How are Australia’s numerous coastal populations planning for rising sea levels and coping with development pressures?
If scientists are right, sea levels in 2100 will rise by more than one metre. With more than 85 percent of Australians living within fifty kilometres of the Australian coastline, this figure causes concern.
According to the federal government’s report, “Climate Change Risks to Coastal Buildings and Infrastructure” (released in June 2011), a sea level rise of 1.1 metres would cost more than $226 billion in coastal assets due to flooding and erosion hazards. Queensland is ranked as being at greatest risk, followed by South Australia and New South Wales. In addition to sea level rise, many coastal towns are also contending with issues of aging populations, dated infrastructure and a revolving door of local and state politics.
So how are landscape architects who work within coastal communities dealing with these present and future challenges? Landscape Architecture Australia decided to ask a few.
“Sea level rise is something we have been aware of for quite a few years, but in terms of tangible design measures being put in place to acknowledge and design and deal with it, you don’t see too many of them,” says Stephen Schutt, one of the directors at Hansen Partnership in Melbourne.
Schutt was involved in developing an urban design framework, and subsequent detailed design, for the Mersey Bluff Precinct in Devonport, Tasmania. Located along Devonport’s northern Bass Strait foreshore, the precinct consists of Mersey Bluff – a prominent coastal headland – and travels down towards the Mersey River towards the port of Devonport. Between the bluff and Devonport is a ribbon of beach and coastal foreshore land, most of which was occupied by car parks. The design proposed by Schutt’s team sought to give the foreshore strip back to pedestrians by relocating the car parks and converting the space into a recreational hub. While the conceptual design of the space went smoothly, its construction posed some interesting challenges.
“We had some issues because the site got hit by some storm surges. A significant area of paving was damaged due to a big wave which came in and crashed over the sea wall,” recounts Schutt. Given its low-lying location, significant areas of the Mersey Bluff Precinct will be underwater if rising sea levels continue, raising the question of how much forward planning designers need to factor into their concepts.
“I suppose if we wanted to take the hard line, we [as landscape architects] should say sorry, don’t put money here, leave it to the elements. But when you’re dealing with coastal areas in urban settings, there’s existing built infrastructure that we need to work around, as well as the strong desire of communities to access these areas for recreational use. Do you abandon that to the elements and start focusing fifty to one hundred metres inland? I can’t imagine if we’d said to the council ‘ignore that strip of fifty metres, we want to concentrate fifty metres back,’ I don’t think we would have been signed off on our concept design,” says Schutt. “The real dilemma in dealing with sea level rise is that it’s a longer-term consideration than the design life of the work we are asked to produce.”
Place Design Group’s work on the Bulcock Beach Esplanade Redevelopment at Caloundra, on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, encountered similar challenges to that in Devonport. Focus needed to be placed on upgrading, and making functional, infrastructure that was failing. Principal Ben Stevens sought to revitalize elements in a way that didn’t entirely change the character of the space, and contended with the coast’s shifting nature. The client, Sunshine Coast Council, provided the design team with data about previously recorded tide levels and local storm surge modelling, which assisted in determining preferred heights above sea level for new infrastructure.
“The decision to construct new sea walls and revetments should not be taken lightly. You’ve got to understand that the coastline is changing all the time – it’s a dynamic process. In terms of the Bulcock Beach Esplanade design, it was about finding a balance in how much you needed to extend the spaces,” says Stevens.
The Queensland government has dealt with the issue of managing sea level rise in its Coastal Plan (derm.qld.gov.au/coastalplan/). It prohibits development within the coastal zone due to the threat of sea level rise; promotes natural coastal processes, including erosion and accretion, to occur without interruption; and proposes a strategy of retreat for those currently in erosion-prone areas as the preferred option of management.
“In some areas the Coastal Plan only allows structures that are considered to be impermanent and that could be lifted up and taken away, as opposed to more fixed infrastructure,” says Stevens.
Besides issues of sea level rise, coastal areas like Bulcock Beach need to find ways of dealing with tourist and visitor influx during holiday periods. “A big part of the esplanade design was about trying to increase the carrying capacity of a long and narrow space,” says Stevens. “The esplanade is in high demand by everyone from fishermen to kids on bikes, so it needs to cater for those multiple uses while not obliterating what people come here to enjoy – the outlook and the natural environment.”
The amalgamation of Noosa, Caloundra and Maroochy Shire councils into the Sunshine Coast Council in 2008 meant that the new regional council had to start integrating existing town-planning strategies into one plan and vision. “Having a larger regional council gives the Sunshine Coast a bigger voice for things like public transport and holistic planning,” says Stevens. “But at the same time there needs to be decision-making that is conscious and sensitive to the discrete character areas and communities, both hinterlands and coastal, that make up the Sunshine Coast.”
