This is the text of a talk given by Darwin-based architect Jo Best to a “Resilient Darwin” forum held in Darwin during Law Week 2018. 

In the NT News article on 22nd April about the demise of the project at the Old Hospital site, Philippa Butt talked about the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. She quoted David Walsh as saying that MONA is a ‘loss leader’.

Her argument seemed to be that if a public or private cultural centrepiece makes no money, that it shouldn’t be built. I’m not sure the government of Tasmania would see it that way, but the NT Government certainly does. Ms Butt’s point about a new museum being a loss leader was of course absolutely right but it ignores the intrinsic value of capital expenditure on cultural infrastructure, the broader economic and social benefits.

She does however, bring up the very interesting topic of the cost of a building once occupied. Yes, a museum or whatever you like to call it would cost money to build and operate, so it is indeed a loss leader. It’s the hundred dollar lawnmower at Bunnings that gets you through the door so you’ll buy a hose clip with a ten thousand percent mark-up that will probably break on the way to the car.

So, now let’s consider the rolled-gold money-making alternative to a loss leader. The commercial venture … the hose-clip of real estate. Why not, for argument’s sake let a developer, who may or may not be a party donor, have some prime land for free. It sounds crazy doesn’t it? But the developers, you see, can always be trusted to do what the loss leader can’t. Make money.

Now, let’s assume for the sake of this chat, that they plan to build the kind of dwellings that have become ubiquitous throughout Darwin and her suburbs in the past 10-20 years. And let’s assume that they’ll be striving for a five star energy rating. In the Territory, what 5 star means is that when you air condition the building, the cool air can’t get out. But guess what, for the rest of the time, the cool air can’t get in. So you’ve got your multiple air conditioners in place and you build the near windowless box around them.

That’s the law.

So Brenda and Brendan Brown buy their airtight little house for $400,000. Their repayments leave them with very little left over at the end of the month and then the power bill arrives. Now they realise that they’re paying (the government owned) services company almost as much as they’re paying the bank. Brendan and Brenda Brown look past their eave-less roof to the heavens and curse the cost-of-living gods and the museum-building Pinkos they’ve heard about in their favourite paper.

And they have no idea that they and their neighbours have bought into an energy Ponzi scheme. We have been building an energy deficit into our housing and throughout our cities and towns that will be difficult to reverse and it is making us poorer. The majority of domestic construction in the NT is dominated by development companies that deliver as cheaply as possible and pass on the legacy of poor design and construction to the uninformed buying public.

This is allowed to happen through weak urban design, planning and construction legislation across the three levels of government. And where is this most visible? Where it can’t be seen of course. On indigenous communities across the Territory, at this moment, houses are being built that don’t comply with the basic health amenity of the Building Code of Australia. NTG standardised house designs have a single opening within bedrooms that comes standard with an opaque polycarb louvre. This in itself is not compliant because when the window is shut, no natural light can enter the room.

But worse, the opening is exactly the size as a window rattler. So if residents decide they want an air conditioner to assist in the liveability of their inappropriately designed dwelling, not only do the remove (entirely) all access to natural light, but also fresh air. I realise this event was supposed to be aligned to a conversation around Darwin’s preparedness for extreme weather events and we have of course seen recent failures on this front, but there are many relevant day to day issues that affect Darwin’s ability to exist into the future.

Cultural recognition & sensitivity, jobs, affordable housing (including during occupation), tourism opportunities, environmental protection, identity, community, and the much touted “liveable city”. We live in a town that is being moulded by traffic engineers instead of strategic thinkers like urban designers, demographers and economists. And the legacy left behind by the current decision makers, are huge pieces of infrastructure difficult and expensive to remove, damaging to the city and her peoples.

The immediate future and perceived ‘wins’ are being valued over long-term viability and opportunity. Barneson Bld, is a perfect example of the people of Darwin being sidelined and ignored, not only in terms of immediate public opinion, but the viable future of our city and its population.

If you ask for some kind of rationale, the rote learnt response from public servants is that the new road will ‘activate’ Frog Hollow Park & the City….really? How does a 5 lane blacktop moving at 60km/hour, that will sever three existing perpendicular roads (McMinns, Woods & Cavenagh) and a major green lung within the CBD do this?

It’s a furphy. The best we can hope for is a replication of the wasteland that Daly St has become. In every other capital city in Australia (and across the world), cars are being removed from the CBD and replaced with quality public transport connections.

This helps to reduce; pollution, vehicle infrastructure like carparks and thousands of square metres of bitumen that contribute to the CBD heat island. We should instead; be building coolth with tree canopies, increasing walkability, designing for a city that builds the health and wellbeing of its inhabitants at a time when increased rates of heat related morbidity and mortality are seen worldwide. Melbourne, has initiated their Urban Forest Strategy which will double the tree canopy in the city in ten years, Sydney has committed to planting 5 million new trees by 2030.

These commitments to greening the urban realm and reducing vehicles on streets begins a holistic strategy to address the effects of climate change by embracing and utilising the environment, not trying to shut it out.

And do you know the best thing about this approach? We’ve got 65,000+ years of experience right on our doorstep to teach us.


Phote: ABC Darwin