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Life Boat?

In all the discussion about Gough Whitlam’s legacy last week, there was perhaps less emphasis on his government’s urban policy than on areas such as education and health.

In An Urban Nation (1969), then opposition leader Whitlam makes the case for why the federal government should be  involved in cities. The starting point is the recognition that Australia is an urban nation, contrary to the stories people tell.

In government, Whitlam and Minister for Urban and Regional Development, Tom Uren supported an urban renewal programme grounded in social justice. They were concerned that rising land values in the inner city were leading to people being displaced for commercial development and major transport projects. Affected people were also being denied participation in planning that affected their communities.

Close to home, in 1973, Emerald Hill, bounded by Park/Dorcas/Cecil and Clarendon Sts, was put up for sale by the Family Care Organisation. Following a community backlash, the Whitlam government provided a $3.5m interest free loan to the state government to keep the estate in public hands. It was later transferred to the Ministry of Housing.

Emerald Hill Estate

Emerald Hill Estate

Recently I read Brendan Gleeson’s Lifeboat Cities. He spends some time puzzling over the under-development of urban policy in Australia when Australia is one of the most urbanised nations in the world. Australia’s cities, with their concentrations of population hugging the coast, are most vulnerable to climate crisis. At the same time, he fervently argues that it is only cities that have the capacity to organise themselves to meet the challenges ahead. They need to become ‘lifeboat’ cities. I think he would agree with Whitlam that ‘architects and planners must now fulfil a curative as well as a creative function’.

Since reading that powerful book, the ‘boat’ on Tower 5 at Yarra’s Edge in Docklands has become a symbol of that lifeboat city to me. It is always there on the horizon of Port. It may not even been intended as a boat, mundanely hiding plant and equipment, but it looks like a boat to me.

On a cheery day, the boat reminds me of the possibility of  lifeboat cities but on a gloomy day it appears to be already stranded, washed up from failing to grasp the challenges of an urban nation.

Tower 5 at Yarra's Edge

Tower 5 at Yarra’s Edge from North Port Oval


Gleeson, Brendan (2010) Lifeboat Cities: Making a New World UNSW Press

Green, Shane Forty years ago Emerald Hill was saved from the wreckers, The Age,  November 25, 2013

Read more:

Whitlam, Gough An Urban Nation – Whitlam Institute 

Tower 5 Yarra’s Edge (2000) by Wood Marsh Architects

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