Was there a reason you looked to Greensburg and New Orleans as post-disaster case studies for your piece above other locations?
There are other examples around the world [of sustainability-focused renewal projects] on a smaller scale, but I think the Greensburg example in particular is the only one that I'm aware of where the community came together for such an extensive and informed deliberation.
They came out of it with this vision of sustainability as the anchor theme. The interesting part is it is absolutely red America – the heartland of conservatism – I think 87% of that county voted for the Republicans. It's not a political thing, it's literally a renewal thing, so I think Greensburg just jumped out.
Of course, New Orleans is vivid because I went to New Orleans as my very first trip for Green Cross and our office there has been a really big part of leading that program. I visited the houses that were really cyclone resilient, sustainable and producing unbelievably low energy and water bills in a part of New Orleans which is quite vulnerable, so those savings are really important going forward.
Organizations like Green Cross Australia play a unique role in the renewal process.
The 21st Century is an interesting place when it comes to how we look at different parts of society. At Green Cross, we almost don't think of ourselves as a non-government organization; we're a network and in that network we bring together community, all levels of government, the research community, businesses small and large.
When you think about that network as being the resource base for ideas, technologies and investment, then suddenly you change that envelope of entitlement. Like, 'it's the government's job to do everything for the community, that's why we vote for them'.
I think in this day and age the community needs to step up, supported and empowered by government and all those different layers can come together. That's what Green Cross does – we catalyse that sort of partnership.
A strong theme of your piece is how natural disasters become politicised and how the media fuels a cycle of impatience.
People get this expectation that doing it quick and almost cheap and dirty – so-called efficient – is the right way to go. Sometimes pausing for reflection and considering options, pulling together resources from all different parts of society and recognising that you might have to spend a little bit more [means] the long term benefits far outweigh that initial investment.
There is no doubt the headlines can basically overturn governments and put real pressure on kind of a recovery-via-press-release. 'We've ticked this, we done that, this is open, that is open'. Some things are best not ticked for a little bit longer to tick them in a really interesting way.
The wonderful thing about media these days is it's almost like the real media is the social media. It's how we communicate with each other, it's how we grab stories and information and share them, visualise what could be possible. In that sense, there is sort of a counter-veiling force, a kind of inspiration for something new and different and better.
Are governments crippled by public eagerness to see rebuilding taking place?
We live in this culture where governments are elected because they promise things, but when an event like Black Saturday, a major cyclone or a massive flood happens, you will be alone. The first 72 hours, especially. The resilience factor there is about individual families really understanding their homes, circumstances, children, neighbours, and communities; what communication and power back-up systems can be shared and developed.
That's the key thing – it's actually important to develop a culture of self-reliance and yet you can see how that competes with messages of 'elect us, we'll fund more, we'll be there, we'll take care of you'. It's a funny thing. I actually think governments need to start letting go; communities now need to step up. And what is the role of government? To support that process.
What needs to change about Australian recovery projects to emulate the success of cases like Greensburg?
This is not meant to be crass, it's just an observation: what tends to happen in Australia is we have a big event, it flashes across our screens, our hearts are absolutely pulled, we follow that and the stories around it. We give, we give from the heart, and we give quite large amounts. The intention of the community, the expectation, is that that money goes back to the individuals and their families who were impacted. All of that, it sounds fantastic, doesn't it?
Of course that's where we want our money to go – directly to the people who are suffering – but what that means is very little of that funding goes towards strategic community development. What's the local industry that comes out of [a] recovery, what kind of thing do we want culturally that comes out of the dollars that are invested? I think we [need to] strike a balance on that.
Must we move toward a model that involves green-focused organizations as well as governments in order to succeed with renewal initiatives?
For me, the secret to renewal after disasters is deep community empowerment and allowing the community itself to consider options and ideas, different infrastructure and different technologies. When you reflect on what urban environments of the future are, they take you to resilience and sustainability.
Sustainability because of the cost factor and that people do care about the environment – whether it's biodiversity, water waste, energy, climate, et cetera – and resilience because you think, 'wow, this could happen again'.
In Australia, we are exposed to multiple hazards – floods, cyclones, bushfires – so for us the idea that we can rebuild cities that protect from those hazards using this technology as well as delivering sustainability outcomes, I just think it's a no-brainer.
How does Green Cross Australia see their role developing?
Green Cross is a very young organization, our network is only now beginning to grow. It's not political; it's research-based, it's entrepreneurial. It pulls together these different sectors. I think what we're doing is planting the seeds of what might be possible, and if we combine the idea of the technology, the investment, the community appetite and so forth with the message of deliberative democracy as the secret of how we invest these billions of dollars every year, that is a recipe for something very, very different.