From Home to Dome and Back: Dispatches from Small Wars in Australian Suburbia (1)

“The suburbs” are right at the centre of contemporary urban culture, especially in the sprawling cities of the US and Australia, so it’s not surprising that suburbia looms large in popular culture. After all, it’s where most people live. But for many, suburbia has a bad name or is seen as problematic. In popular culture the suburbs are a nice soft target. Back in the 1960s Pete Seeger, for example, sang about suburban uniformity and conformity.

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes, little boxes
Little boxes all the same…

In cinema and on TV the quiet exterior of the burbs hides a seething cauldron of passion and conflict. The (for a time) wildly popular TV show Desperate Housewives depicts the suburbs as a layer of prim and prosperous “make-up” (so to speak) laid on thick over a social complexion blotched by emotional lesions, bruises and scar tissue. In Clint Eastwood’s much praised Gran Torino suburbia is a battleground in America’s culture wars. “Get off my lawn,” Clint snarls down the barrel of his shotgun as the tides of Asian migration lap around him. Australia’s never-ending soap opera Neighbours is set in a suburb of Melbourne. Its characters walk in and out of one another’s houses as if they were members of a single extended family. According to Wikipedia, over the years Neighbours has focussed on many serious problems such as teenage pregnancy, marital breakdown, imprisonment, career problems, pregnancy, abortion, adultery, drug trafficking, stalking, kidnapping, accidental death, murder, incest, sexuality, gambling, surrogacy, and health issues like multiple sclerosis…. all in one street!

If only the quiet suburban street where I live was as interesting.

A view over the southern suburbs of Canberra. You can see why it is known as “the bush capital.”

Walking paths like this, shared with cyclists and joggers, criss-cross the suburbs of Canberra.

But wait… maybe my street is as interesting. Not as dramatic or sensational as Neighbours or Gran Torino, of course, but fascinating nevertheless. Even a short walk through the suburbs of Canberra – which is about as “suburban” as you can get – tells us a whole lot about the complexities of local society, even about the highs and lows of life in general. So come along with Emmy and me as we walk from our front door in Gowrie, Tuggeranong, to the Hyperdome shopping mall and back. In its own quiet way this walk twangs with social tension.

From home, our walk snakes through suburbs and parkland for about 17 kilometres. It takes us south through the sleepy streets of Monash, around Lake Tuggeranong, through the Tuggeranong Town Centre (better known to us as “lego-land”) to the Hyperdome, then back home through suburban parkland. It’s a walk we often do, and usually we knock it over in about four hours, including a generous stop for coffee and a big chocolate-topped caramel square in the Hyperdome shopping mall.

“Legoland”… the commercial centre of Tuggeranong, built in the 1980s, seen from across its adjacent, artificial lake.

Our first landmark, just 500 metres from home, is the Gowrie Primary School (http://www.gowrieps.act.edu.au/), a government school administered by the Department of Education and Training of the Australian Capital Territory. It has about 200 pupils and a total of 20 dedicated staff. The federal government’s My School web site (http://www.myschool.edu.au/) shows that, on the whole, the quality of Gowrie Primary School is good, though in some domains it is struggling to reach the national average by comparison with similar schools across the country.

In 2008 the federal government announced a “stimulus spending” program intended to buoy the economy in the face of the Global Financial Crisis. The money was splurged on education infrastructure – mostly buildings – in a program called Building the Education Revolution. It seems to have worked. As the economies of Europe, the US and many other countries were knee-capped Australia strolled away from the crisis pretty much unscathed. But there was criticism of BER, even ridicule. I had heard vaguely about this, but little did I know that just metres from my front door there was, in effect, a diorama that summed up the criticism beautifully.

Gowrie Primary copped two projects. The first was a multi-purpose building that included two new classrooms, a shared learning area plus community and student facilities. It cost 2.15 million smackeroos. Sounds expensive to me, but what do I know? At least it made some sense in educational terms. But the other project was more problematic. It was “new shade structures” over a small cluster of existing playground equipment. Translation: three fairly small curved iron roofs on stilts. And the cost? $124,000.

The Gowrie Primary School playground as it used to be…

… and $125,000 later, as it is now.

Why build an expensive roof over a few bits of play equipment? To protect children from the serious threat of sunshine, of course. But if a bit of sunshine is so dangerous what’s going to protect the fragile little darlings as they walk along unshaded footpaths? And play on soccer fields? And dig holes in their back yards? Or (the danger! the danger!) build sand castles on the beach in summer?

