Darwin: What Happens When South Australia Starts a Colony

Darwin, showing pre and post-cyclone construction standards.

One of the things that marks Australian urban planning is that all the systems that govern it have their history in an entirely different physical landscape. Our cities are, for the most part, modelled on a British tradition, and operate with this logic.

Nowhere is this more obvious than Darwin, where building, planning and liquor licensing law strikes up against an entirely alien environment. Tess Lea’s short book Darwin goes in to this with a focus on the humble mosquito, of which she writes:

The mosquito is also a powerful urban planner, having shaped the spatial contours of Darwin and defined the city’s requirements for habitability with more pronounced effect than any single individual or Northern Territory government policy. It rivals geology in its forcefulness, laying down conditions for where houses can be built (at least 1.5km from known extensive and uncontrolled breeding swamps), how drains must work or roads be sloped, and where suburbs can be located.

I tend to think of Darwin as evidence of what happens when you let South Australia set up a colony. Lea describes Adelaide’s governance as “disastrous [and] violent.” To me, it seems more like the quintessential South Australian mix of good intentions, parochialism and mental health problems.

Darwin was laid out George Woodroffe Goyder, the South Australian Surveyor General, in 1869. A year later Port Adelaide’s Harbour Master, Captain William Bloomfield Douglas, was sent to act as Resident. Everything went reasonably well until the first wet season. In her brilliant book on British colonial government, Running the Show, Stephanie Williams sums up the result:

Everything was getting covered in mould: boots, books, paper. Mildew and weevils got into supplies of flour and oatmeal. Cockroaches devoured currents, jam and sugar; white ants consumed clothing, books and wood.

Not long after, Douglas went mad, became convinced he was facing a mutiny and barricaded himself in his office with a loaded gun. Eventually he was calmed down, and almost immediately contracted what he described as “violent bilious diarrhea.”

In the meantime, Goyder’s subdivisions were sold off to speculators, with most of the best land taken by William Henry Grey who, Williams writes, “already owned much of suburban Adelaide, and who, along with his descendants, would refuse to sell key sections of Palmerston, freezing development, until after 1960.”

Things didn’t really change all that much. Darwin continued to confound colonial governance for decades, a fact which became painfully obvious when Cyclone Tracy flattened it and killed 71 people. Part of the reason the town was so completely destroyed was the building codes regulating its construction were designed in Canberra, and did not include specifications for the tropics. As Lea notes:

…plaintive engineers could not budge Canberra planners from declaring that Darwin was outside any cyclone zone. It took another cyclone to hit Townsville, also on Christmas Eve, before tropical building codes contained any requirements for wind-proofing.

Sophie Cunningham’s book on the cyclone, Warning, describes a city of houses on stilts, built of wood and brick.

…in the early days of 1975 strong walls seemed to be the most important thing of all. Kay Brown, whose daughter Geraldine died in the cyclone, remembers being ‘terrified of living in an elevated house again.’ Her next house was ‘besser block filled with concrete.’

Cunningham also cites architect David Bridgman, who comments:

[New housing] was predominantly built of masonry or precast concrete construction, with small cellular spaces and small windows… these buildings were much stronger and more able to resist cyclonic winds, however, the small, poorly ventilated, interiors were often uncomfortable in the tropical climate and air conditioning became a necessity for comfort.

Last time I was in Darwin, I ended up talking to an architect who told me of a hotel which, during a power strike, became so unbearably hot all the guests had to be relocated, and entire suburbs which were unliveable without constant air conditioning.

Cunningham concludes, appropriately enough, by quoting Lea’s critique of Australia’s ‘shared amnesia’, of which she writes, “She is right to remind us that forgetting is strategic and that it has, in this country, become a very bad habit.” Whilst Lea looks backwards at the history of colonial brutality, Cunningham is looking at the pending impact of global warming. She writes that Australia is a “sunburnt country, one of droughts and flooring rains, cyclones and bushfires.”

Arguably both stem from the same source, a ‘strategic forgetting’ that we don’t live in Britain, and we’re still not entirely sure how to build for, and live in, a radically different environment.

You can buy Tess Lea’s books here, Sophie Cunningham’s Warning here through Text Publishing, and Stephanie Williams’ Running the Show via her website.

Would My Mother Enjoy These Books?

Warning would prompt discussion about my great aunt Bev, who lived there during the cyclone – but she wouldn’t actually read it. Running the Show is too long and the print is too small. She probably would enjoy Tess Lea’s book.