort, under commonwealth (federal) pressure, to save money'' (Hugh Stretton, quoted in Collins, 1993, p. 32). Others are more strident and accuse the government of "taking away the only benefit that working class people have accrued from the wealth created in Australia, namely house and land, urban consolidation represents a relegation of lower socioeconomic groups to the status of landless poor'' (Troy, cited in Collins, 1993, p. 34).

Fig. 6.4. Urban density per capita petrol consumption (Source: Newman and Kenworthy, 1989)


Problems of urban density are closely connected with the rising importance of automobile transportation. By 1960, car ownership in Australia was near universal and about half of all trips in Sydney were made by car. Public transport seems appropriate for Sydney in light of its functional layout. It is not a radial city focused on a single centre; it is polycentric. However, public transport has been severely affected by municipal budget cuts and other measures; it is particularly poor in western suburbs (Black and Rimmer, 1992), although it survives in many parts of the city. According to the 1991 national census, a quarter of employed people commute via public transport. Newman and Kenworthy (1989, reported in Stilwell, 1993, p. 57) estimate that only about 8 per cent of all travel is taken on public transport. Sydney seems destined to continue shifting away from public transportation. It is undergoing a transformation from a city that was served by excellent light and heavy railroads, to one that is increasingly dominated by the automobile, with all the associated pollution and congestion problems.

Environmental hazards in Sydney

Sydney experiences a broad spectrum of rapid- and slow-onset hazards associated with natural, technological, and social agents (tables 6.1 and 6.2). Often the distinctions between these different types of hazard are not clear cut; nevertheless they are useful ideal types. The discussion that follows emphasizes hazards propagated by natural agents in the city.

Table 6.1 Some hazards in Sydney

Sudden onset

Slow onset


Environmental degradation


Crime and social pathology


Epidemics (poverty and disease)


Climate change

Severe storms


Dam break


Toxic spills, especially nuclear

Noise (e.g. airport)

Severe air pollution episodes

Transportation accidents


Table 6.2 Some significant episodes





Bubonic plague

103 dead. City functions severely affected by quarantine measures


Influenza pandemic

Over 12,000 dead, 1.3 million cases. Australia wide

November 1961

ANA Viscount crashed into Botany Bay

15 dead

18 January 1977

Granville train crash

83 dead

13 February 1978

Terrorist bombing at Hilton Hotel CHOGM Meeting

3 dead. Meeting moved, army involved. Ananda Marga blamed

August 1986

Flooding in SW Sydney

March 1990


A$319 million insurance losses

January 1994


4 dead. Approximately 200 buildings burned

"Continuous" low-level activity
Ongoing low-level terrorist activity - not directed against the state
Chronic air and water pollution
Contaminated soil

Rapid-onset hazards

Sydney is not affected by many conventional rapid-onset hazards. It does not suffer from winter storms and freezing temperatures or from hurricanes. Extreme heat occurs, but is rare. Neither does Sydney lie in a zone of marked seismic activity; slope instability and subsidence are also not significant problems. Coastal erosion and potential sealevel rise pose difficulties for some areas, especially the northern beaches, but do not affect much of the metropolis.

Nevertheless, some climatic hazards are significant: these include severe storms, floods, droughts, and bush-fires. Rapid-onset technological hazards are also a serious problem. Britton judges that Sydney contains most of Australia's chemical industry, "particularly areas surrounding Botany Bay... and western areas like Rhodes, the Homebush Bay complex and Seven Hills'' (Britton, 1991).2 In general, risk has remained more or less stable, with some exceptions such as bush-fires and extreme droughts. Exposure, on the other hand, has increased with population growth and settlement expansion. Although potential damage is increasing steadily because of greater wealth and greater exposure, losses are reduced by timely warnings and emergency response; the impact of damage is managed through loss redistribution. Severe storms are the largest agent of insured losses (Insurance Council of Australia, 1994). Arguably, water-supply infrastructure for drought avoidance constitutes the greatest investment of hazard-management resources. The flood risk, which is considered in more detail below, also includes the potential for dam failure.

2 During recent years the following technological hazards have been identified in the Sydney metropolitan area: (1) 8,000 tonnes of hazardous waste stored at the ICI site in Botany; (2) 23,000 tonnes of liquefied propane gas stored in the Port Botany area; (3) some 18,000 chemical storage sites; (4) nuclear wastes buried under the Royal Australian Air Force base in Richmond, University of New South Wales, Sydney naval headquarters, and sites near the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization at Lucas Heights (Britton, 1991).

Among the non-indigeneous population, awareness of natural hazards dates back to the earliest years of European settlement. Despite warnings from Aborigines, the new residents of outlying townships were affected by floods from the beginning. Floods of the early 1800s prompted Governor Lachlan Macquarie to issue a far-sighted proclamation. This urged settlers to "one and all adopt the firm resolution of forthwith erecting their habitations on the high lands cheered with the animating hope and fair prospect of... securing themselves from [future flooding]'' (1819). Although the Governor had extensive executive power, there were no legislative, bureaucratic, and technical bodies to implement and enforce his directive of non-structural floodplain management. Bush-fires as well were experienced from the earliest days. The 1803/1804 summer saw a number of destructive fires, which led to the first government order on bush-fire protection.

With the very important exception of a water supply that was designed to carry the city through the most severe drought (Rees, 1982), there has been little if any concession to - or accommodation of - natural hazards in Sydney. The city spread as if land was infinite, with little regard for well-known hazards such as floods and bush-fires or for considerations of sound environmental management. Conversely, public health concerns about the biological hazards of disease and epidemics loomed large in Sydney, as elsewhere, until the second half of the twentieth century. The global influenza pandemic of 1919 took a heavy toll in Australia, bringing 12,400 deaths and 1.3 million cases of infection to a population of 5.5 million (Curson, personal communication, 1989). Epidemics of smallpox (1881 - 1882), scarlet fever (1875 - 1876), and plague were particularly worrisome in the late 1800s. According to Curson (1985, p. 7), "the [plague epidemic of 1900] caused widespread social and economic dislocation, and was undoubtedly the greatest social upheaval of 19th century Sydney.'' Many people fled to the Blue Mountains north-west of the city, and vaccines were in short supply. "Curfews were imposed upon the infected zones of the city and people's right of movement severely restricted'' (Curson and McCracken, 1989, p. 8). More than 1,750 people were forcibly quarantined. Shipping between Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere was seriously disrupted by these and other precautions. There were longer-term impacts as well. An extensive slum area affected by the disease was demolished as unsanitary. Nevertheless,

[T]he real enemies which produced the highest morbidity and mortality throughout the nineteenth century were a series of less visible, more insidious diseases such as gastroenteritis, dysentery, diarrhoea, bronchitis, tuberculosis, venereal disease and a variety of eye and skin infections. (Curson, 1985, p. 9)

These problems receded with improvements in public health and the installation of a piped water supply and sewerage system (Coward, 1988). However, because the sewers discharged into the ocean, this "solution'' has itself gradually become a complex environmental problem.