The playground project was unnecessary and outrageously overpriced. But worse, it was an investment in useless infrastructure at a time when teachers were on their knees begging for training to improve their classroom skills. $124,000 would have gone a very long way towards boosting learning outcomes and teacher morale at a school that is currently a bit below average. But for our politicians and economists and actuaries what was important was the necessity to spend, to “get the money out the door” as one of them said. And being simple-minded creatures, for them new buildings were easier to see and count than improved reading and maths.

Gowrie Primary is a capsule that represents what has happened at thousands of schools across Australia. Its “new shade structures” stands like a memorial to haste, waste and ruthless price gouging by construction companies.

But let’s move on. We step on to a “cycle path”, pad down a gentle slope, and suddenly we are at war. There is a sharp “ding!” behind us and a lycra-clad figure wearing a streamlined helmet and wrap-round sun glasses is bearing down on us at warp speed. Hastily we step off the path and bend away from the quick smack of air he leaves in his wake. “Four more!” comes a shout and four more hunched cyborgs with pumping thighs sweep past. Cautiously I look back, extend a leg over the path, stand on it cautiously, look around again, and resume walking. We survive the ambush, but somehow the pleasure of the walk has been tarnished.

Tilting into the corner, two cyclists bear down on us very fast.

I have to admit, though, that 90% of cyclists are cheerful, considerate and polite, sometimes embarrassingly polite. But the remaining 10% make your teeth grind. They seem to consist of two categories: frustrated Tour de France aspirants, and cycling ideologues. The former treat surburban paths as their personal velodrome. Sometimes they form peletons. They ride very fast. They hate using their brakes. You can’t talk to them, let alone reason with them… they’re too quick. A sweaty flash and a click of gears, and they’re gone. The second category can sometimes be downright nasty. They are pedal-power activists. You can’t reason with them either. For them, riding a bicycle is a statement of concern for the environment and good health. It is the way of the future. A crusade. Anyone who gets in their way – whether a motorist or a walker – is violating their rights and is an affront to their moral superiority.

For over a decade bicycle sales have boomed in Australia, far exceeding car sales. At the same time more and more people are taking up walking as a form of exercise and even (as in my case) a form of meditation. So far the two trends have managed to coexist on the increasingly clogged suburban artery-paths of Canberra. But it is an uneasy peace. At some point in the future someone is going to get injured, the two tribes will go to war, and they may have to be physically separated.

Here are a couple of news reports that illustrate the issue, one from Australia (http://city-north-news.whereilive.com.au/news/story/walkers-on-war-path-over-cyclists/) and another from the US (http://www.dnainfo.com/20100719/upper-west-side/cyclists-spar-with-dog-walkers-riverside-park).

A trackside map of Lake Tuggeranong. Starting from the bottom right corner we normally walk anti-clockwise around the lake following the squiggly green line – a distance of 6.7 kilometres.

So… dodging cyclists we reach the tree-fringed waters of Lake Tuggeranong, about an hour into the walk. We turn right and head north along the eastern bank of the lake. (You can see a photo of Emmy walking this segment of the path above the title of this post at the very top of the page.) Like the other lakes of Canberra, Lake Tuggeranong is an artificial lake (you can see its dam on Google Earth at: 35°24’30.87″S, 149° 3’48.61″E). Perhaps this is why it is difficult to keep it clean. Under its tranquil surface the lake is badly polluted. There are four main kinds of pollutant: storm debris, algae, intrusive fish species and man-made rubbish.

Lake Tuggeranong can be dazzlingly beautiful…

… but close up, its beauty is stained by blue-green algae and other pollutants, a gift to the lake from human life-style and commerce.

When heavy rain thrashes the Canberra region (it doesn’t happen often, but when it does happen it can be biblical) it throws debris into the city’s lakes. Several streams feed into Lake Tuggeranong and the traps at their entry points get overwhelmed. Leaf debris, jagged branches, sewage and mud fill the lake. At other times, especially after long periods of dry weather, algae oozes through the water like green vomit. Contact with it can cause skin irritation, stomach infections and even bleeding in the liver. Like a pin suddenly jabbed into a bureaucratic buttock, algae panics hit the local government several times a year. Lakes are closed, signs erected, edicts issued, and warning fingers are wagged at citizens through the mass media.

But why do these outbreaks occur? Well, blue-green algae is a natural component of fresh-water and marine environments everywhere. The bloom feeds off phosphate compounds that are found naturally. But phosphates are also used in huge quantities on farmland, in household gardens and in some manufacturing processes. These chemicals leach into waterways and end up in Canberra’s lakes. They should be diluted or flushed away by the natural action of rainwater, but climate change has reduced rainfall (Canberra’s last drought – the longest in its history – lasted from 2001 to 2008), and when phosphate use keeps rising, algae blooms banquet on the man-made feast, growing fat and greasy.

