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close this book Arid Zone Settlement in Australia: A Focus on Alice Springs (1985)
View the document Introduction: Arid zones and Australia's relation
View the document 1. Australia's arid zone: Geographical setting
View the document 2. Ecological setting and urbanization processes
View the document 3. Population and ecological groupings
View the document 4. Settlers' attitudes
View the document 5. Migration and adjustment
View the document 6. Tertiary activities and urban growth in arid zone towns
View the document 7. Education and spatial disadvantage
View the document 8. Health service provision and perceptions of service adequacy
View the document 9. Aboriginal and non-aboriginal health
View the document 10. Reflections on a remote settlement and its arid zone setting
View the document Conclusion: Urbanization and Alice Springs
View the document Appendix A: Example of a completed open-ended response schedule, Alice Springs surveys 1980 and 1981 (responses are in italic print)
View the document Appendix B: Explanation of subcategory titles (adapted from Brealey and Newton 1978, appendix B)
View the document Appendix C: Detailed summary of major and minor response categories (refer to table 4.3 in text)
View the document References

Introduction: Arid zones and Australia's relation

Introduction: Arid zones and Australia's relation

D.N. Parkes, I.H. Burnley, and S.R. Walker

These studies contribute to the sub-programme on the Assessment of the Application of Knowledge to Arid Land Problems, a component of the United Nations University Programme on the Use and Management of Natural Resources. Each seeks to investigate certain properties of the urban use of Australian arid lands, which are a many-faceted resource complex, embracing vast geographical scale, solar energy potential, satellite communication and defence functions, mineral deposits, and fossil energy deposits. There are also cattle range lands, ground-water reservoirs, and many positive climatic properties for human health.

In the Australian situation, but to a lesser extent than in the arid south-west of the United States, the circumstances and problems of urbanization are constrained and enhanced more by the time-cost aspects of physical remoteness than by the environmental constraint or opportunity of aridity, per se. In Australia, at least, aridity may act as a positive good, for technology has made equable habitation possible, and there are favourable environmental factors from a recreational aspect. There are, of course, environmental difficulties, some of which concern health, although even here the advantages almost certainly outweigh the disadvantages. So far, aridity has not greatly constrained urbanization in Australia's arid zone at the scale at which urbanization has taken place there. Urbanization on the scale of the relatively small arid zone in the south-west United States is clearly not possible in Australia, and in any case the natures of the arid zones differ. In the arid zone of the United States "exotic" rivers flow from the inland mountain ranges and provide water along the artesian and ground-water systems, whereas Australia lacks such exotic river water systems altogether. The single environmental factor that really constrains development in the Australian arid zone is space, not aridity, but aridity exacerbates the problems caused by space or the tyranny of distance.

In the USA, the other comparable developed country with some arid lands, there has been unprecedented recent migration by the retired and the infirm seeking sunshine and seclusion, but these are not likely motivating factors in Australia, where a single, inland, sun zone refuge is no part of the Australian consciousness and seclusion is too likely to mean isolation. The Australian arid lands are the container for small and geographically remote settlements within which some people may indeed feel isolated. Isolation is essentially a construction of the senses: a pathological or undesirable component of human ecosystems. Remoteness, on the other hand, is a fundamentally geographical state that is derived from a measure of distance. For pragmatic purposes it therefore seems useful to consider remoteness as the objectively measurable location of a settlement, relative to other settlements or defined landscape features, and to consider isolation as a percept, measurable perhaps but only with more complex and less well-defined scales and dimensions. Seclusion may be sought and found in remote settlements, but it seems most unlikely that isolation, per se, will be sought. Nor is there necessarily anything intrinsically adverse in remoteness, per se; this is clear for instance in remote sensing, where the very essence of the process is communication and information processing from a distance. There have also always been certain aspects of human behaviour that require remote location but rather few that demand isolation in any perceptual sense.

It is not only the retired and infirm who have contributed to the recent urbanization of the American South-west. To them may be added the adventuresome seeking wilderness and the less adventuresome seeking high-technology-supported recreation. "By aerial observation it was esimated that there were 700,000 people recreating on the California Desert the weekend of November 25, 1972" (Fulcher 1975, p. 146). This recreating population is almost twice the size of the total resident population in the entire 5.7 million km² of the Australian arid lands as treated in the studies which follow. In addition, the infrastructural basis of the settlements in the south-western part of the United States is predicated on the fact of a national population in excess of 228 million people; Australia's comparable status is 15 million. The land area of both countries is identical (Neft 1966, p. 39; Parkes 1975, p 137). Tucson, in the American South-west, for instance, has a population equal to that of the entire Australian arid lands. The studies that follow demonstrate the overarching significance of certain special features of the Australian arid lands and therefore of the use that is made of them. Because of these Australian arid land attributes, the associated desertification and urbanization problems and solutions will be to some degree idiographic. Therefore, the cross-national transfer of knowledge about arid lands, especially in relation to settlement process, must be treated with caution at this stage if superficiality is to be avoided. This theme is considered here in order that the contribution made by these Australian studies can be more usefully set in the global context of knowledge about arid land ecosystems.

