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Telling good blubber from bad

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'If we were to design a green settlement… from scratch, the product would not be suburbia, or urban villages, or Greek fishing towns or even, say, Barcelona. It would be Manhattan.’ Elizabeth Farrelly can always be relied on to stir things up.

She is an architect, trained in Auckland but now teaching at the University of Sydney, a city where she writes a very sparky column for the Morning Herald. She did a stint as an independent city councillor and was inaugural chairperson of the Australia Award for Urban Design. Years ago when she lived in London, she used to work with me on The Architectural Review in the halcyon days when it lived in Queen Anne’s Gate with a private pub in the basement. She wasn’t just a live wire on the staff, but from time to time an electric eel.

Now she has produced a book, Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness (New South, Sydney, A$29.95), a robust criticism of consumer society – a common enough pastime, you might think, but few other analysts throw their nets so wide or fish up so many paradoxes. Her Manhattan one is based on points like the fact that the average production of carbon by individual Americans is 24.5 tonnes a year, whereas the figure for New Yorkers it is only 7.1 tonnes, partly because Manhattanites are ten times more likely to use public transport.

So Farrelly is convinced that dense cities are needed in a time of climate change. They will be tall, not only to increase density, but because high-speed lifts are apparently ‘among the most energy-efficient passenger vehicles in the world’. Her main hatred is for suburban sprawl, the explosion of which in the second half of last century she rather unfairly attributes to Ebenezer Howard’s theories and the success of the Garden City movement.

But anyone who has driven through the sometimes seemingly endless wastelands of the Western Suburbs from the splendidly urban centre of Sydney to the wondrously sublime Blue Mountains, realises that blubber can smother the most beautiful landscapes, particularly in countries that believe they have a lot of land such as Australia, the USA and, even, the apparently super-green Scandinavian states. According to Farrelly, there is good blubber and bad blubber (blubber itself is defined as ‘unused energy…aquiver with potential’). The difference between good and bad is in part a question of degree, like our response to sunlight or chocolate. But ‘it’s also attitudinal’; we end up by being ‘blubber-rich but meaning-poor’.

Unlike most critics, Farrelly is not afraid to expound her own vision. Her last chapter is an Antipodean News from Nowhere, a dream about an Australia much altered by radical climate change and humanity’s response to it. The desertified eastern seaboard and its great cities have been virtually abandoned (except by the very rich, some of whom live in transparent bubbles, hoarding water vapour – why don’t they distil the sea using solar energy, as Foster plans to do in Abu Dhabi?). Civilisation has moved to the north west corner of the continent, in our time very little inhabited.

Unlike the world of William Morris’s novel, society has not regressed to a sort of cleaned-up medievalism with a greatly reduced population – incidentally the unspoken hope of many of today’s green campaigners. At least in Australia, Farrelly believes that the population could remain roughly the same as at present, but there must be firm rules. Cities are to have very firm boundaries and are surrounded by a belt of organic market gardens and farms. Beyond this agricultural ring, all land is owned by the Crown (can she still be a monarchist?) and is treated as a vast forested nature reserve in which property cannot be privately owned, so all development can be carefully controlled to prevent sprawl.

City centres are dominated by tall buildings for business and habitation. Rings of decreasing density surround the cores, but density never gets down to Anglo-Saxon suburb levels, and the model for the outer residential zone is, roughly, Belgravia. Buildings must recycle all their water and each must have its own energy source, either wind turbine or photo-voltaic, feeding power into distributed grids. Everything is covered with greenery à la Ken Yeang, in gardens, rooftop orchards and even on vertical surfaces, creating a ‘semi-edible cityscape’ in which people browse for lunch.

Farrelly bursts with ideas, discussing everything from planning and feminism to diet and religion. Strange concepts are introduced on the way, such as John Constable (the nineteenth century painter) as a postmodernist, the myth of the vagina dentata and the causal link between beauty and tyranny.

Some of her proposals are a bit wacky (particularly on religion). But the book ranges over a much broader field than just her speculations on the future in the last chapter and it deserves a much wider readership than it is likely to get with its present publishing arrangements. Meanwhile, I am more or less convinced that with Farrelly and a few more like her, Australia might be one of the few places in which civilisation could survive global warming more or less intact – but to do so, it will surely have to learn the wisdom of the aboriginals.

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