There are solutions, of course, but they would cost more money than people are prepared to pay. And most people prefer not to be confronted with the less savoury consequences of their lifestyle choices and profit-spinning enterprises. Environmentalists will cry out for action, conservative governments, commercial interests and “economic rationalists” will resist action. And anyway, efforts to restore degraded rivers and lakes have not been very successful. So the problem will persist and almost certainly get worse until the situation becomes unbearable. Only then will something really decisive be done. (For a short TV report on the issue, see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-03-16/lakes-closed/3895324 ).

Perhaps it’s this nutrient-rich orgy that also sustains the non-native fish that have somehow got into the lake, and allows them to grow as big and fat as the blooms of algae. There are two species of foreign fish in particular that flourish: European carp and redfin.

According to Wikipedia, “in Australia, enormous anecdotal and mounting scientific evidence indicates introduced carp are the cause of permanent turbidity and loss of submergent vegetation in the Murray-Darling river system, with severe consequences for river ecosystems, water quality and native fish species. In Victoria, common carp has been declared as noxious fish species, the quantity a fisher can take is unlimited. In South Australia, it is an offence for this species to be released back to the wild. An Australian company converts common carp into plant fertilizer.” Redfin, also called European perch, likewise deplete stocks of native fish and cause turbidity.

The European carp, an abundant pest that takes food from the mouths of native fish and keeps the water of Canberra’s lakes clouded with mud. (Wikipedia image.)

Neither the European carp nor the redfin are considered good to eat. In Australia they are commonly seen as vermin and, by law, they must be killed when caught. In fact every year the Canberra Fishermen’s Club holds a day-long event called the Canberra Carp-Out in which anglers compete to take as much carp and redfin as they can from the city’s lakes, hoping this will free up the lakes for native fish to recover. Some hope. This year almost 1,000 entrants registered. They caught 1,113 “noxious fish” with a total weight of 1,481 kilograms (that’s over one kilogram per fish!). All were sent off to the Australian National University’s environment agency to be recycled into garden compost… an ignominious end for these innocent pests. Yet somehow they thrive. By next year they’ll be back more numerous than ever and the Carp-Out will be an even bigger event. Evidently the war on carp and redfin is not going to be won easily.

The turbid waters of Lake Tuggeranong also stink with rubbish, although as you walk the shores of the lake your stink-meter will go up and down depending on the time of year, the direction of the wind and the corner of the lake you are passing. Most often there will be no smell at all and not much to see. But around the next headland you will gulp and gag as a sour smell gets into your mouth. Trapped in the quiet waters of an inlet you will see milk cartons, plastic bags, beer cans, paper cups from McDonalds and KFC (both chains have branches on the lake shore), clothes, car tyres, plastic bottles, the occasional rusting supermarket trolley, and much more.

A rubbish trap in one of the streams that flow into Lake Tuggeranong. After rain, these traps fail to stop debris and rubbish from piling up in the lake.

On the annual Clean Up Australia Day hundreds of volunteers hold their noses, steady their stomachs, and fan out through Canberra to clear away a year’s deposit of detritus. In 2011 a total of 160 tonnes of gunk were collected in one day over the whole city, and many scores of these tonnes came out of the city’s three main lakes.

An Aboriginal ceremonial meeting place on the shores of Lake Tuggeranong.

Emmy and I have now reached an aboriginal meeting ground on the lake’s shore (35°24’31.19″S, 149° 4’10.46″E). Here we stop for a few minutes to draw breath and drink. We have covered a little over six kilometers. In my next post we’ll walk past a “Men’s Shed” just 500 metres ahead of us, tuck into some unhealthy food among the fatties of the Hyperdome, and look at two institutions of religious faith along the home stretch of our path.

Update: On May 24th 2012 Lake Burley Griffin in the centre of Canberra was closed by the National Capital Authority because of blue-green algae readings that were said to be 1000 times above safe levels and “potentially fatal.” A big water jet in the middle of the lake was turned off because of fears that it might spread a fine mist of algae laden water that would endanger the public. Read the full news report at: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/potentially-fatal-levels-of-bluegreen-algae-close-lake-20120524-1z86r.html#ixzz1vs9cbAiH

Refreshing greenery along the path from our home to the Hyperdome shopping mall.

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One thought on “From Home to Dome and Back: Dispatches from Small Wars in Australian Suburbia (1)

  1. The only positive side of all of this grim stuff might be that carp is absolutely delicious … maybe someone should promote eating them? (We brought back from Alsace recently two large carp – purchased at considerable expense – in a big bag of crushed ice. It was well worth the trouble.)

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