In Australia distance so dominates the relations between man and land in the ecosystem that in a discussion of settlement, services, and arid lands it is possibly more precise to invert the conventional notion of density as persons per unit area to one of unit area per person. Remoteness becomes the most discriminant determinant of settlement scale and demographic structure, and therefore also of land utilization practice and human behaviour. The realities of demography, society, the economy, and politics are each principally dependent on the fundamental and essential properties of remoteness. The Australian arid lands are, in a quite literal sense, devastatingly empty! An awareness of this property alone is a priority that should pervade all inquiry and interpretation of the relations within and between settlements and their arid zone context. Prominence is therefore given to the contextual factors-the geographical settings within which arid land settlement has developed and can develop into the foreseeable future.

It soon becomes clear that one cannot treat an arid land surface of nearly 6 million km² as an undifferentiated resource equally suitable at any point for slaking the thirst of scientific curiosity. As elsewhere in the world, there are always complicated and reciprocal relations between aridity and urbanization (Parkes 1975), but in Australia there is the additional coincident and complicating factor of extreme remoteness.

Arid zone plant and animal ecology as well as range management research is well established in Australia, especially through the Divisions of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), but arid zone settlement ecology and management is virtually unknown. In a review of published studies on problems of urbanization in arid Australia, Mabbutt (1972, p. 14) noted, "A few studies, both completed and in progress, have dealt with the social and economic problems of urban living under the stress of an arid climate, with attendant problems of [remoteness and] isolation, high living costs, restricted social services, an unbalanced social structure, and a specialised and often impermanent economic base which directly affects the composition and stability of the whole community through the work force." More recently, from Israel we have the view that "greater research efforts should be directed toward understanding social and behavioural patterns of population in arid regions" (Schecter 1979, p. 63)and that "research and development comprise an important, and often critical element for the economic and social development and progress of even the most advanced societies. Israel has long been in the forefront of desert research but the problems and the solutions preferred are to a large extent also applicable to other arid and semi-arid areas" (Schecter 1979, p. 43). Australia benefits by the dissemination of knowledge from the research undertaken in other arid land nations, as much by recognition of dissimilarities of context and desert "tesserae" as by similarities. Those interested in arid land performance in other parts of the world will therefore also find value in these studies as a general reference resource, fulfilling an educational function that broadens both global and local Australian awareness.

Since Mabbutt wrote in 1972, there has been some increase in the number of studies of Australian arid land communities, but in general they have been concerned with mining communities. Among the most valuable have been those by the CSIRO Division of Building Research (inter alia Brealey 1972,1973, 1974; Brealey and Newton 1978, 1980). Holmes (1981) has also presented a generalized but useful paper on some of the sparsely settled regions of Australia. Burnley (1981) has discussed population change and social inequalities in sparsely populated regions, but in both these studies the sparsely populated regions are not confined to the arid lands. A general discussion of settlement and the Australian arid lands will be found in Parkes and Burnley (1980), and Parkes (1975) also addresses some contextual factors of urbanization in the Australian arid lands. The tyranny of distance operates not only on the researched but also on the researchers, in this arid land of continental scale.

In Australia the need for a heightened awareness of the arid zone is the more significant because there is no federal government ministry with responsibility for arid land affairs. Not one of the Australian states and territories supports a government portfolio for arid land issues. There is no singlepurpose institute for either pure or applied research into arid zone systems comparable, for instance, to the Institute of Desert Research at Sede Boqer in Israel, the Office for Arid Lands Studies at the University of Arizona, or the International Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Land Studies of the Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas. A recent initiative at the University of New South Wales, however, includes a graduate programme in arid lands management with support from the United Nations University.

Urbanization is a global phenomenon, and the process is producing settlements that are becoming ever more alike, especially in physical form. The global (communication) village allows rumours and facts to be transmitted and received in distant and remote communities at an ever increasing, sometimes alarming, rate; but with ever-increasing integrity of the message. With satellites, computers, and remote sensing technology, it is possible for real-time processing of information that has been collected from the very corners of the earth. Values and fashions can now be rapidly transmitted and materials transported from their urban sources to the most remote of communities in the arid lands.