Contemporary public health concerns include certain types of cancer, AIDS, chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases, and myalgic encephalitis. Some observers are also worried about the emergence of a new influenza strain similar to that of the 1919 pandemic (Frank Fenner, personal communication, 1991). AIDS and cancer receive most funding, probably because they attract media attention and are the focus of well-organized lobbying. Skin cancer prevention is also well publicized, especially because of Sydney's outdoor lifestyle and concern over the deteriorating ozone layer. Ultra violet (UV) levels are now part of the daily weather forecast, and, in combination with publicity over the ozone "hole,'' give the impression of a substantially increased risk. Some potentially important diseases, including the Pandora's box presented by asbestosis, receive relatively little public attention.

Concern with drought is manifest in the form of efforts to ensure that Sydney maintains a highly reliable supply of water. This is reflected in the construction of numerous dams (Rees, 1982), with more planned (Bell, 1993). As evidenced in the escalating and profligate per capita use of water by Sydney residents, the security of this supply appears to be eroding. Exposure, as measured by numbers affected, is also increasing rapidly. Consequently, it might be concluded that the risk of drought is increasing. But this may overstate the problem's severity. The very high per capita water-use rates offer a cushion against which consumption could be reduced relatively painlessly. About half the water (well over half in a hot summer) is used on the spacious gardens that surround most houses. These gardens are themselves a manifestation of public preferences for Northern European greenery in an area of unreliable rainfall with high evaporation rates - a reflection of the city's origins. Universal adoption of native gardens would result in a dramatic reduction in water consumption, although such gardens might pose a larger fire risk.

The security of Sydney's water supply is closely tied to the Warragamba Dam. Failure of the Warragamba Dam could reduce Sydney's water supply by 65 per cent. Combined with drought, this situation would be catastrophic. Although remote, this possibility received more scrutiny following the release of new Australian Bureau of Meteorology estimates of maximum probable rainfall in the mid-1980s. These suggested that extreme floods would be much larger than previously thought. As a result of this finding, many dams were judged to be seriously "underdesigned.'' Instead of surviving the maximum probable flood, Warragamba Dam was judged to have an annual chance of failure due to flooding of 1:500 (Taylor and McDonald, 1988). The dam has since been upgraded, but further changes may be needed. An anonymous official has suggested that the state Cabinet is wrestling over whether to spend money on a new dam or on sewage treatment - the latter desperately needed from an environmental perspective.

Like the prospect of dam failure, the chance of a major earthquake seemed remote until one hit the city of Newcastle, just to the north of Sydney, on 28 December 1989. At 5.6 on the Richter Scale, it was not exceptional in Australia: seismologists estimated that an earthquake of similar intensity occurs on average somewhere in Australia or the surrounding continental shelf every year or so. Insured damage amounted to about A$1,000 million (Insurance Council of Australia, 1994). Much stronger earthquakes, up to Richter 7.0 (Rynn, 1991), have been recorded but only remote areas have been seriously affected. In the past, known earthquake hazards had been largely ignored in building regulations and emergency planning, but the Newcastle event changed this situation. Building regulations have been revised, micro-zonation maps are being prepared for major cities, and studies of exposure to earthquakes are under way. One study for Sydney, sponsored by the insurance and reinsurance industry, illustrates that little of the metropolitan area is situated on ground highly susceptible to earthquake-shaking (Blong, 1994). Much of the city is on low-hazard material defined as "shallow soils on competent bedrock'' (Blong, 1994, p. 8) - material that transmits but does not amplify earthquake energy. Probable maximum loss (PML) estimates were made for residential structures only; the most conservative approach produced PML losses of just under A$15 billion for an earthquake of Richter magnitude 6.6. (By comparison, the January 1995 Kobe earthquake measured 7.2.) This figure omits some categories of loss (e.g. contents of residences; indirect economic losses) and some outlying districts; most importantly it excludes all commercial, industrial, and government buildings and infrastructure. Total economic losses of a large earthquake would therefore be much higher.

Widespread flooding was experienced throughout New South Wales in the early 1950s and 1970s and intermittently throughout the 1980s (Handmer, 1985). There is some evidence that heavy rainfall in eastern New South Wales has increased since the mid-1940s and with it the consequent risk of flooding (Bell and Erskine, 1981). There is nothing new or unexpected about severe flooding in Sydney, but the hazard has received little attention from urban planners. The first recorded floods on the Hawkesbury River to the north-west of the city occurred in 1799, and there have been many re-occurrences. For example, "in March 1806 the farms along the Hawkesbury River, on which the food supply of Sydney depended, were devastated by flood. The water covered 36,000 acres and destroyed all the standing crops, along with the farmers' tools, livestock and seed reserves'' (Hughes, 1986, p. 125). After the Second World War, the outskirts of Sydney began to invade these flood-prone areas as well as similar risky reaches of the Georges River to the south-west. Both rivers have the potential to produce extreme flooding many metres deeper than any so far experienced; associated losses of life and property would be very high. Smith et al. (1990) estimate that a maximum probable flood on the Georges River would result in about A$1,230 million of direct and indirect damage, mostly to industry and commerce. Given the depth of flooding, a properly functioning warning system is essential to reduce potential death tolls. At present, warnings of 6 and 12 hours are available for the Georges River. However, the present warning system did not function well during the floods of 1986 or 1988 (Handmer, 1988). Fortunately these were relatively minor events; despite that fact, they caused substantial disruption over much of Sydney in combination with widespread severe weather. The flood-warning system has since been steadily improved and upgraded.

Inner, eastern, and northern areas of Sydney are subject to flash-flooding from urban storm-water drainage overflow and urban creeks. The main disruption is to transport. Older parts of the city are worst affected for two reasons: natural drainage systems have long since vanished underground; continued development has overtaxed the artificial surface drainage that replaced them.

Bushfires are by far the most spectacular hazard in Sydney. These routinely affect areas on the outskirts of Sydney, and occasionally occur around Lane Cove National Park in the inner city. They have increased in number and impact as low-density suburbs spread into bush-filled areas that are particularly fire prone because of their broken topography. About 6 per cent of bush-fires result from lightning (see Chapman, 1994, p. 30), but most are caused by human action - all too often through negligence or arson (Lembit, 1995, p. 139). Accordingly, fire risk is increasing. In some places, such as the hills around Canberra, fires have extirpated native vegetation and encouraged invasion by exotic weeds. Much endemic Australian fauna and flora is adjusted to fire and was traditionally used by Aboriginal Australians as a rangeland management tool to assist hunting (Singh et al., 1981). In general, very frequent fires and very hot fires are regarded as most damaging, but the precise ecological effects of fire in Australia are still strongly debated and this has implications for fire management.

Fires around Sydney are democratic agents of destruction, sparing neither the cottages of low-income residents nor the homes of millionaires. But this is changing as expensive suburbs expand into areas of steep, rugged terrain, with houses sparsely spread through the bush. Depending in part on aspect and drainage, such areas are often particularly susceptible to bush-fire, and pose a near impossible task for fire-fighters. In a fierce fire, burning branches or embers from eucalyptus trees are often carried many kilometres by wind, thereby igniting new fires in unpredictable places well ahead of the main fire front. In these circumstances, mobility and rapid response are critical aspects of fire management. Public policy generally concentrates on saving life and property, because a fully developed fire accompanied by strong winds is very difficult to extinguish.