One way the Sunshine Coast Council has attempted to deal with this has been through the establishment of a Place Making Charter as a way to retain its unique identity as a “community of communities.” An internal team within the council is consulted with regard to infrastructure and capital works projects, to help find ways to strengthen and maintain genius loci for each project. The placemaking approach has also helped the council to assess where to focus funding and other means of support for towns under pressure through conducting a place health check. Towns are assessed using a checklist approach, which looks at items like the quality of its infrastructure, the number of vacant shops, and any emergent social or functional issues.
Some designers believe there’s still room for improvement within coastal councils, especially when it comes to the way they approach town planning. Scott Taylor, director of Terrain Consultants in Brisbane, Queensland, contributed towards the creation of a Development Control Plan (DCP) for Noosa North Shore, an ecologically sensitive site that was to be developed into an ecotourism resort. The DCP was approached as the model for future DCPs undertaken by Noosa Council (now amalgamated into the Sunshine Coast Council). Set in woodlands, about one kilometre back from coastal dunes, the development adjoined swampland and national parks; any plans had to ensure that habitats were preserved throughout the site.
Although the design team arrived at what they believed to be a site-specific and environmentally responsible DCP, the landscape and environmental planning proposed by the document was to “take second fiddle to the traffic and infrastructure engineers within its public domain,” says Taylor. “We probably won only about 30 percent of the battles at the end of the day.”
So what can designers within these coastal communities do to help put issues of landscape and the environment to the front of the pack? “Go to council and help them realize there is room for change in their processes and their assessments,” says Scott. “There are barriers within the councils themselves. Most of them work from manuals and standards. You just have to break down that barrier and say ‘Listen, you’ve got to throw away the manual on this and open your eyes and ears and come along … We want you fully involved, but you’ve got be prepared to change and become site and environmentally responsive. It’s really about change management within the councils.”
Landscape architect Georgina Wright believes that in order to successfully address coastal challenges from within local government, long-term projects need to be managed by a champion: someone who can just keep pushing and stay on a project’s back. “Otherwise, it will just disappear, no matter how much time and money has been injected into it.” For the past five years, Wright has fought for the creation of the Jack Evans Boat Harbour – a waterfront community park in Tweed Heads, NSW – which opened in July 2011. But there were many times when the project came under threat. “Being practical about what could happen [on the site] and having the community on board saved the project three or four times,” says Wright.
When the Tweed Shire Council hired Wright in 2005, this coastal community was struggling financially in contrast to the neighbouring southern Gold Coast, which was surging ahead in new developments. Wright’s job was to design, detail and document a new park on the site within a twelve-month time frame, from a masterplan that was prepared by a private architecture firm. The plan was seen as a way to establish a “green core” that would help foster interest in residential and commercial development in the area. However, when Wright began to investigate the history of the space and the desires of the local community, cracks began to show in the proposed masterplan. The first was the park’s financing. Originally budgeted for $15 million (based on the masterplan), Wright revised its design and budget to $28 million. Councillors initially baulked, but eventually came on board.
What was it about the concept she proposed that worked? Wright’s response is simple: “I slowed the process down.” The original masterplan had proposed a Cairns Esplanade-style swimming lagoon. However, due to the costs of relocating a sewerage outflow pumping station, it wouldn’t work. “And then I started to go through old newspaper reports … and realized the community didn’t want a swimming lagoon, they just wanted to swim in the harbour, and wanted it to be cleaner,” says Wright. So she incorporated massive drainage infrastructure underground for purposes of filtration and water treatment.
Although issues of sea level rise were considered in the park’s design, they weren’t a driving force. If climate change continues, parts of the project are likely to be under water in forty years. Given that Tweeds Head consists predominantly of older residents, “they were like ‘we won’t be around then, so we want the park now,” says Wright. So rather than invest in a series of revetment structures, the park’s design focused on accentuating the different experiences created by the effect of the changing tide and embracing the idea of this “moving edge.” The council employed Aspect Studios, which focused on making the small harbour into an accessible asset that provided different experiences with every tide. A disabled access ramp with a handrail was provided so people can get into the water from a wheelchair. Concrete and stone infrastructure was incorporated to provide a play space from which kids could jump into the water, rather than building a separate water playground (many of which have needed to be closed due to drought).
Before Wright’s involvement at Jack Evans Boat Harbour, three previous developments had been proposed for the site by various bodies, but all had failed. Why did this one succeed? “I think the difference is that this one had a landscape architecture process behind it. It’s that simple. It’s a form of practice that is holistic and ensures you’ve got an argument for the landscape,” says Wright.
