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Conclusion: Urbanization and Alice Springs

D.N. Parkes

Urbanization of the central Australian region is manifest in the built environment through the number and forms of technologically complex buildings and communication systems and the less visible utility corridors for supply of water and energy and the disposal of liquid and solid wastes. Latent (or at least less tangible) is the population of about 18,000 permanent residents and over 150,000 visitors and tourists in any single year. Aspects of the demographic and socio-economic structure of this population have been discussed; the built environment being essentially responsive to the needs, wants, aspirations, and abilities of the members and to the size of the population.

Built Environment and Urbanization

The built environment has various categories of structure and has various qualities associated with those structures, which are essentially an indication of their age and suitability to perform the functions for which they were constructed. The human environment of Alice Springs, in particular, is also structured in response to urbanizing forces such as tertiary and quaternary sector govenment employment and tourism. Also evident in the human environment is the structural dimension of racial origin: approximately six whites to one Aboriginal inhabitant. The built environment of Alice Springs reflects these structural features in the impressive government offices, hotels, casino complex, large and impressive private houses, state housing areas for white and black, and the improvised dwellings of Aboriginal temporary day camps.

Utility Services and Urbanization

As an urban central place Alice Springs draws upon vast resources of underground artesian water, and this critical factor does not appear at present to be an immediate or significant constraint to further urbanization. Tourism and many urban leisure activities rely increasingly on hightechnology, high-energy consuming capital. Economic considerations therefore encourage the highest user-tocapital ratios, and it is precisely in relation to this packing principle that we should anticipate a threat to the susceptible arid environment.

Traditional Lands and Urbanization

Although we have not studied the relations between urbanization processes and the occupation, use, and ownership of traditional lands by the Aboriginal people, we conjecture that there may indeed be some aggravation of the difficulties that inevitably exist for all fast-growing urban places in relation to the marginal lands into which urban physical expansion might occur. There are some signs that this is already occurring, for instance in relation to the recreation lake, reported in chapter 4, and in the Larapinita district of western Alice Springs.

Energy and Urbanization

Energy demands have not been studied here, but all the evidence we have of urbanization and urbanism is that they are increasingly heavy in energy consumption. Oil and gas supplies in the Mereenie-Palm Valley area and natural gas may be the key to satisfaction of energy demand in central Australia but with increasing reliance on use of solar energy to convert public office building air conditioning and domestic water heating. Impact of energy supply difficulties on the local arid environment seems rather small; atmospheric pollutants are absent.

Demography and Urbanization

The simplest indicator of the impact of urbanization is the change from year to year in total resident population. An urban development study of Alice Springs, published in December 1975, to which Burnley contributed assistance on demographic issues, projected a population of 43,000 as a high estimate for the year 2001, 35,300 for a medium estimate, and 30,000 for a low estimate. The medium estimate is just about twice the size of the present population. Population projections based on a 4 per cent increase per annum were shown in table 2.3. A clear indication of the attitudes and likely behavioural response by present residents to a doubling of population size was discussed in chapter 4. The question of optimal size for any urban place is always especially difficult since it is simply not possible to anticipate technological innovations that will facilitate higher packing capacities. To assume a constant state of technological input is patently silly, therefore no optimal or even maximum population sizes have been pro posed.

What does seem to be fairly clear is that the tourism effect on population numbers will increase in spite of the dramatic changes in world-wide fuel prices, which began to take effect from the end of 1974. One estimate of tourist numbers between 1981 and 2001 is presented below.

Year 1981 1986 1991 1966 2001
Visitors 140,000 210,000 310,000 420,000 600,000

These estimates were calculated in 1975 for the Alice Springs Urban Development Study, and the 1981 figures are likely to exceed the estimate, (a 7.4 per cent annual increase rate was assumed). Actual annual increases between 1975 and 1981 have in fact been slightly higher than this. The tourist industry has stimulated the investment of capital by the Northern Territory Department of Transport and Works into the upgrading of roads and bridges throughout much of central Australia; as a consequence, Alice Springs will become more accessible from the surrounding settlements of Papunya, Hermannsberg, Yuendemu, and others. Periodic pressures on the central settlement of Alice Springs are therefore likely to increase, especially by the consequently more mobile Aboriginal people, who are gaining better access to motor vehicles, both private and through government schemes.

Ecosystem Disruption and Urbanization

Every urban place is susceptible to severe disruptions to its systemic structure. These disruptions may be caused by natural system events such as flood, cyclone, or earthquake and by social system events such as strikes, civil disorders, and epidemics. If the level of population awareness of any one or more causes of system disruption can be considered as high and also persistent, then that disruption might be considered as a hazard. If the perceived hazard eventuates, its scale may be sufficiently great for the event to be considered a disaster.