Arid land living has always been essentially urban, where oases have acted as meeting places for moving traders, as marketplaces, and as refuge. The settlements in the arid zone today can and should serve many functions. The existing settlements in the arid region are the harbingers of those to follow. This is one reason why their study is now so important.

"At the core of almost all research efforts," according to Golany (1980, p. 11), "will be attention to the arid zone's stressful climate, and specifically how residents are affected by their new environment. Socialisation patterns, health problems . . . should all be carefully studied." Golany continues, "The research, quite obviously, must span a wide variety of disciplines. To facilitate this and to provide the world's arid regions with planning [management] experts, an international educational center is essential" ( ibid. ).

The United Nations University's Arid Lands Programme, to which these studies contribute, goes some way to fulfilling this need. In Australia, the "new environment" to which Golany refers is always experienced following long-distance migration, usually from the humid and Mediterranean-type coastal cities. Golany's "core of attention on stressful climate" must always be associated with the fact of remoteness, in the Australian context. Indeed, there are some Australian researchers (Auluciems end Kalma 1981) who point to the long periods of very low stress in the Australian arid lands, demonstrating the positive contextual features of climate. Golany's plea for study of socialization patterns and health and other services is taken up in the papers that follow, based on three independent field research programmes in central Australia between December 1979 and April 1981.

It is well known that many of the urban settlements in Australia's arid zone have their economic base in mining. The finite quantity of any mineral resource, coupled to an often volatile and always cyclic international economy, imbues such settlements with certain obvious ephemeral qualities. Less obvious is the appearance of this ephemeralism in the attitudes of the residents towards their intended length of stay in the arid zone (Brealey and Newton 1978). Brealey (1973) and Burvill (1975) have noted the prevalence of an undefined sense of isolation among the residents of remote mining towns. High transiency levels appear to be endemic. "This is not a town I intend to stay in" is a commonly expressed sentiment. In general, residents of these settlements have foreshortened futures compared with those of their humid zone and coastal resident contemporaries. In Alice Springs each of the studies found similar, foreshortened future time horizons and length of intended residence.

The focus of these studies on Alice Springs allowed a wider perspective to be adopted than is possible in mining settlements, due to the more diversified economic base. Capital cities apart, it is possibly also Australia's most well-known place-name! This wideangled focus enlarges the narrower view that the arid lands are suitable only for single-purpose, small, possibly ephemeral, welldefined functions such as mining or tourism or defence or pastoral region services. Alice Springs is a small but many-dimensioned, fastgrowing settlement, and extremely remote.

"Is the desert suitable for urbanisation? The answer is an unequivocal affirmative" according to Sohar (1979, p. 503). In Australia the past two decades have witnessed an unprecedented investment in arid lands. This investment is manifest through the construction of settlements which are associated with mineral and oil mining, defence, communication, and tourism. Most of these places are barely distinguishable from the suburbia of the coastal metropolitan regions in terms of town plan, housing design and building materials. They reflect the metropolitan and particularly the suburban experiences and expectations of their residents.

The urban places of the arid south-west of the United States are interpreted by some as the product of three coincident revolutions, the so-called "triple revolution" in military technology, cybernetics, and human rights (Gordon 1978, p. 105). That same triple revolution is influencing the structure and scale of settlement in the Australian arid lands and will do so increasingly in the foreseeable future.

Various aspects of geographical setting contribute to the location and future development of technology for military purposes in the Australian arid zone. Climate facilitates satellite communication systems and an expanse of territory of low relief and sparse habitation lends itself to weapon testing (not necessarily nuclear). The United States and Australia jointly administer a satellite communication station at Pine Gap, about 20 km south-west of Alice Springs. Cybernetics, as computer-integrated man-machine systems, contributes to the pace of urbanization through informationprocessing networks that enhance radio, television, and newspaper production, government agency and private enterprise decisionmaking, as well as the management of large international and intranational population flows in the tourist industry centred on Alice Springs. This "revolution" has great potential to reduce both remoteness and isolation. Human rights, the third of the revolutions and most apparent as land rights for the traditional peoples, pervade decisions about mineral exploration, use of land for tourist functions, and even those related to local urban recreation in Alice Springs.

Many areas in which new towns in arid regions are likely to develop have been outside the mainstream of modern technological society for reasons of climate and remote location. Accordingly, they are often the home of at least remnants of traditional cultures, sometimes of an ancient origin, within the boundaries of otherwise technologically advanced nations. The Indians of the American South-west, especially the Navajos and the Pueblos, are good examples. The Bedouins in Israel are a comparable group, as are several peoples in the Soviet Union (Kneese 1978, p. 124). To them must be added the Aboriginal peoples of Australia's arid lands; some are linguistically more complex and are dispersed over a greater area than any other arid environment people in the world. The time has come, however, to note that very little is now beyond what Kneese calls the mainstream, due especially to developments in cybernetics.