According to Wright, the work at Jack Evans Boat Harbour has helped the Tweed Shire Council to push for the funding of another local coastal project – Kingscliff Central Park. The project is hoped to provide a vibrant public open space that links the beach with the town’s central business district. Part of this masterplan proposes converting land from the Kingscliff Beach Holiday Park into parkland. However, while the community at Jack Evans Boat Harbour is willing to deal with the eventual impact of changing sea levels, the effect of a “moving edge” is already having ramifications on the Kingscliff community. As recently as July this year, erosion along the Kingscliff Beach Holiday Park has swallowed up more than six metres of land, including four metres in just one night. More than $750,000 has been spent trying to protect the beach so far, while it’s predicted that $7 million will be needed to keep importing replacement sand over the next three to four years. As effects of climate change continue, it’s likely that the number of such projects will only continue to rise.
Which coastal projects should landscape architects champion – and how? Do we make a stand by doing nothing at all, recognizing that the strengths of some designs are not strong enough against natural forces? Ben Stevens from Place Design is hopeful we can make a difference. “Not all believe in climate change, but I think as a profession we have to have a stance on it. Whether we’re at the forefront of [climate change] thinking, I don’t think we are – we’re really just following on the coat-tails of science. Whether there needs to be a real strong approach where AILA takes a stand to say we want to be experts in this and how it’s dealt with – well, I think it’s something that could happen.”
Caroline Stalker, director of Architectus, and Elizabeth Watson Brown, design director of Architectus
“Yeppoon is a pretty coastal town east of Rockhampton fringed by scenic hills and looking out over sparkling Keppel Bay. The project site is strategically located at an important entry point to the town, and is only a few minutes’ walk from the town centre. A community charrette developed the main structuring principles of the design – the need for multipurpose green spaces amenable to locals and attractive to tourists.
“The site has quite distinct coastal zonal characteristics; the wind-buffeted sea edge, the creek, the mangrove wetlands. The design capitalizes on these natural attributes, offering expansive views over Keppel Bay from picnic spots and larger recreation areas interspersed with rolling berms which provide informal spectator seating for regattas and other events. There is the riparian experience of Fig Tree Creek from the bridge, boardwalks, cafes and jetties, and a more intimate engagement with the wetlands from walking paths and lookouts. A new play realm is created in the lee of natural gentle rise in the site by co-locating the new water park next to the existing playground, Fig Tree Creek. The moulding of the landscape into berms and glades creates protected retreats buffered from the powerful south-easterlies whose strength and consistency are well recorded in the gnarled and bent Norfolk Island pines planted as the familiar coastal marker trees.
“Site elements are cohered by a simple organizing geometry that both follows the line of the link to the south and responds to the prevailing winds. The design ethos is one where landscape and architecture merge; built elements whose tectonics evoke the simple robust construction of jetties are designed to be continuous and integrated with berms, dune grass beds and coastal vegetation settings. Landscape experiences on the site will range from eco-restoration areas, to parkland ‘savannah’, and a series of more intimately scaled landscape rooms along the edge of the creek.”
Stephen Schutt, director of Hansen Partnership
“Hansen Partnership has a long history of engagement with local communities as a means of understanding the ‘personality’ of a place – and we are always careful to do this before applying our own ideas. This approach is of particular importance when working with communities in regional centres, to avoid perceptions of ‘so-called experts from the city’ purporting to instinctively know what is best for these often tight-knit local communities.
“Our experience with the people of Devonport, Tasmania in the preparation of the Mersey Bluff Urban Design Framework and subsequent design of the Devonport Foreshore Plaza is a case in point.
“The Mersey Bluff Precinct comprises Devonport’s primary recreational foreshore area, a fringe of parkland between the city centre and Bass Strait, extending from the mouth of the Mersey River to the Mersey Bluff itself. This narrow strip of coastal land is home to Devonport’s Surf Lifesaving Club, Maritime Museum, numerous sporting grounds, a small caravan park, the original Devonport cemetery, the Mersey Bluff lighthouse and the Tiagarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Museum.
“We facilitated a series of stakeholder workshops using an ‘inquiry by design’ approach, which enabled direct engagement with over two hundred residents and representatives of each key stakeholder within the precinct. The information gathered was applied directly to our subsequent planning and design processes, such that local people were able to recognize their own contributions in the outcomes, in our view a key means of engendering community ‘ownership’.
“We learnt many things about this place – and its community – through this approach. Fundamentally, we discovered that the area is highly valued by many Devonport residents, and throughout Devonport’s history it has always maintained an important position as Devonport’s primary recreational precinct.
“In that context, we have seen our role as being to reinforce rather than reinvent, such that the Mersey Bluff Precinct can remain as Devonport’s primary recreational precinct, and a destination which the entire Devonport community can be proud to call their own.”