Slow-onset hazards

It is recognized that the classification of "slow-onset'' hazards is somewhat arbitrary and that many hazards are hybrids. What follows is suggestive rather than comprehensive and draws on selected examples to illustrate broader issues and problems. Sydney's slow-onset hazards are on the whole not spectacular but - unlike most rapid-onset hazards - many are the subject of continual attention by the mass media, community leaders, politicians, and intellectuals.

Environmental degradation

Looking at Sydney Harbour on a sparkling clear day, it can be hard to believe that the city suffers from chronic air and water pollution, and that virtually untreated sewage all too often floats onto the beaches (Beder, 1991). Some of the environmental insults can be traced to a legacy of previously ignored or mismanaged problems. These range from decisions not to invest in sewage treatment facilities and public transport, to lack of concern over industrial and commercial practices that poisoned land. Perhaps "the more insidious disasters [were] bequeathed... by generations who freely used arsenic in their tanneries and sheep dips, dieldrin in their woolen mills and cyanide in their mines'' (Kissane, 1990).

Contaminated land and groundwater are widespread; they include sites of former factories, waste tips, warehouses, transport and public works depots, farm sheds and yards, and sites where toxic materials were retailed (Britton, 1991; Tiller, 1992). The latter can include a variety of exotic problems such as radiation contamination of land at a former watch factory site or arsenic contamination of a site where railway sleepers (ties) treated with creosote were stored. Leakage of petrol (gasoline) from storage tanks and from endless "spillage'' is pervasive among the thousands of abandoned and existing petrol stations that dot the city. Although major petrol producers and distributors are increasingly considering preventive measures, cleaning up the environment is difficult and expensive (Johnsen, 1992; Rowe and Seidler, 1993). The bulk of environmental law focuses on reactive measures and penalties for contamination; prevention receives minimal acknowledgement (Johnsen, 1992).

Petrol is also a major contributor to another of Sydney's intractable environmental problems: photochemical smog. Indeed, petrol consumption is an approximate surrogate for a range of urban environmental problems, including air pollution, traffic congestion, parking issues, and public transport provision. Traffic congestion and its associated pollution have been major issues in Sydney for decades. Newman and Kenworthy (1989) show that per capita petrol consumption is closely correlated with population density. Cultural factors (and the price of petrol) are also important. Although Sydney's consumption is substantially less than consumption in major Texan cities of comparable density, it is still double the consumption of moderate-density cities in Western Europe such as Copenhagen (fig. 6.4).

The bulk of pollution is generated in the inner-city area around Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay where the concentration of traffic is greatest. A combination of topography, prevailing winds, and sunny weather conspires to exacerbate the problem - principally by moving increasingly polluted air to the western region. On a typical sunny (high-pollution) day, the process is as follows. During the night, relatively clean cold air drains from high ground south of Sydney into the Hawkesbury basin, pushing polluted air into the Parramatta River Valley. This flows eastwards, reaching the coast at about 10 a.m., picking up pollution from the morning rush hour as it crosses the central-city area. Later in the day, this polluted air may return with the sea breeze, reaching the far western suburbs of Sydney by mid-afternoon. As it travels across the city, sunlight reacts with the mixture to form additional ozone; by the time the air arrives in the western suburbs, ozone is at peak concentrations.

In the early 1970s it was recognized that the city had a severe photochemical smog problem. A range of government regulations for cars, as well as improved vehicle fuel efficiency and factory closures, led to dramatic improvement in official air quality. Unfortunately, Sydney's air-quality stations were predominantly located in the inner city, so continuing declines in the air quality of western districts did not show up until later (Wright, 1991/92). If present development trends in western and south-western Sydney continue, areas such as Penrith and Mount Druitt could be experiencing ozone levels as high as 20 ppm by the year 2011, with the added danger of sustained high levels, rather than occasional peaks (Wright, 1991/92). In summary, both air pollution risk and exposure are increasing inexorably. Vulnerability trends are more complex; for example, there appears to be an increasing proportion of asthmatics in the population, but a decreasing proportion of smokers. Unfortunately for the western districts, matters are unlikely to improve in the near future. The west is the area of major urban growth, and it is there that most of the planned new land releases to accommodate further low-density sprawl will be located.

Social hazards

Mega-cities are often viewed as areas of deprivation and social hazard. In contrast, this is not a widely held image of Sydney; there is nowhere in the city that a visitor should avoid - at least during daylight. Nevertheless, within Australia, media coverage reinforces the image of Sydney as a crime capital (Murphy, 1994). According to an Institute of Criminology study, there is a widely held perception that the city is much less safe than in the past. This view is most strongly held by the elderly - who are the least likely to become victims (Murphy, 1994). It also receives endorsement from politicians keen to promote themselves as bastions of "law and order'' (Brown, 1978). Yet the statistics barely support these perceptions (New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 1993). Sydney contains some 62 per cent of the state's population, and has about 66 per cent of the recorded crime, but the pattern of crime is variable. Drug-related offences are much more common in rural areas of New South Wales - about twice as common per capita than in Sydney. Sex offences and property damage are also more common outside Sydney.

The city's western suburbs show up as more violent than other areas of the city, especially the "North Shore.'' Also, about half the state's total narcotics trafficking offences were recorded in the western suburbs of Fairfield and Liverpool, but this may be largely a reflection of intense activity there by narcotics police (New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 1993). Burglaries follow a broadly similar pattern (fig. 6.5). Responses to crime tend to be very reactive, but this may be changing. The police themselves are emphasizing the development of crime-prevention partnerships with different sections of the community (Murphy, 1994). For many years now, communities all over Sydney have developed "neighbourhood watch'' programmes with local police, partly sponsored by the insurance industry. There is also an internationally publicized initiative to rid the city of crime in preparation for the forthcoming Olympic Games: "Sydney's streets will be Australia's safest by the 2000 Olympics'' (New South Wales Police Commissioner Tony Lauer, in Murphy, 1994).

Fig. 6.5. Burglaries in Sydney by postcode (Note: this covers insurance claims only. Source: NRMA, 1989)

Examination of official statistics for trends indicative of declining social cohesiveness produces inconclusive results. Fraud, arson, and robbery with firearms appear to be declining and assaults appear to have increased substantially, but the latter trend is considered to be primarily a reflection of increased crime reporting (New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 1993). Available statistics on social pathologies are also beset by other problems. To a substantial extent they probably exclude low-level violence, intimidation, extortion, and drug dealing. Much of the racism in Australia takes this form. Less visible criminal activity like this is thought to be quite prevalent in some communities, although the issue is a matter of debate.

From the Second World War until the early 1970s Australia's official unemployment rate was around 1 per cent. But in the wake of falling demand and declining prices for the country's major exports, the Australian economy has been restructured and unemployment has shot up dramatically to about 10 per cent. Along with rising unemployment have come increasing poverty and homelessness. Other social factors are at work as well. A society that was once preoccupied with debating just how egalitarian it was now rarely raises the issue except to comment on spatial disparities. For Sydney these are substantial and increasing (Stilwell, 1993). In a now-familiar pattern, the western and south-western districts of Sydney suffer from higher rates of crime, pollution, poverty, unemployment, and English-language incompetence compared with the area north of the harbour - the "North Shore.'' Areas of severe deprivation - the "third world city within the first world'' (Perlman in MacGregor and Takhar, 1995) - are small but significant and include many Aboriginal Australians. There are also substantial numbers of homeless, as well as flourishing illegal sectors dealing in drugs and prostitution, exploitive informal service and light manufacturing sectors operating beyond the reach of the bureaucracy, and many people living legal but marginal existences.