Cohen ( 1977) suggests that there are two types of people, apart from the traditional peoples, who tend to move into urban places in the arid zone. One type seeks a challenge, has a pioneering spirit, and moves there spontaneously. The other is sent there by private enterprise and government to contribute to national objectives of one sort or another. This latter group is unlikely to be distinct in many ways from its origin population and is not necessarily enthusiastic at the prospect of living in what will probably be perceived as an isolated place with a harsh and forbidding climate. Both population types are distinguishable in Alice Springs (chapters 4 and 5) and Brealey et al. (loc. cit.) have noted similar population characteristics and attitudes in their studies of remote, arid zone mining towns of Western Australia during the past decade. Brealey noted, "National and company interests notwithstanding, the critical objectives which must be satisfied if a new township is to become a viable entity are those of the people who live there . . . a case can be made for aiming to establish a community of permanent residents who are prepared to settle and regard the new town es 'home'" (Brealey 1974).

The human rights issue is an important one in central Australia and it has been compounded by recent urban intrusions. The Aboriginal people and some anthropologists claim that Alice Springs itself was built over sacred sites, and there is concern about future spread of the settlement over other sites. More difficult is the problem of integrating Aboriginal people into the urban milieu, especially the housing and economy of Alice Springs, a problem which also exists in other towns in the arid zone that support sizeable concentrations of Aboriginal people. Attitudinal reactions on the part of the European population towards Aboriginals are analysed in two of the surveys reported in later chapters. The attitude of a sign)" ficant minority of the population is negative and reflects problems of absorption of the Aboriginal population into the economy, habitation, and life-style of the town.

Urban intrusions have also dislocated traditional settlement patterns of indigenous peoples in the arid zones of the southwest of the United States and the cold dry areas of northern Canada, as in Australia. In Australia, at least, this impact has not been so much one of physical displacement as one of being a "magnet" that attracted persons because of the central services offered. Such impacts, as well as more physically disruptive impacts, have occurred in the arid zones of America, and they may well occur with arid urban intrusions in the developing world such as the Sahara or the Middle East in the future, with high. technology, resourcebased developments attracting indigenous nomadic groups and causing traditional settle. ment, society, and economy to expire; except as theatre for tourists.

In the Australian situation, as in the American arid zone, the actual disruption and displacement effects on native peoples were not begun by the urbanization process. Pastoralism and associated rural economies and contacts with enforcers of the state and missionaries had begun the process well before urban developments appeared. Thus, when urban centres evolved, indigenous societies were already in disarray. This disarray in the Australian context makes a dependence on new urban centres such as Alice Springs inevitable because of the paternal availability of hand-outs and basic foods. The traditional tribal mode of production has been disrupted, and dependence has now grown because of the wider welfare function of the town. In fact, a symbiotic relationship exists between the town and the surrounding Aboriginal population: the town provides food, and welfare payments are effected through its Federal Government and Territory offices, especially in health case and education. This has resulted in a drift of Aboriginal population to encampments near the town, which affects aspects of social service delivery and some administrative functions of the town.

The fundamental problems of adjustment of Aboriginal communities in the arid zone have not been resolved: how to integrate Aboriginal communities into old or new towns while preserving their own identity, or how to provide an adequate economic and social base for those who wish to withdraw from urban or European contacts. Overall there is the problem of how to reduce the manifest social and economic inequalities that exist between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginals.

An important area of inequality is health, and this is examined by Burnley in chapter 9, with reference to Aboriginal people and Europeans in Alice Springs and its hinterland. It will be shown in this chapter that while the overall health of the Europeans is much better than that of the Aboriginal population, there are high incidences of some disorders among Europeans, suggesting the importance of negative environmental and life-style features among a significant minority of Europeans, thus indicating that there are different ecological adaptation processes between the two communities.

An important aspect of the success of urban development in any situation is the extent to which urban services meet the expectations of the town dwellers. The service expectations of the newcomers are discussed in chapters 6, 7, and 8 as are the problems of service provision-the apparent deficiencies and responsiveness to the needs of the respective communities in central Australia. In sum, the studies that follow, with their focus on Alice Springs and based on empirical studies in central Australia during 1980 and 1981, contribute to our general understanding of ecological characteristics, life-style, attitudes to living in remote arid zone communities, and the delivery of community services.