IT WAS AUGUST 1981 and I had returned, after three years, to my first main traveller hangout in Asia. Except this time, rather than stay for weeks in a crowded hostel off Nathan Road in the neon heart of Tsim Sha Tsui, I was going to persevere and break into journalism.
My contacts had proved as lucky as a Chinese New Year red envelope full of money. As well as working as a barmaid, and I use the term advisedly as the uniform was buxom-wench-in-gingham, I was freelancing at Hong Kong’s English language television and entertainment weekly. Through friends at the arts centre I had moved backpack and eager soul to a flat with Leeds University Mandarin graduates and a Japanese student. Compact, bustling Hong Kong, yet here I was living relatively low-rise, around six storeys I think. We were opposite Happy Valley Racecourse where the floodlights shone and turned the front room’s lino into a shiny, swimming manifestation of humidity in wishy-washy blue.
Before I could really settle, economic reality hit. Land values were rising and the landlord wanted to sell. We had days rather than weeks to leave.
I was now a tentative staff writer, an ingénue, a non-local appointed at source without expatriate perks. I had to cover my rent and forward-plan for those trips back to England to see parents and friends.
‘Where will you live?’ The graphic designer’s eyes were kindly, gentle. She also had a fantastic network of Chinese colleagues who sympathised with my impending homelessness. Two days later, she dragged me from my desk. After a brisk walk to a high-rise housing estate and ride up in a cranky lift we were inside a three bedroom flat, found through a neighbourhood Chinese newspaper scoured by what seemed like the magazine’s entire art department.
So it was that I signed the lease on a dinky, angular place in Quarry Bay in the east of Hong Kong Island, the district in which the South China Morning Post was then based. The flat had parquet floors, a gas cook top for two woks or saucepans, no oven, a tiled bathroom, bedrooms off a long living room, and a heavy front door with thick bars that allowed you to keep it open in the summer heat without fear of unwanted visitors. There were also basic armchairs and sofa, wooden tables and single beds. This was on the twenty-sixth floor of a twenty-eight storey apartment block, one of twelve towers. Children ran around the concrete playgrounds below and couples canoodled on benches seeking privacy of sorts from their parents in the overlooking apartments.
A few days later a truck booked by my workmates collected me and my still meagre belongings from Happy Valley. I moved in with two flatmates from the youth hostel in which I had begun my transition from traveller to worker. I was responsible for the rent and, for my own sanity, had to ensure there were always enough of us to pay our way.
In the eighteen months I lived in this dense estate the only non-Chinese I saw were part of my churning crew, mostly editors and journalists, Chinese, American, English, Malaysian, New Zealanders and Canadians. I had my first taste of Jacob’s Creek shiraz there. The rooftop, where we went especially in the summer as respite from the clammy heat, had a Secret Life of Us quality. It was surrounded by mountains rather than near a beach, but still caught whatever breeze there was.
Narrow paths ran behind the side street leading from the main road into the estate, past a Chinese laundry and inclining up to a network of rough shacks where elderly Chinese tended pot plants. Accustomed to thinking of the population as being only fixated on money I smiled giddily at them, and they looked surprised at my interest. However, mountain blasts only eighteen months later confirmed that in fact the economy was more important than herb gardens and by 1997, on a one day stopover from England back to Sydney, my estate was hard to find, nestling in between a phalanx of high-rises built in the frenzy leading up to the hand-back to China.
Getting to and from work was easy. I walked past yum cha restaurants, barbecue pork shops, a market with leafy vegetables and beheaded roosters in cages. In fact getting to and from anywhere was easy. Of course Hong Kong is small but the array of public transport helped: sky blue and white double deckers, mini buses where you could request your exact stop, endless taxis and this when the now-vast, well-used and frequent MTR mass-transit rail system only had a cluster of stations. On one level all this public transport crowded the roads – but without it cars, as we were all to learn later, only made things worse.
We worked hard and partied hard. Yet after eighteen months I grew tired of the through-flow of people and grabbed the chance of a more spacious, though still compact, apartment. One of my big mistakes was thinking I needed to tell the neighbours about the farewell party. My Chinese flatmate insisted the noise would not bother them. Okay, I felt that I was learning; it was part of being a global citizen.
I was surprised to read in a diary I wrote during my first visit back to see my parents in Manchester that I had talked about the importance of human connectedness. Just because a flat breaks up does not mean you wish to lose contact. Letters to poste restantes had to do in those days, but the sentiment was the same as in the twittering internet age.