Responses to social issues have tended to be palliative; on the government's agenda such matters generally rank well below economic reforms and free trade initiatives. Exceptions may occur when major political pressure is mounted, generally through coalitions of interests, and just before elections. The overall trend of social hazards is towards increasing exposure and vulnerability.

Hazard management and response

Important macro institutional issues, such as poverty, are generally ignored in hazard management, as are activities and policies undertaken for non-hazard reasons - even though they may be central to questions of exposure and vulnerability. In principle, hazard management may involve a wide range of interests and orientations: it can tackle issues of risk, exposure, or vulnerability; it can focus on the obvious or try to grapple with the insidious; and initiatives can come from any level or sector of society, including groups outside the formal process of government. Unfortunately, the richness of potential that is inherent in this diversity is typically ignored by professional hazards managers and scholars of the field. They tend to restrict attention to formal organizations with narrowly defined planning or management missions.

Formal hazard-planning and management take a variety of forms, which can be summarized in three general categories: (1) emergency preparedness and response; (2) mechanisms to deal with residual risk; and (3) preventive planning. The first two primarily address issues of vulnerability; the third focuses on management of exposure as well as vulnerability. Hazard-related land-use planning and preventive measures are often caught in a fundamental dilemma between the desire to promote innovation and risk-taking in the cause of economic growth and the need for caution in the face of uncertainty. This is part of a broader tension between economic development interest groups and planning interest groups. Both groups are supported by considerable bodies of legislation and policy (Fowler, 1991). Implementation of sound hazard and environmental policies is often subject to strong resistance from elements of the commercial and political worlds.

A selection of hazards, identified in the previous section as being important in Sydney, is reviewed below to explore management issues and approaches. Sections on bush-fires, floods, and environmental pollution illustrate issues of response, comprehensive planning, and complex hazards. The management of residual risk is primarily accomplished by means of loss redistribution policies and programmes that are not hazard specific; they are treated separately.

Rapid-onset hazards

Hazards that manifest themselves as discrete events are generally within the institutional coping capability of modern cities. They are also fodder for media and politicians: disasters in Sydney, especially ones involving a natural agent, are high-profile political events. The city operates professional career emergency services: police, fire brigade, and ambulance - all connected to the sort of facilities expected in a major city of the industrialized world. In addition, very large volunteer organizations form a key component of local community preparedness. According to Britton (1990), some 400,000 Australians, or about 2.5 per cent of the total population, are permanent volunteers with emergency organizations. In addition, many people act as "casual volunteers'' during emergencies, without formal membership of any organization. The largest proportion are volunteers in bush-fire brigades.

Emergency services are almost exclusively devoted to immediate actions in response to clearly defined events. Although this stance may be singularly appropriate when confronting bush-fires or floods, it may have hampered comprehensive planning and preparedness for long-term hazard reduction. It may also suffer from other limitations. For example, most of Sydney lacks approved disaster-management plans for chemical and technological emergencies (Britton, 1991). However, the governmental role in hazard management is changing. Under the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989, attention to hazards goes well beyond response: local governments must address "prevention, preparedness, response and recovery'' for all identified natural and technological hazards in their areas. In other words, they must consider risk and exposure, in addition to vulnerability management. Implementation of this act is highly variable, uneven, and slow. Enormous energy has gone into prevention programmes for hazards such as drought and minor flooding, whereas other hazards have received only selective and intermittent attention.

Bush-fires: Spectacular events and total responses

Response organizations excel when confronted with the most spectacular and newsworthy of events: bush-fires. Most bush-fire- or wildfire-fighting is done by volunteer brigades, equipped and trained with government funds. Australia-wide there are tens of thousands of trained volunteer fire-fighters. On the fringes of major urban areas such as Sydney, there is often an uneasy relationship between the career brigades and volunteers, and there are many unresolved issues concerning the fire-fighting system. The operation of this system can be illustrated with reference to the widely publicized Sydney fires of January 1994. These fires dominated world media for days (F. Campbell, 1994): CNN and the BBC led with the story for over 24 hours, and Swiss Television erroneously announced that Sydney had been evacuated (Time, 24 January 1994, p. 19). However, these were by no means the worst urban bush-fires of recent years: the "Ash Wednesday'' fires of 1983 in Victoria inflicted more than 10 times as much destruction (2,500 houses versus 200) and nearly 20 times the fatalities (76 versus 4).

Drawing primarily on voluntary brigades, the New South Wales Bush-fire Commissioner was able to mobilize a massive force to combat the fires. Between 27 December and 17 January there were 800 separate fires in the state of New South Wales (Koperburg, 1994). By the end of this period some 800,000 ha had been burned, including vast areas of national park. Acting on advice from the Bureau of Meteorology that the hot, dry, and windy weather would continue and the fire situation would worsen, the Commissioner requested extra resources.

There are, of course, official channels for requesting resources, in particular from other jurisdictions. The Commissioner used these, but primarily he mobilized a personal network around Australia, and - with the cooperation of the mass media - requested assistance from the private sector. The result was an influx of fire-fighting units from all over the country. For example, 55 units drove over 1,000 km from South Australia, and 116 fire-fighters flew the 3,300 km from Perth to take part in combating Sydney's fires. In total, over 20,000 fire-fighters were involved, including military units and career fire services, as well as hundreds from the National Parks and Wildlife and Forestry agencies, and countless volunteers in various support roles such as catering and emergency accommodation. The bulk were employed in the Sydney region (Bush Fire Bulletin, 1994, p. 47).

Helped by rain, the fire ended. Fire-fighters were hailed as heroes and paraded through Sydney. The Commissioner had publicly predicted the loss of 2,000 or 3,000 houses, whereas only 200 buildings and 4 lives were lost. To many, this was the Commissioner's achievement. However, the fire highlighted communications and coordination problems (Cunningham, 1994) and raised questions about whether a formal planned response would have been more effective. The fires out, attention turned to why they had happened. The causes were deemed to be a combination of fuel loads and weather patterns and limited cases of arson. Intense media attention gave the impression that the burned area had been "destroyed'' and created pressure for simple political responses. Singled out was the apparent failure to reduce the risk of bush-fires by burning off excess fuels - so-called "hazard-reduction burning'' or "controlled burns.'' Environmentalists and national park managers became convenient targets. "Environmental protection laws and policies were seen as the cause of abundant flammable native Australian vegetation throughout suburbia'' (Harding, 1994). But it is not clear that widespread hazard-reduction burning is of great benefit to the city; specific local action may be required to lower the fire risk (Cunningham, 1994).

