Monday 15 September 2008

Garrett right about Cairns

Syd Walker says the good Minister Garrett was acute in his observations about Cairns in his snap visit over the weekend. The question is, what are we all going to do about it.

Peter Garrett is right about Cairns.

The truth is painful sometimes. Every country likes to think it’s the ‘best in the world!’. Every region likes to think it’s uniquely blessed. Every town aspires to be superior.

So, as a loyal member of the greater Cairns community, I’d like to claim this is the greatest town in the greatest region in the greatest country.

But it isn’t. Or more accurately, Cairns is a complex mixture of good and bad, healthy and sick, smart and stupid, ignorant and enlightened. It’s a relatively young settlement, and it’s very much work in progress. If we get touchy about a little criticism from outsiders with broader horizons, it says more about us than them.

The Cairns Post reports...
  • Asked at a gathering of the Cairns art community at Sapphire Bar in answer to a question about howto how to do (sic) the right thing as a property developer, Mr Garrett replied: "You can find out what not to do by walking out that door."

My friends - that tiresome John McCain habit is spreading - Peter Garrett is right!

The Cairns Post, rather predictably, sought comment from former-Cairns City Mayor Kevin Byrne, who, rather predictably, disagrees with the Federal Arts and Environment Minister.

  • "Our skyline here is quite wonderful… The developments in Cairns in the last 20 years have improved dramatically and there’s been a genuine attempt to improve aesthetics and the built form.

    "If you were to walk down Lake St (out the door of Sapphire Bar), you’d see a lot of old Cairns which has a quaintness and a niceness to it, but there is also a blend with modern Cairns and you’ve got to have that."

Now, I know how easy it is to be misreported by newspapers, and/or to have remarks taken out of context. I also accept that everyone is entitled to their opinion. With those provisos, I will now say that Mr Byrne’s reported comments are crap.

I guess Byrne thinks Cairns is the best place he can imagine. After all, a lot of it is his ‘dreaming’. His policies – and those of people like him – have dominated development within Cairns for at least a generation. They have defined what ‘modern Cairns’ means, and the manner of its ‘blend’ with that part of ‘old Cairns’ graciously (and often temporarily) granted a reprieve from the bulldozers.

When I look at modern Cairns, for the most part I see the manifestation of crude commercialism. It’s rather tacky. Billboards and advertising signs, shop signs leap out in all directions, bitumen, concrete and glass pervade. Lots of pavement. Roads everywhere. Not very convenient for pedestrians or car users. Dust. Heat. Honking horns and hamburger joints. Emporia of airport art. Slow moving traffic. Parking stress. The fierce blast of electric-powered air-con separates street from office and shop. Needless to say, it’s all environmentally unsustainable.

I get no sense of overall architectural or aesthetic vision - presumably reflecting the absence of such a vision. Thanks to the eternal vigilance of the environment movement, Cairns still has a magnificent view from the Esplanade – and the foothills are substantially unscathed. But walk backwards into town and the main experience is of a nondescript and rather inconvenient commercial jungle. Beyond that, car-dependent suburbs extend outwards, the newer ones generally lacking the charm of older residential areas. Some new developments still intrude into yet more high conservation value natural areas. Overall, there’s no clear signs of a drive to achieve environmental best practice anywhere.

It is as though we don’t care about building a distinctive, attractive, enlightened small city - because we count on visitors coming here just for the attractions we inherited: reef, rainforests and Aboriginal culture?

Much of the built heritage from the first few generations of European settlement in Far North Queensland has charm. The Queenslander is a visually attractive and intelligent adaptation to a climate with many hot days and occasional high rainfall. Some of Cairns early civic buildings are features of note. The Yacht Club, currently under sentence of death, is a a good example.

In the main, the problem doesn't lie with our older heritage (although I suspect some legacy toxic dumps still need checking out). The bigger problem has been development over the last few decades – much of it on Kevin Byrne’s watch. Commercially driven, unsustainable, unenlightened, ugly, automobile-dominated more-of-the-same. Our shopping malls could have been designed in America – and probably were. It's all so same.

The Cairns Casino is the epitome of poor-taste architecture. It may as well be located in Nowheresville, Texas. Is this temple to Mammon the sacred site of modern FNQ? As an architectural statement, it is revealing about the values of the people who have been running Cairns recently. Not a pretty sight.

Along with Aboriginal culture, it's the natural environment, for me, that makes FNQ really special in a global sense. Since European invasion, the region has been losing biodiversity fast and the disaster continues. There’s plenty in that subject to occupy many lifetimes.

So my interest is, in general, is on the environmental side of Peter Garrett’s portfolio.

However, Minister Garrett covers Environment and the Arts. He is fully entitled to make harsh observations about Cairns from the perspective of both the natural and built environment – and to raise environmental and aesthetic concerns. FNQ does need to raise its game. We should pursue, in a systematic and cumulative way, both sustainability and beauty. By and large, the previous generation pursued neither.

During the recent local government election campaign, Val Schier spoke eloquently, on occasion, about sustainability. She also spoke of the need for “innovative tropical design”.

One of the Cairns Post's more puerile commentators mocked the term in an op ed some months ago, soon after Shier was elected Mayor. References to “innovative tropical design” seem to have dried up since.

It’s a pity, because I think Val Schier was onto something. As Mayor, Schier is strategically placed to launch Cairns in a new direction, in terms of both environmental management and aesthetic design.

The remarkable Clover Moore has undertaken this gargantuan task in Sydney, employing world best practice planners to draft striking and truly visionary plans for the city’s future.

Last weekend, Moore was re-elected with a solid mandate for her initiatives. Significantly, Moore is an Independent, which has long given her the power to advocate sane policies. I lobbied her on protection of native forests in the 1990s and Clover Moore, I may say, was a beacon of decency in a bleak political landscape, full of dirty deals and betrayals. It doesn’t surprise me – although I am delighted – to observe the great success of her political career since. People are ready for change we know we must make and crave intelligent leadership.

The Federal trading emissions scheme may help. But much of the necessary change must come from new guidelines and design, implemented at a local level. There's no need to delay, either, for economic signals to kick in. We know the direction of change already.

Having lived in Sydney and Cairns, I can’t see why Val and her team wouldn’t benefit politically from taking a similar direction to Clover Moore here. I can’t even understand why the ALP shouldn’t be supportive too. It would be nice to see a Labor triumph, for once. Why not? A duo-success for dynamic female leaders in Brisbane and Cairns.

Cairns could be funky, charming, moist, cool, green and sustainable. Innovative tropical design everywhere. Lots of stunning vegetation. Large pedestrian areas. Commercialism controlled. Lots of arts and entertainment. A safe, silent, clean and efficient public transport system. Solar power panels ubiquitous. Not just a place to visit for its surrounding natural wonders – but a small city worth visiting in its own right, somewhere on the leading edge of tropical design.

Like Sydney, Cairns needs a new plan.

We should aim for world best practice - not in rhetoric, but in actuality. We may well need outside help to develop it. We certainly need good public process. Cairns can take inspiration and borrow ideas from all over the world – as well as from the indigenous culture of FNQ. I’m inclined to think eclecticism works - as long as there’s an overall vision, a vision that’s appropriate and broadly consensual.

Beautiful cities often combine architecture from different periods and traditions: mosques and churches, temples and galleries, sports venues and dance halls, gardens and markets. Great cities do blend a range of architectural styles. Of course we shouldn’t try to exclude modernity, but we must harness it well. We certainly need superior modern transport, waste minimization /management and water reticulation systems. Our environmental footprint must be low, yet our built environment can and should be very pleasant.

All too much to ask? I hope not. What’s the alternative?

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