Does Alice Springs appear to be susceptible to any natural or social system perturbations that might be considered hazards? Ironically, flooding is perhaps the greatest natural environment hazard for Alice Springs. Plate 11 illustrates a realization of this hazard as a flood through Heavitree Gap. The immediate impact of floods in central Australia is upon road and rail communications, and the inaccessibility frequently referred to in this report is increased severely at such times. Airlifting of supplies into Alice Springs has not been necessary for some years, but in 1981 flood provisions did have to be airlifted into neighbouring settlements. The flood hazard then is directed to the single most important element in the central Australian urban matrix of people, attitudes, and activities, that is, surface transport.

Water supply shortage for domestic and commercial users does not rate as a hazard as far as we can determine. Certainly there was no perception of a water supply shortage reported in the surveys undertaken, and as reported in chapter 2, the water resources in artesian basins are evaluated by engineers as sufficient for the foreseeable future.

Within the human system the impact of protracted strike action which originates in the capital cities of Australia is a severe hazard if it affects air transport in particular. Such strike action associated with other transport modes and coinciding with flood conditions means that the settlement of Alice Springs could be faced with a disastrous situation affecting not only the resident population but also the region's major industry, tourism. Labour disputes therefore link Alice Springs very tightly with the wider national and international system or urbanizing forces. There is need for a study of the hazard and associated disaster threats to Alice Springs not only for the contribution that it would make to that particular settlement and its environs but also for its contribution to the wider interest area of urbanization and arid zone problems. While perception studies are important it is also necessary to establish what the actual (pre-perceptual) ecological impacts might be; how they might be minimized; how they might be managed if a disaster occurred. Do urban systems inevitably contain the seeds of their own temporary destruction within their human environment, and if so, how do remote and/or arid environment locations relate to them?

Urbanization from the Centre towards the Periphery

Finally we return to an earlier point, that there were certain political implications for the states with borders contiguous to the centre of Australia if the urbanization processes occurring in the Alice Springs region were to continue into the foreseeable future and beyond.

At the present time there is not a single Federal Government ministry charged with a portfolio of responsibility for Australia's arid zone of 5.7 million kmē. Each of the mainland states (and the Northern Territory), excluding Victoria, have 50 per cent or more of their area within the arid zone boundary which we have used throughout this report. Even if this boundary is adjusted inwards by 30 per cent, only New South Wales would then have less than half of its area in the newly defined arid region. Along each state border within the arid region we have a corridor of possibly conflicting interests {Parkes 1975). How wide this corridor actually is has not been determined, but its geographical effect is dysfunctional as far as the integrity of Australia's arid zone is concerned. Perhaps the most tangible example of this condition is the road south from Alice Springs to Adelaide. Through the entire north-south axis of the Northern Territory, from Darwin to Mt. Cavenagh, the road is sealed. Upon reaching the South Australian border it is unsealed. At this point there is a severe shift in the status of a critical human environmental factor, transportcommunication. The burgeoning urbanization of Alice Springs and environs is exerting an increasingIy powerful impact on the need for this condition to be rectified.

If we consider the urbanization process in relation to Alice Springs as having initially attractive or centripetal qualities and then with growth and increasing ecological dominance of the central Australian region a consequential dispersive or centrifugal quality, the scenario may be developed of these dispersive urbanization forces putting more and more pressure towards the state boundaries. Figure 10.1 attempts to illustrate this. In order not to impute precise and real geographical zones of impact, we have sketched the scenario as shown. States are labelled in upper case alphabet, the nonarid or least affected zone is the set of spaces [F], Alice Springs is [Z] . T1 represents a time in the past when Alice Springs [Z] was a remote, minimally connected small service centre. T2 is the present; T3 the future, when urbanization of Alice Springs and central Australia becomes an increasingly sensitive political factor for neighbouring states, and also Darwin (over 1,500 km to the north [y] ). The first most important structural feature of the innermost zone centred on Alice Springs which is shown in T3 will be the north * south * north axis between Darwin and Adelaide centred on Alice Springs. Federal Government commitment to the construction of a rail link between Alice Springs and Darwin is the single most significant urbanization factor that will exert centripetal and centrifugal influence on Alice Springs. Secondly, and already represented informally as the Northern Australia Development Council, will be an east * west * east axis between Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland. While [Z] may not be central to this axis, its influence upon it as an increasingly signifiant urban centre will be substantial.

FIG. 11. The Impact of Continued Urbanization Pressure towards a Formalized Central Australian Arid Region

While the scheme illustrated in figure 11 may appear excessively speculative, the most important feature of the relation between urbanization and the Australian arid zone that it illustrates is the complete absence of any formally constituted federal ministry to integrate and assist in the management of future ecological changes throughout the Australian arid zone. Urbanization forces, far more extensive and significant than we have been able to address in this focus on Alice Springs, will demand attention in the imminent future.

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