Reasons for concern about hazard-reduction burning are complicated and involve links to air pollution, the ecological role of fire, and the potential for ignition of uncontrolled fires. For example, it is clear that bush-fires are major contributors to Sydney's air pollution; the big fires of 1994 drove up pollution readings to their highest levels since the last major bush-fires 13 years earlier (Bishop, 1994). Unfortunately, controlled burning also affects air pollution; on 1 June 1994, it was reported that the "smog'' over Sydney was due to controlled burning in national parks. Legally, controlled burning is exempt from the provisions of the Clean Air Act 1961. The New South Wales Health Department investigated links between asthma and air pollution, after high particulate levels caused by controlled burns in May 1991, and in the wake of media speculation (Churches and Corbett, 1991). Results were inconclusive, but the editor of the Health Department's Bulletin warned of smoke's negative health impacts (Public Health Bulletin, 1991).

Fauna and flora suffered in the 1994 fire, although not as much as first feared. Although fire is an integral part of most Australian ecosystems, the appropriate frequency and intensity of controlled burns is fiercely contested (Benson, 1995; Robinson, 1995; Williams et al., 1994). Moreover, compared with "natural'' fire regimes, controlled burns are generally of a lower intensity and greater frequency and occur at a different season (Whelan, 1995). Finally, over a quarter of all bush-fires result from the escape of "controlled burns,'' although many of these burns did not have the required permits (Chapman, 1994). Other complications in the controlled-burning debate include differing perceptions of hazard among interest groups. To the bush-fire manager, long grass may indicate a dangerous fuel level; to the stock owner, it may be a valuable grazing resource.

The roles of settlement patterns, housing construction, and the general expansion of suburbia into high-hazard areas received little attention following the January 1994 fire. Guidelines on these subjects are issued by the state planning department and other agencies, but local governments have generally omitted considerations of bush-fire hazard from the development-control process even for very high-risk areas such as north-west-facing sites on top of escarpments (Cunningham, 1994). One outcome of the 1994 fires may be increased application of fire-related building and planning codes.

The bush-fire hazard has evolved from a straightforward single issue into a complex and highly contested nexus of problems involving environment, health, safety, settlement patterns, and other issues. Despite this context, fire-hazard management addresses a far narrower range of issues. Hazard-reduction burning tops the list, spurring calls for more resources (Phelan, 1994) and the reduction of legal obstacles. Other important management alternatives involve emergency response, loss redistribution, and the provision of public information. In short, fire management tends to be driven by the specifics of different fire events whereas a broader and more subtle strategy might be more appropriate.

Some of the more complex issues that should be addressed may be taken up over the long term by local bush-fire-management committees; these are newly required by 1994 amendments to the Bush-fires Act 1949. They are to include representatives of all groups that have a significant role in bush-fire management, including the conservation movement (Koperburg, 1994). At the state level, bush-fire-related matters are coordinated by a committee, which now has representatives from the conservation movement as well as private landowners.

Flooding: Effective institutional response to hazard

Unlike management of bush-fires, management of flood hazard is the responsibility of a powerful engineering bureaucracy with a strong interest in risk reduction rather than emergency management. Since Sydney's founding there have been political pronouncements about reducing flood losses by careful land-use management, but it is only since the late 1970s that this rhetoric has been incorporated into coherent policy. And, like bush-fire management, the context of flood-hazard management has evolved into a complex, multi-objective process.

A number of factors combined to ensure that engineering responses dominated public policy on flooding from the 1950s onwards. These include: a bureaucracy in which engineering agencies are strongly represented; weak planning bodies; favourable funding arrangements for structural works; an absence of environmental concern; and supportive politicians. Levees were a favourite mechanism. By the 1970s, legislation and policies on environmental management and planning had strengthened and the time was ripe for a reappraisal of the state's approach to flood-hazard management. That reappraisal occurred in the wake of destructive floods and prompted the development of a state policy that aimed to reduce exposure to flooding. The new policy promoted "removal of urban development from flood prone areas wherever this is practicable and appropriate'' (New South Wales Department of Environment and Planning, 1982). Under this scheme, floodplains were defined by the 1: 100 flood. The policy was highly prescriptive, with an emphasis on deterrence: councils were "strongly advised'' to adhere to the standards prescribed by the policy. In particular, they were reminded of their potential legal liability for flood damage suffered by developments they have approved in flood-prone areas.

The new policy was unpopular with land and development interests, and many local governments agitated for change. Protest was galvanized by a letter sent to each of the 3,500 property owners in one community advising them about their flood-prone status. Over 1,000 people, mainly concerned about the effect of the policy on property values, attended a lively public meeting. State government leaders were faced with the prospect of a political controversy just weeks before an election (see fig. 6.6). As a result, the state Premier announced a change of policy, and promised to abolish both the 1: 100 flood standard and the flood-mapping programme. After being returned to power, the government approved a new policy on 11 December 1984 - which remains in force today.

Fig. 6.6. Political leaflet exploiting concern over flood policy (Source: Liberal Party of Australia)

Compared with the 1977 - 1984 policy, which emphasized floodplain avoidance and uniform application of policy criteria, the new policy "recognizes, firstly, that flood liable land is a valuable resource which should not be unnecessarily sterilized by preventing development, and secondly, that by carefully considering the circumstances of each proposal, developments can be allowed which might otherwise have been unnecessarily refused or unreasonably restricted'' (New South Wales - FAC, 1985, p. 3). Now decisions about the development of flood-prone land are made on the basis of several criteria, which include flood damage, safety, and economic, social, and environmental factors, not on the sole basis of flood frequency. The switch reflects a strong move towards a multi-objective approach, wherein each application is treated on its "merits.'' The new policy emphasizes compliance with procedure rather than prescription of outcomes. It is inherently more flexible, and recognizes that flood-hazard management involves conflict and trade-offs, and must have the cooperation of local government.

The legal situation was clarified by legislation giving local government immunity from liability provided they act in "good faith'' and follow the state policy as set out in the Floodplain Development Manual - a set of comprehensive guidelines. Explicit provision is made for involving various stakeholders, including the "public,'' in the development of flood- plain management plans. Councils are encouraged to establish floodplain management committees through which local community groups and individuals can effectively communicate their views. By means of the environmental impact assessment process, the public are also involved in the review of flood-control proposals.

Because land use is largely under the control of local government, implementation of a state policy depends on obtaining local cooperation. This is achieved through inducements and other features that are designed to build up the local capacity to implement the policy (May and Handmer, 1992). In addition, implementation of the policy requires increased use of negotiation and conflict-resolution skills, as well as a commitment to opening the decision-making process to broad public involvement. As the policy is being implemented essentially by the same engineering bureaucracy as the previous highly prescriptive policy, it seems likely that some changes in organizational style and culture will eventually occur. The "merits'' approach is now being extended to other areas of environmental management, such as estuaries and coasts. One appealing aspect of the approach is its flexibility, and therefore longevity, in the face of changing political priorities. Although the full range of flood-mitigation strategies is employed, including purchase of some chronically flood-prone properties, the most recent policy generally permits development but requires that ground floors be elevated above the level of the 100-year flood. Although it offers protection against lesser floods, this approach will lead towards gradually increasing exposure to floods greater than 1:100 up to the maximum probable. As a result there will be a gradual escalation of the potential for catastrophic losses during extreme floods.