I FLEW INTO Perth from Hong Kong in 1985. The wide city streets seemed unnervingly empty. I could swing my arms and not hit anyone, something impossible in downtown Hong Kong. I missed the street stalls, the clothes markets, light industry mechanics spilling on to the pavements. I do not want to glamorise this, but most people now live in cities, and the world’s population is on track for over nine billion, Australia’s for thirty-six million by 2050, though former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s initial enthusiasm for a ‘big Australia’ has been subdued by public disquiet. We now have a Minister for Sustainable Population and questions of density and diversity, size and composition niggle: how to balance babies and seniors, Australian-born and migrants, productive workers and ones not counted in the gross domestic product.
In Sydney I have gravitated towards public transport. I live in Ashfield in a townhouse complex, built on a disused, overgrown, lawn-bowls green, before the introduction of energy and water savings required by New South Wales’s Building Sustainability Index. I wish we had a communal rainwater tank and a collective worm farm (ours is in the garage instead). But we try our best, with energy efficient light fittings, blinds, water flow regulators, cross-ventilation, speedy showers, insulation, wearing more when it is cold and less when hot (fans are also good though I was sorely tempted to get airconditioning during the heatwave).
There are also so many Chinese restaurants on the main road sometimes it would be easy to forget where I am. Ashfield also has a good train station with local and express trains to the city and to the west. It is also on several frequent bus routes. Interestingly, total patronage of public transport (46 per cent) is more than double the rate for Sydney overall. If you give people a choice, it makes it easier to balance decisions about how to travel rather than simply relying on a car.
People are still full of contradictions and can be obtuse. Just because on their travels they love piazzas and remember with affection bamboo pole washing lines jutting from windows does not mean that back in everyday Australia the same people may not criticise this all as a melee. Studies have found that while city centre living cuts greenhouse gas emissions for transport, it raises other types of energy demand – and emissions. For example, owner corporations ban washing lines on balconies, and on go energy guzzling clothes dryers.
And what about the completely contrasting housing trends that lead to 215 square metre greenfield single detached homes on the one hand and on the other, a move towards fifty square metre and smaller, eat-out, sleep-only apartments, such as those at Sydney’s inner-city Carlton United Brewery site.
NUMBERS ARE IMPORTANT, but whether we perish or not depends on our reaction to these numbers, or scenarios, as Dr Chris Luebkeman, Director for Global Foresight and Innovation at the Arup Group, calls them. He and Professor Alec Tzannes, Professor and Dean of the Faculty of the Built Environment and Design Director at Tzannes Associates, were speaker and panel member respectively at a University of NSW alumni gathering in November 2009 discussing what cities could look like in sixty years.
Luebkeman asks uncomfortable questions. What would happen in Sydney or Melbourne or Jakarta if wild fires really and truly began to break out on a massive scale every year to the point where you couldn’t build a house of any size because you never knew how long it was going to last?
San Francisco-based Luebkeman travels half of the time, not making predictions but rather ‘observing and interacting’. He firmly believes cities will remain as differentiated as they are today, but drivers for change, many already in evidence, will cut across them. Climate change with devastating droughts, urban growth and migration, food and consumption patterns, poverty and life expectancy, energy and economic growth will affect us all. The resulting balance of influences embedded within the framework for change he calls STEEP – Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political factors – leads to Luebkeman’s four plausible futures.
He applies different weightings for human development (life expectancy, adult literacy and standard of living) and planetary health, including biodiversity, pollution and abundance. The consumption driven ‘Selfish Bubble’ has security, disease and resources fears; ‘Vortex of Despair’, a further downward spiral, is a planetary nightmare with huge emissions, mass migration and shrinking food supply; ‘Carbon is Crime’ has rigid global climate governance, de-carbonisation and reuse but wealth disparities; and the ‘Ecological Age’ positively embraces resource efficiency, corporate accountability, stabilised population growth, planetary care and maximised human living standards.
‘Everything we have today is a result of our collective responsibility, our governments, our values,’ Tzannes says. ‘If you don’t affirm the values that you want to achieve you’ve got less chance of achieving them.’ Says Luebkeman, ‘Every individual has to act. We carry a communal responsibility.’
THIS CANNOT ALL be left to the next generation. We have to choose how to live, within our means or not. We want to attain economic viability, sustainability and liveability. We have the mottos: reduce, re-use, recycle.
‘I believe that in order for homo sapiens to have a viable longevity on the planet we have to get to the Ecological Age,’ Luebkeman says, ‘but we will be heading into one of the other three worlds before we get there.’
Which one, when, and for how long, will fashion the particular journey we take.