Date: June 28 2012
Colour me weird, but I do not love the Australian seaside town. The full-on vulgarity of Bondi I can enjoy, for a coffee or swim, but, to me, a holiday at the beach requires realness; bare boards, sandy feet, crumbling jetties, loose, modest buildings.
Noosa is among the finest. Yet a couple of days there last week reminded me why, for a sense of place, I always head inland. It also made me see Noosa anew, as a canary in the mine of Australian urbanism.
Coastal towns, even those as sweetly self-conscious as Noosa, suffer from a single organising principle: water. Nothing else figures - church, square, town hall, market, windmill. Only water, which is to say, money.
Water makes a town self-arrange like iron-filings along a magnet, its streets pervaded by a palpable straining for view, proximity or access. Architecture is tyrannised by it and those not so blessed are permanently blighted by its absence.
It's as though water is the one common value remaining. And it has remade our coast, one of the longest and loveliest littorals in the world, into an encircling crust of suburban gentility. A pelican or albatross might see the continent as a margarita glass, encrusted not by pink Himalayan sea salt (yes, it exists) but by a jagged brocade of flesh-pink concrete, outscale aluminium windows and glass balconies.
Noosa's charm derives largely from its tradition of resistance; a half-century of protecting itself from suburbia by enshrining national parks, opposing sandmines and limiting development. It is probably our oldest limits-to-growth community. But has it fallen victim to its own, often heroic successes?
The mayor, Mark Jamieson, made headlines in last Friday's Noosa News by refusing to extend the town's infamous ''population cap'' to the rest of the Sunshine Coast. As if. For more than a decade the Sunshine Coast has been Australia's fastest growing patch. The official 2008 amalgamation of tiny, eco-conscious Noosa Shire into the massive and rampant Sunshine Coast trapped Noosa in a relationship much like Bali's to Indonesia, or West Berlin's to eastern Europe. A wholly owned subsidiary that can neither secede nor prevail, Noosa holds its own by sheer tourist magnetism.
The curious paradox, at the heart of all tourism, is that this magnetism expresses Noosa's paradisial beauty - preserved only by strenuous anti-development - in the only terms developers understand: dollars.
The revered, indefatigable Noosa Parks Association dates to 1962. Then, concepts such as heritage and conservation were barely even fledgling, anywhere in the world. In Sydney, architects were just starting to colonise Paddington terraces; buying them for a song, painting them lurid colours and making early murmurs against wholesale demolition.
But it has to be asked. What has the Noosa experiment achieved, and what lessons does it hold for cities more generally, with the growth question bleeping red?
Last week's Noosa Longweekend artsfest applauded local eco-heroes such as Nancy Cato, John Sinclair, Noel Playford and Michael Gloster, who argues the focus of Noosa's eco-battles has been on the natural, not the built.
That's understandable. You live in paradise, you're going to want to protect it. And from Fraser Island to Cooloola, their wins have been immense. But how to parse this protective urge from the territorial?
For there was a subtext. These battle-scarred eco-warriors, nudging retirement, seek a younger generation to take the cudgel, yet Noosa's young are conspicuous by their absence, putting an ominous echo behind resident playwright David Williamson's take on Noosa as ''a great place to live for relatively well-off retirees''.
Has the town's self-imposed limit backfired? Limits to urban growth can take various forms. You can cap population (residents, workers). You can cap floor space (square metres). Or you can cap spread (a formal boundary; city wall, say). They sound similar but the effects are very different. To limit spread and not height will produce a towering citadel, while capping population but not spread will generate exurbia; very low-density sprawl.
Noosa's population cap - often quoted as 50,000 or 60,000 people - is somewhat apocryphal, since the real limits are on floor space, height and, up to a point, spread.
Simple, you might think. But consider how it works on the ground. Building constraints push development pressure outwards. In theory, the hard-won national parks act like a green corset, preventing sprawl. In fact, unless the council is steadfast, development simply leapfrogs the corset, landing in the bushy hinterland.
In Noosa's water-rich environment, with lakes, lagoons, rivers and beaches, the result might be seen as hamlets interspersed by bush. But with the bush-to-built ratio so low you can see the traffic on the other side, it's really a vast bush suburb. Canberra-sur-mer.
How ironic, if our very best nature-conservation efforts simply produce more sprawl, more entrenched car-dependence, more carbon. What can we learn?
Effective urban planning is about clarity of mind, strength of will and unity of purpose. We must decide what we want to protect, design a few very simple, very clear rules to that end and apply them collectively, impartially and enduringly.
In the absence of a global government with the necessary wisdom to imbue global policy with local acuity, our settlement-making must find a way to distinguish conservation impulses from the merely territorial.
For local activists, the focus is inevitably local. But any larger view makes it clear that humans shut out of paradise can only take their polluting, consuming (human) ways somewhere else. At what point does protecting nature merge into protecting our own rights to it; our own pleasure and property values?
The best way to defend nature is to stay out of it. To do this, we need a green agenda that conceives the artificial not as a blot on nature but as a lovely counterpoint to it.
Only then will we create hamlets, villages and cities that, as counterbalancing goods, tempt us from nature, keeping her pristine. Failing this, our attempts to defend nature from ourselves must end in tears.
Elizabeth Farrelly blogs at leflaneur.mobi
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