The reduction of vulnerability is achieved by means of warning and emergency response systems, and by various compensation arrangements (see the section on residual risk, below). The same approaches are used to curb exposure. Flood-warning systems are coordinated by the state's Flood Warning Consultative Committee. A great deal of energy is going into the design of total warning systems, the dissemination of warning messages, and tailoring adjustments to the needs of those who are at risk (Elliot et al., 1995). New and upgraded systems are often jointly funded by local authorities and by state and federal agencies. One reason for the success and momentum of warning systems is that roles are clearly allocated: the federal Bureau of Meteorology has a legislative duty to provide warnings, and the State Emergency Service has a legislative duty to coordinate flood emergency planning and management.

More recently, the same government organizations have turned their energies to the chronic flash-flooding of urban streams and storm-water drains in Sydney. The approach has included the establishment in 1989 of an overarching body, the Upper Parramatta River Trust, to overcome problems that arise because not all councils cooperate. The Trust is a construction authority with full fund-raising powers. It also attempts to coordinate development controls among its four constituent local governments, which serve a population of some 200,000. At the state level, authorities have been pursuing a strategic approach to the problem. Areas with serious recurring problems of exposure or risk reduction have been targeted for remedial action, and a feasibility study has been completed into the possible provision of a radar-based flash-flood warning system for the greater Sydney region. This would be linked with the relatively new Sydney severe weather service at the Bureau of Meteorology.

Slow-onset hazards: Environmental degradation

It can be argued that a suitable institutional framework for the management of environmental degradation exists in Sydney. There are many important pieces of legislation. Some are quite specific, such as those that are concerned with air, water, noise, and hazardous chemicals. Others, which are more relevant to issues of hazard, affect the broad context of environmental management. Four of these are of particular importance. The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 established the state's modern planning system, and broadened its original focus on land- use zoning to include most other aspects of natural and social environments. The Local Government Act 1993 set out the roles and responsibilities of local government, including their primary role in land-use management. The Environmental Offences and Penalties Act 1989 widened the definition of "environment'' and prescribed severe penalties for harming it. Finally, the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989, discussed above, also applies to planning for environmental emergencies.

This framework is suited to well-defined, rapidly manifest problems. But there are serious doubts about its ability to address macro-scale issues that lack obvious cause-and-effect relationships. In many cases of environmental degradation, the problems are insidious, they are poorly defined, they occur over time-periods that exceed customary planning horizons, and the identities of culpable parties are not obvious. Ideally, in such circumstances the focus should be on prevention. The issue of photochemical smog in Sydney illustrates some of the difficulties.

Photochemical smog

Automobile pollution receives considerable media attention. Much of this focuses on the fact that a substantial proportion of Sydney's cars are old, thereby pre-dating tight emission regulations and the introduction of lead-free petrol. This picture ignores the half-hearted nature of emission controls. For example, heavy vehicles are exempt from most regulations but contribute about one-third of the total emissions of nitrogen oxides (Wright, 1991/92). Emission standards for cars lag many years behind those in California, a region that is widely used as a comparative yardstick. Attempts at reducing consumption or shifting to cleaner fuel confront political agendas that aim to keep gasoline prices as low as possible. They are much lower than prices in Europe, although higher than in the United States.

Air pollution policy is also hampered by scientific uncertainty about the most effective approach. Although the general dynamics of Sydney's smog are understood, complex relationships between nitrogen oxides and ozone, and their joint effect on the distribution of smog over the Sydney region, are unclear. For example, reduction of nitrogen oxides in the western areas may lower ozone levels there but increase them in eastern Sydney (Wright, 1991/92). Lowering the levels of nitrogen oxides from car exhausts is difficult and expensive - but technically feasible.

There has been recent investment in public transport, especially harbour ferries and the city's rail network, which is critical for those commuting from over 100 km away. It is also planned to extend the railway to the international airport. But much of the city is not serviced by rail, and Sydney's tram (light rail) lines were ripped up in the 1950s. Today, buses compete for space with other traffic. Pedestrianization and city-wide strategies for traffic calming are spreading, sometimes impelled by local citizen actions that block streets and otherwise try to keep residential areas free of arterial traffic. On the other hand, new tollways have just been completed, and new connections in the highway network are still being implemented, including an underwater tunnel to relieve chronic congestion near the Harbour Bridge.

It is difficult to envisage an effective solution to Sydney's smog problem during the next several decades, so avoidance of the western areas where ozone concentrates may be the only real option. That alternative challenges conventional thinking about the city's form and density, and it might be counterproductive because most Sydney-dwellers work far from their homes by choice as much as from necessity (Moriarty and Beed, 1988). "Telecommuting'' may become important in the future but has yet to have any impact on the problem.

Managing the residual risk: Loss redistribution

Loss is a measure of the residual effects of hazard after ameliorative adjustments. Management of all hazards, no matter how proficient, cannot eliminate the chance of loss. The better managed the hazard, the less visible are the residual losses; but they still exist and may be of sufficient magnitude to require further societal responses. In Sydney, the burden of loss redistribution is shared between public, non-governmental, and private sectors. All of these operate compensation programmes for clearly defined hazard events. Victims can obtain relief from government welfare agencies, charitable groups, or insurance companies. These programmes are coordinated by the New South Wales State Disaster Welfare Committee, within the framework of the state Disaster Welfare Plan (Jarvis, 1989). The system is relatively well insulated from political pressure and media bias. But the spotlight of media attention can sometimes affect the level of support that is provided; recent examples include the 1990 Nyngan flood and 1994 Sydney fires. Disasters in Sydney can readily become political events, with politicians rushing to the site and promising generous assistance.

Household insurance policies in Sydney automatically include fire, storm, and earthquake in the list of covered perils - but not flooding (or nuclear accidents). Coverage is believed to be near universal in the city, but over half of all policy holders may be seriously underinsured (Les Lester, personal communication). The insurance industry itself is re insured offshore and has been subject to repeated severe blows over the past decade, primarily from natural disasters. Occasionally, the viability of the whole industry has been questioned, but there is little evidence that the sustainability of a major city has been in jeopardy. In summary, the present sophisticated loss-sharing system reduces vulnerability to natural hazards by greatly enhancing recovery; in the short term, and for clearly defined events, resilience is strong. Of course, an event of extreme magnitude, or a series of extreme events, would likely exceed this capacity.

Loss redistribution and welfare also occupy the premier position among adjustments to "social'' hazards such as homelessness, unemployment, and crime. Here the system is sadly inadequate. Governmental agencies are faced with the impossible task of dealing with the distributional effects of national government economic policies that are themselves not geared to reducing social inequities. Because both major political parties are committed to economic restructuring and continued shrinkage of the public sector, it falls to non-governmental organizations, churches, community leaders, prominent academics, small political parties, and independent members of Parliament to articulate the concerns of marginalized groups.

Although inadequate for social hazards, the whole concept of compensation for residual risk is at its weakest when faced with environmental problems. Unfortunately, it is quite likely that restitution of severely degraded or contaminated land is simply not possible. The costs of hazards can be transferred to the future, to be borne by another government or another generation - rather than spread among Sydney's present residents. Allowing significant social problems to go unchecked violates the sustainable development principle of intragenerational equity.

Opportunities for intervention to enhance hazard management and urban sustainability

Who might intervene?

