Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Planning with plasticine

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Planning Adaptation with Plasticine

Every five-year old knows that plasticine is an essential learning and building tool. On the 17th and 18th of November a group of researchers, planners and regional managers explored plasticine as a planning tool at a workshop in Bendigo, Victoria.

The workshop itself was a design charette, an intensive episode of creative brainstorming. Charettes were developed in France by design students scrambling to meet a deadline. They involve experts and the lay public addressing a design problem by developing a set of scenarios in a loosely structured and creative way.

Four design scenarios from the Bendigo charette

This is the broad design problem addressed in the charette:

The current urban and peri-urban growth model is widely agreed to be unsustainable. Subdividing green-fields without due regard for the landscape’s natural assets erodes those assets. If current and future risks are inadequately planned for, people are put at risk; especially if the hazards and the number of people exposed to those hazards change very quickly. Landscape planning is a tricky process and hard to get right.

This process is also hard to change. Current methods are locked-in at the institutional, economic and behavioural scale. Business as usual is extended into the future with an emphasis on minimizing Type II errors (the penalty of acting and being wrong). If no adaptation is undertaken, type I errors under climate change (the risk of insufficient response to anticipated change) can be anticipated with high confidence but for various reasons tends to be overlooked.

Time and again, conservative (risk-averse) attitudes to planning show a clear preference for making familiar mistakes, thus avoiding Type II errors involving new, unfamiliar strategies. This maintains institutional lock-in, which is strengthened by narratives that appeal both on the personal and institutional level. The risk of committing Type I errors (the penalty of inadequate planning) seems remote to people, particularly if climate change is communicated as a gradual process with serious risks being decades away.

The Bendigo Region has many natural assets including a great climate, rolling hills and valleys, spectacular gold-fields flora and gold itself. It also has a number of vulnerabilities including fire-prone forests and grasslands, an intermittent water supply, declining agricultural production, the toxic legacies of gold mining and episodes of extreme heat. The region is growing fast. Something like 23,000 dwellings or more are expected to be built in the region by 2050.

My work shows that regional climate risks do not change gradually following a curve, but look more like a staircase. Human-induced warming is non-linear: the analysis of temperature records indicates that under climate change heat is being stored in the oceans surrounding Australia for decades before being released into the atmosphere in short bursts. This has an immediate impact both on temperature and rainfall. (Many other regions also show similar rapid changes).

Impact risks can therefore shift quite rapidly. If regional population is also changing rapidly, more people can be exposed to more frequent climate hazards in a relatively short time. A range of impact risks, including extreme heat, drought and fire danger, shifted to a more extreme state in South-eastern Australia from 1997–98 but this has not yet been widely recognised.

The historical changes presented included daily maximum temperatures above 35°C and 40°C and Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI). Before and after 1996-97, days above 35°C rose from 10 to 14 and above 40°C rose from 0.7 to 2.4.  Forest Fire Danger Index for Victoria rose by almost 40% and days of high fire danger or above by more than 40% over the same period. A scenario of a further shift in climate risks 2020 represents a plausible repeat episode coinciding with ongoing regional development and an increased regional population.

Days above 35°C and 40°C for Bendigo 1972-73 to 2009-10

Forest Fire Danger Index for Bendigo 1972-73 to 2009-10

In the charette the idea of flexible and creative adaptation planning was emphasised. A version of the following diagram was presented. Risk can be anticipated or reacted to, and adaptations can modify the environment or modify behaviour. For example, the Australian western tradition is to modify the environment in order to manage risk, whereas the indigenous tradition is to listen to the environment and modify behaviour. This diagram is used to suggest that a range of  very different styles of adaptation are possible.

Several group exercises were carried out using maps of the local area at small and large scale. Most people started off with current plans uppermost in their minds, making small modifications. As the workshop proceeded, the number of creative suggestions increased. People’s horizons expanded as ideas bounced off each other. On the second day, four scenarios – one-line themes that had come up throughout the workshop – were proposed for a map-based exercise using plasticine to craft design elements. A set of design principles was developed for each scenario by the group before getting into the plasticine.

A range of innovative designs were proposed, which might not have happened if discussions stayed within the bounds of current plans.

