Across Australia, many urban, regional, and rural communities know what it is to experience natural hazards: fire, flood, drought, coastal inundation, cyclones, severe storms and winds – even, rarely, earthquakes. Climate science research and modelling over the last decade predicts that many extreme weather-related events will become more frequent, more intense, and less predictable as the climate continues to change.
Yet, the population continues to grow and spread – often into areas already exposed to natural hazards, or areas that will become more likely to be affected in coming decades. The consequences are very concerning and impacts widespread. In recent fires and floods, numbers of local residents, firefighters and rescuers lost their lives or were seriously injured trying to protect their communities or escape disaster. The economic impacts on individuals, businesses, communities, councils, and governments from the loss of homes, possessions, businesses, infrastructure, and services is extraordinary, and can take many years to overcome. The psychological wounds for many may never heal.
So, what can planning do to keep Australians safe now and into the future, and strengthen the resilience of communities?
We talked with Dr Mark Maund, WSP’s Planning & Approvals Team Lead for regional NSW and ACT, located in our Newcastle office, about the importance of planning for natural hazards and the challenges ahead.
Why is planning for natural hazards important?
To answer this question, Mark begins with a quote from the 2011 National Strategy for Disaster Resilience released by the Council of Australian Governments: “Locating new or expanding existing settlements and infrastructure in areas exposed to unreasonable risk is irresponsible.”
He says, “This really zeroes in on the importance of land-use planning and the critical role it can play in helping to creating resilient communities. The reason it’s so important is that it considers what is responsible or irresponsible right at the earliest phases of development – identifying land or areas to grow, what level of density or population size might be appropriate in those areas, and what kinds of land uses should or should not occur.
“At WSP, we want to help build thriving, resilient communities, so there’s a critical role for planners to play in the early phases of development to make sure that our projects take natural hazards into consideration and design for future shocks and stresses.”
Mark wants to see a more conscious, cautious, and considered approach to the choices Australians make about where to live or build, informed by an understanding of the risks and potential impacts of natural hazards on the area.
“When we choose where to build infrastructure or where to live, our choices have consequences and implications,” he says. “As we design communities, access and egress, evacuation centres and everything in between, we must remember that at some point emergency services personnel are likely to have to go in to respond to disasters, so it’s a broader community discussion that involves more than just a desire to build in a particular location.
“To flourish, communities need housing, places to work and study, places to connect, services that build individual and community wellbeing, and supporting infrastructure. Consequently, the considerations of what is an acceptable level of risk for a whole community is far more complicated than a straightforward risk assessment for a single property.”
Need for a nationally consistent framework
The need to plan for natural hazards and disaster-resilience has been recognised locally, nationally and internationally, in frameworks and documents such as the United Nations Sendai Framework and Words Into Actions guidelines, the Planning Institute of Australia’s National Land Use Planning Guidelines for Disaster Resilient Communities (2016), Australian Institute of Disaster Resilience Land Use Planning for Disaster Resilient Communities (2020), and by state and territory governments, and local councils.
“However, what’s missing,” says Mark, “is something that can pull all of this together into a national, consistent decision-making framework that can give broader guidance on how to make the best decisions for each community and what level of risk might be considered acceptable depending on the land uses, community and kind of risks we’re dealing with.
“Hazards and disasters don’t respect human-drawn boundaries. Fires, floods, and storms often affect multiple council areas, and even multiple states, so planners need to consider the spatial aspects of risk.
“In terms of natural hazard planning, we need to shift our thinking a little to a regional or community-level approach and ask ourselves how we are defining the community. Is it a suburb, a region, a geographic area, or catchment, and how we might manage the risks within those? What does the community look like? What does it need to adapt or recover? What risks does it face as a community now, and how might the community change over time, as it gets bigger and as its demography changes?
“We need a national natural hazard and disaster planning policy to address risks that cross state boundaries and to provide a consistent approach to identifying where communities can be located and what activities can occur in high-risk areas.”
Mark believes that planning decisions should be consistent, transparent, and able to be replicated. Mark believes that to achieve this, decision-making based purely on legislation or professional experience won’t be enough. He recommends a multi-criteria decision-making framework that takes both quantitative and qualitative factors into account. In other words, it would take into account more than just numerical criteria such as cost to rebuild, number of houses built and number of jobs created, but also the social aspects and impacts of creating and rebuilding communities.
The rush to rebuild
Once the floodwater has receded or the fire has been extinguished and the debris has been cleared, a whole new set of issues arises. This is particularly relevant when reflecting on the disasters Australia has endured in the last three years. It is natural that many people who have lost their homes or businesses will have a great sense of urgency to rebuild and try to reclaim their livelihood. However, Mark warns that it’s better not to rush, and to take enough time to fully consider all the options.
As Mark sees it, a key consideration is “why we are rushing to rebuild? Is it just because it was there before and to rebuild seems to restore the status quo? This is the time to weigh up risks, benefits and opportunities for the community and consider what really needs to be replaced and where the best location for it is.”
Another rebuilding consideration is how. “The phrase ‘build back better’ comes into play here,” says Mark. “We need to look at all the opportunities and options for building resilience into our designs, and through our choices of materials and methods, so that what we create after a disaster is far more likely to withstand the next one. Because, as climate modelling shows, there will be a next one.”
When choosing to rebuild in hazard-prone areas, it will be essential to incorporate adequate evacuation planning, including access for essential services, more than one road in and out, short-term and longer-term evacuation centres and temporary accommodation, access to essential support services and whatever forms of assistance can be provided for rebuilding.
Mark acknowledges that a growing concern for many in disaster-affected communities will be the cost and availability of insurance, which continues to increase, and is becoming out of reach for some people rebuilding in hazard-prone areas. In fact, a recent report by the Climate Council proposes that more than half a million Australian homes are likely to become uninsurable by 2030.
“When properties in a hazard-prone area are sold on, the people buying these properties, potentially at a lower cost, may not realise the risks, and may find that they are never able to insure the building and contents,” adds Mark. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the people most affected by disasters are those most vulnerable or least able to afford insurance or alternative accommodation options and are less likely to have access to a safe, secure refuge or recovery time.”
So, should there be restrictions on where people can rebuild?
Mark doesn’t know if the answer is that straightforward, but he acknowledges that planning systems for resilience to hazards, even if that does involve restricting growth, is needed. “Some of these issues are too big for individuals to handle on their own,” says Mark. “We need to be able to empower communities to make these difficult decisions and support them to move out of legacy areas if they choose.
“For future communities, avoiding or limiting growth in high-hazard areas might be best, but planners need access to good-quality information to make informed decisions.”
Shaping a more resilient future
Despite the ever-increasing magnitude of the challenge of natural hazards, Mark remains optimistic, “Knowledge of hazards is improving and sharing of knowledge is improving.
“Natural hazard resilience is the collective responsibility of all levels of government, business, the non-government sector, communities, and individuals. If we all understand the risks, work to limit climate change, and recognise that we all have a role to play at each stage, we can work together for better outcomes, shaping a safer and more resilient future for communities across the country.”
To find out more about Planning for Natural Hazards please contact Dr Mark Maund.
Also, you can listen to Mark’s new podcast series on WSP’s People and Places Podcast, titled Planning for Natural Hazards. Episode One is now live, and Mark is joined by Bernadette Quirk, WSP Graduate, Environment & Planning, to discuss the impact of climate change and natural hazards on communities, and the role planning plays in designing and preparing our communities for a better future.
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