Knowledge is a precondition for intervention in any public issue. The fact that much has already been learned about Sydney's experience with hazards suggests that reasoned intervention to change hazardousness and unsustainability is therefore worthwhile. But intervention by whom? Some of the major influences on sound urban hazards management and urban sustainable development are to be found in institutions and activities that lie well beyond the control of cities. Economic fortunes, war or civil unrest, international agreements, the degradation of a critical resource base, major changes in the policies of national government or international business, can all have profound influences on the vulnerability of a major city. Many of the policies of the Australian government have direct effects on Sydney, sometimes exceeding those of local governments. For example, national economic policies and national welfare or other redistributive arrangements are important in determining the amount of unemployment and the extent of poverty. These in turn affect social hazards and capacities to respond to natural disasters. The discussion that follows focuses on the role of states and localities and the various institutions that influence these levels of government, for it is among those actors that the most important scope for intervention in the nexus of urban hazard occurs.

In this context, the terms "top - down'' and "bottom - up'' are misleading oversimplifications of managerial alternatives. Action directed at environmental hazards has come from creative tension between different arms of the same government, and from a variety of vertical alliances or coalitions. For example, citizens, local governments, and some state and national politicians have come together to work out strategies for noise pollution control at Sydney airport (The Australian, 9 December 1994, p. 1). Much action, especially on the environmental front, results from activity by environmental non-government groups (ENGOs), such as Greenpeace and the Sydney Total Environment Centre. In Australia, public membership and support of such groups are high (Papadakis, 1993).

Setting the context and facilitating action: The state

Subject to the national and international constraints mentioned above, state government has a unique role in establishing legal and policy frameworks, promoting the implementation of policy, and engaging in strategic planning. New South Wales has gone beyond this to establish committees that plan and coordinate all aspects of hazard management at state, regional, and local levels, including warning systems, disaster welfare, and recovery. By means of its strategic planning framework and appropriate inducements, the state government has also been able to facilitate - and to some extent direct - local activity in hazard and environmental management. It has also clarified the legal basis of hazards management so that public commitments to emergency planning and management have a footing in common law. But for some issues, such as land use, local government has primary responsibility and it has been difficult for the state to play a leadership role.

State government is also in a position to undertake action unilaterally in some areas. These include establishing and enforcing standards and providing information. State or national standards and regulations deal with many hazard- and environment-related matters, including building codes, water quality, tolerable levels of pollution, emissions and contaminants, vehicle and aviation safety, and so on. However, these standards are frequently developed in conjunction with major stakeholders. Inevitably, this approach raises questions about the proper level of standards and about enforcement.

State government is also an active provider of public information about natural hazards, although many local government and business organizations that are recipients would rather hide this kind of material. Environmental agencies (and the media) are particularly active suppliers of information about anthropogenically induced climate change, water pollution, and other hazards. Information about technological issues is less readily available. Biological hazards are well publicized, though, with the exception of AIDS, the information is often less than is warranted by the threats.

The predominance of information about natural and environmental hazards occurs in part because related public agencies have accepted that this is part of their mission. It is also a politically easy option. After major disasters, such as the 1994 Sydney fires, public inquiries are usual. Lesser events receive less political attention, but are nevertheless frequently examined for potential lessons. Occasionally, inquiries are conducted in the absence of precipitating events, and may deal with broad issues such as poverty, or emergency planning and management (Australia, Senate Standing Committee, 1994). The reports of all these inquiries are valuable sources of information and advice, although implementation of recommendations is usually partial at best.

State government involves a mixture of political actors and administrative agencies. The skills, experience, and actions of the technological agencies are often highly important, but they are insufficient without sound political leadership and strategic thinking; these latter qualities are currently weak in Sydney. Despite legislation that formalizes state responsibilities for incorporating environmental considerations into the planning system (e.g. the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and a raft of supporting legislation), degradation of most elements of the metropolitan biosphere continues. Among other reasons is the difficulty of shifting the orientation from events and projects to comprehensive and integrated long-term programmes. Here, resistance is not simply driven by the concerns of specific agencies or constituencies; the whole state budgetary process works to reinforce sectoral planning and existing agency boundaries.

Opportunities for state government to make significant improvements in the management of Sydney's hazards are of four main kinds: continued refinement of the legislative and policy framework; provision of information and other stimuli to public debate; building the capacity and commitment of local government and state institutions to undertake the tasks that must be addressed; and the development of strategic planning for Sydney. History suggests that the last will be the most difficult to achieve. Even where sound state policy exists, a major challenge has always been to find ways of encouraging recalcitrant councils to implement it.

Mediating between bottom and top

Between state governments and local residents there are a host of powerful mediating groups. These include: local government (councils), the media, major NGOs, business organizations, unions, and even the courts. These groups may coordinate or facilitate local action, implement state policy, promote their own agendas, or quite literally mediate between central authority, local communities, and the various interest groups. In a participative democracy with a politicized planning system, mediation and coalition-building are essential to make the system work. Coalitions or alliances increase the salience of an issue, sometimes to the point of setting the political agenda, influencing government policy, and affecting its implementation.

For many aspects of hazard and environmental management, local governments are key actors. They are often in a difficult position - caught between the state, which sets policy, and citizens, to whom they are accountable. In the local planning process, councils must mediate among many competing interests, including stakeholders of local and non-local business, environmental groups, other community actors, and state governments. It is in this process that a real opportunity lies to reduce future exposure to hazard, especially by means of appropriate land uses. However, in Sydney there is great resistance to zoning regulations that severely limit economic uses of land, and compromises are often struck. In any case, local government decisions can generally be overruled by the state.

In Australia there is a strong national principle that response to disaster must come first from local communities. The volunteer groups are the most obvious manifestation of this principle. The state of New South Wales has made hazard-planning and management mandatory for local governments and most councils cooperate with state agencies, but - in typical Australian style - there are few obvious punishments for failure to meet state expectations. Not all hazards receive the same level of attention or involve the same mediating groups. Charitable organizations typically deal with socio-economic problems such as homelessness, poverty, and substance abuse. They also act as advocates for victims. ENGOs coordinate action about environmental issues. In some cases the environmental groups are locally based, in others they involve international or national organizations such as Greenpeace or The Wilderness Society. The latter types of group have generally opted to address industrial hazards, especially waste disposal issues. However, such groups have not been very active on so-called "brown'' (i.e. urban) issues in Sydney; they have preferred to concentrate on "green'' (i.e. rural and open space) issues. In other cases, alliances have formed between elements of the media, ENGOs, and affected communities. Day (1991) documents some interesting cases in the Sydney region.

Greenpeace had a major influence on Sydney's successful bid to stage the Olympics in A.D. 2000. The bid rested in part on a strong environmental theme, expressed particularly forcefully in the design of the Olympic village, which will be built at Homebush Bay near the head of the estuary that includes Sydney Harbour (Bell, 1993). Greenpeace's village proposal is based on the application of comprehensive environmental criteria covering "water, energy, and biodiversity, as well as transport and land-use issues.'' As such it attempts to address many of the slow-onset hazards that are dealt with inadequately at present: energy consumption; water consumption; transport; and other aspects of the natural and social environment. If, as seems likely, the village is built according to these criteria, following the Olympics it will serve as a model of how a sustainable settlement can be compatible with modern living. The Greenpeace proposal attempts to extend some of the concepts to the Sydney region (Bell, 1993). It demonstrates that major initiatives can come from the non-government sector, and, to the extent that Greenpeace represents its members, from the community.