For example (these are only some of the ideas proposed):

  • Learning to live with fire
    • using regional environmental assets, the Country Fire Authority, government and community environment groups and control burning in which the community take part to develop floristically rich but fuel-poor buffer zones between bush and houses.
    • Having a licence to live in high risk areas gained via training; training and community involvement maybe also deliver insurance discounts.
    • Quarantining forest conservation zones where fire risk is high and concentrating development in adjacent open areas.
  • The golden centre
    • Gold is an asset that may be extractable in the future, so those benefits can be emphasised as part of the region’s history but also its future.
    • Gold mines under the region are a source of cool air and water that could potentially provide a heat-exchange resource. The old workings now are seen as a hazard, not a resource.
  • Self contained satellite centres with mass- and human-powered transport through bush zones to Bendigo
    • Village squares with open space as a safe place for kids to play
    • Open co-located bike-ways and flood areas
    • Mass transport (most favoured light rail)
    • Co-located power generation and industry
  • Community linkages
    • Community gardens and open areas as a resource for higher density developments
    • Promoting the community management of fire, water, environment to maintain local links between community and the environment
  • Contaminated urban zones from old gold workings
    • Some areas close to the city centre could be “terraformed” to stabilise toxic residues and re-designed to manage local microclimates with flood management, stormwater harvesting and cool zones being a feature. This would be the inland version of a docklands development and provide medium density housing for older residents close to amenities.

These are all just ideas and would require significant discussion and resourcing if they were to be realised. They blend an economic, social and environmental sensibility but in terms of regional development are very different to the current model of private housing–public infrastructure development, which occurs as a series of incremental decisions driven by commercial considerations. On the other hand, such plans need not be overly prescriptive if they are conceptually sound and should not be if they are to promote creativity. They would however, have to be designed to avoid: people being unnecessarily exposed to increased fire risk, exposing vulnerable people to undue heat stress, allowing  development to occur in flood prone areas, or carving up the environment to minimise risks.

This is stage one of the project. Stage 2 will take many of these suggestions and ask the question “how can we assess which of these many possibilities are ‘good’ adaptations?” This broaches the question of how we measure values associated with environment and lifestyle in a changing climate.

The project is led by Rob Roggema from RMIT University’s Centre for Design and involves researchers from RMIT, La Trobe University, Victoria University and the University of Melbourne. IT is funded by the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research.


Written by Roger Jones

November 30, 2011 at 4:31 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Great work Roger!
    Cheers Rob


    November 30, 2011 at 5:49 pm

  2. A good approach to an approaching problem, Roger.

    I see from the top left image that green zones have been considered.

    One thing that all communities can afford to do is plant trees. The real issue is in the types of trees planted. Our Australian problem is that our most common vegetation, Eucalypts, are relatively wind transparent, highly combustible, and drop slow decomposing highly combustible ground litter. In an environment of climbing temperatures, and powerful electrical storms, this is a hazardous situation. Hazardous particularly where the green belt touches the fringe of occupation. The solution is extremely simple. Replant the occupation fringe with a safety green belt more suitable to the protection of property. ie utilize vegetation that fulfills our need for aesthetically pleasing shade greenery. This will include plants that provide a full wind blocking capability. Liquid ambers, lillypilly, camphor laurel, pitostrum, tilia cordata (my prefered imported variety), Mortem Bay fig, and a lot of others that I know nothing about.

    This is a simple adaption which pays dividends in terms of protection, aesthetic comfort, regional appeal, and most importantly it is an adaption which, if executed immediately, will improve in effectiveness proportional to the rate of increase of the risk.

    Some take the view that cutting down the trees to provide a vegetation break is the answer. Well we saw how poorly that works in the Canberra fires where a grass fed fire fanned by high velocity winds created a sheet of extreme temperature air which cut through properties like a knife. There may very well be an un perceived phenomenon where the expanding gasses from the burning grass along with the temperature reduces or eliminates the ground effect (acting as a sort of lubricant) which should otherwise slow the air mass flow nearer to the ground, thereby accelerating the near ground grass fire air speed.


    December 10, 2011 at 6:41 am

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