Networking: Community groups

Sydney contains many resident action groups (RAGs). These are more or less formal bodies of citizens that campaign on behalf of specific limited objectives on topics such as urban development, traffic, environmental quality, and flooding (Costello and Dunn, 1994). Local governments usually are the first to feel the weight of RAG efforts and have often sought to institutionalize their protests by bringing them into the conventional political process. This tends to reduce the potential for radical protests in favour of tradeoffs, bargaining, mediation, and coalition-building. Paradoxically, the success of RAGs has begun to weaken their influence in Sydney because state government - which is less susceptible to pressure than local government - has moved to reduce the planning powers of local governments.

Some local groups have succeeded in changing state, and even federal, policy. Changes to flood policy for south-west Sydney have already been mentioned. A battle to prevent the establishment of a chemical industrial zone on Kurnell Peninsular, where James Cook made the first English landing in Australia, resulted in important changes to industrial location policy (Smith, 1990). Most recently, the issue of aircraft noise from an expanded Sydney airport has motivated people to protest. Community groups and local councils, with the support of locally based state and federal politicians, mounted a very high-profile campaign and threatened to blockade the airport. They demanded expeditious construction of a new airport on the outskirts of the city. This action helped to force policy changes affecting noise reduction, enforcement of existing noise-control procedures, new noise-insulation measures, and a commitment to speed up the new airport (The Australian, 9 December 1994, p. 1).

Through the formation of umbrella groups and networking, RAGs greatly increase their power and help ensure that experience gained by the separate groups is not lost. After preventing the establishment of perceived noxious facilities in Kurnell, the Kurnell Action Committee went on to monitor the companies involved and to warn other RAGs of their activities. The Community Action Network also argues for termination of the most noxious aspects of industry (Costello and Dunn, 1994). Such groups are exerting strong pressure for reductions in risk and exposure. It is they rather than the government who are trying to grapple with the causes of hazard rather than settling for a compensation-driven policy.

Work by Costello and Dunn (1994) shows that, in Sydney, community action may greatly expand participation in governance, particularly by women. In this and other ways RAGs are a powerful vehicle for the expression of community aspirations; and may be able to force changes that have positive hazard and environmental outcomes. At issue now is how to build empowering coalitions, networks, and alliances that include the marginalized inhabitants of Sydney. The apparent effectiveness of RAGs in Sydney poses a dilemma for state government. On the one hand it is desirable to encourage public participation in decision-making, but on the other hand no government wishes to see its policies rejected. In the short run, it seems unlikely that Australian states will give much support to RAGs. However, the federally sponsored National Landcare Program provides an interesting model (A. Campbell, 1994). Here, federal money is made directly available to groups of landholders for environmental activities - bypassing the states.

Hazard management and urban sustainability

Sydney is a typical example of a modern sprawling industrial city: it is characterized by low population densities, car dependence, growing societal inequalities, and environmental degradation. Despite a long history of attempts at strategic planning, the results have been mediocre. With a few exceptions, hazards - natural or otherwise - have not been taken into consideration by urban managers. There are in effect two Sydneys. The CBD is the site of the "international'' city - an ugly unplanned mess of semi-vacant buildings flanked by a magnificent harbour, a famed bridge, and a celebrated opera house. Its lack of planning epitomizes the prevailing public attitude to development. Paradoxically, the other city - the vast western suburbs that are home to the greatest concentration of Australians - was "planned,'' but with little consideration for the services that residents might need or want, or the environmental implications of inadequate infrastructure.

Despite the lack of proper planning, the city is remarkably free of serious sudden-onset natural hazards, and it is coming to grips with technological hazards. Bush-fires are a possible exception that has the potential to wreak major destruction, but they have yet to inflict severe damage. This fortunate state of affairs is due in part to Sydney's relatively benign geophysical setting and its well-developed emergency services. It is also due to the ability of the city to bounce back from disaster by drawing effectively on its own resources and those of its global networks. The hazards that are well managed share certain characteristics: rapid onset, high visibility, and amenability to immediate response.

Other more slowly evolving hazards are raising serious problems. Although there are legal frameworks for addressing hazards such as environmental degradation and crime, it is doubtful that the institutional capacity or political will exist to tackle them. Poverty, too, appears to pose enormous challenges for the welfare system. Coming to grips with the more intractable issues of profligate water usage, limited sewage treatment, and chronic air pollution appears to be low on the agenda of a government where planning has a tradition of subservience to the demands of major development. Some of these gradual hazards are quite literally invisible. This includes much air pollution and many kinds of land and water contamination. Others are intangible in other ways, for example anxiety induced by fear of crime, ill health from living in stressful or contaminated environments, as well as hidden networks of criminal activity and corruption. Whether invisible or intangible, hazards such as these can be powerful determinants of action and can lead to the gradual abandonment of areas by public authorities and by those with the resources to leave. These less spectacular, less discrete hazards are unambiguously anthropogenic in origin; successful management involves addressing the structure of institutions and society.

The management of most hazards is complex, and in some cases has evolved from dealing directly with a single issue, such as bush-fire or sewage, into complex systems of response to multifaceted environmental problems. Most often, responses are straightforward and fall into one or more of three categories: loss redistribution, building regulations, and emergency response. These approaches ignore complexity and treat the hazard or disaster as a discrete entity. This general statement masks some solid attempts at comprehensive management, most notably of the flood hazard, and recognition of the need to negotiate solutions between the increasing range of conflicting interests.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the present management approach to natural hazards can probably continue despite occasional events that bring the city to a near standstill; it is sustainable. What is of far greater concern is the city's declining sustainability in the face of inexorable environmental degradation, growing social inequity, and the possibility of rising criminal activity. These extremely complex "macro'' policy problems do not respond well to the conventional policy toolkit. The standard approaches are good at dealing with "micro'' issues, such as local air pollution or flood mitigation, problems that are spatially and temporally discrete, and not especially complex or uncertain. The major issues of sustainability are not like this: they are "multi-faceted, complex, fraught with uncertainty and ignorances, spatially and temporally diffuse, highly connected to other issues'' (Dovers, 1995).

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Sydney's institutions are cap able of handling the more complex, slower-onset, less visible hazards. Solutions to these are not obvious and will, presumably, not be easy. Perhaps the best hope for the future lies in coalitions of diverse sectors and levels of society brought together by a common interest in Sydney's future; arguably, the successful Olympic 2000 bid had this ingredient. But even more important is the need for imagination and vision in the search for solutions (Watson, 1993). In the words of Prime Minister Paul Keating:

What we want is to put a bit of poetry into the souls of our town clerks and shire engineers - to get our planners and architects to come up with ideas with a sense of the miraculous. (Time, 7 February 1994, p. 33)


Much of the research reported here was undertaken while I was a Fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University. My thanks go to members of that organization, especially its director, Professor Henry Nix, and to Christina Jarvis and Sarah Platts for excellent research support. The chapter has benefited from discussions with Ken Mitchell, Dennis Parker, Steve Dovers, and Chas Keys.


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