Each year for the last three years, I’ve taken a group of architecture students to Alice Springs for a 10-day urban design workshop.
I first found myself in this city during Desert Mob – the annual sale of artworks produced in central and western desert regions of central Australia.
Of the $500 million in revenue generated annually from the sale of the visual arts in Australia, $400 million of that is spent on Indigenous artworks. A significant proportion of that comes from this region.
During my 2008 visit, I was struck by the fact that something very extraordinary was happening in Alice Springs, a city of 29,000 people.
Desert Mob still happens every August, but many other things have changed in Alice Springs over the last four years.
The media in the eastern states is full of stories about the city’s urban decay, racial violence, homelessness, prostitution, alcoholism and the return of petrol sniffing.
Any visitor to Alice Springs will see that many of these stereotypes are valid, but they will also realise how simplistic the reports are.
What few in the media recognise is that these are merely symptoms of a number of long-term problems that are putting Alice Springs’ future into jeopardy.
The Federal Government’s Northern Territory intervention has resulted in a series of deficits and excesses in the city, with housing at a critically low supply.
There has also been a dramatic increase in urban drift from remote communities into town, resulting in a visible increase in homelessness.
This is compounded by the presence of many people moving through the city on a weekly basis seeking treatment in Alice Springs in its capacity as regional health hub.
Hobbling any response to this are the limitations on new land releases for development following the determination of Native Title over much of the land around Alice Springs, which in the past would have been used for urban expansion.
Housing prices in Alice Springs are the third-highest in the country, after Sydney and Darwin. An 800-square-metre piece of greenfield land costs about $300,000. First-home buyers and key workers are priced out of town.
In response to the crisis, this year the Northern Territory government commenced $10 million worth of infrastructure and head works at Kilgariff, a 180-hectare residential development site located nine kilometres south of Alice Springs.
The territory government expects to be producing around 75 residential lots a year from 2012.
Of course, this will alleviate the immediate pain of land availability. But with it will come some very serious urban, social and political consequences that are not being addressed by the territory government, nor the Alice Springs Town Council.
So what kind of development will Kilgariff be?
Kilgariff could provide land for support housing for health services, the homeless and in-demand workers.
Alice Springs is under considerable population strain. There has been a flow of people moving off remote communities and into town looking for work – and for grog.
There are several reasons for this – the most obvious one is the intervention. With it came the dismantling of the work for the dole programs in remote communities, and in the same gesture, the banning of alcohol.
Another reason is that this movement is part of a larger global trend away from remote communities toward urban life.
This has resulted a largely itinerant underclass of bush people sleeping rough and often on their way through town towards cities such as Darwin and Cairns.
The second source of population strain is Alice Springs’ role as a major health services hub for 18,000 people living in remote communities around the city.
Health services are the largest employer in town and a major source of revenue for the city.
But being a health services hub has some significant consequences that need to be addressed. For example, the incidence of kidney failure is expected to increase dramatically in the next few years, pushing the need for dialysis treatments from 120 to 500 per week in the city.
Alice Springs will need to provide more affordable accommodation for people requiring treatment. It has been estimated that for every person seeking treatment, between six and 11 people will come to town with them.
That means 1000 people per week are now moving in and out of a city of 29,000. If 500 people seek treatment per week, that’s 6000 additional people with limited accommodation options.
Many of the people currently seeking weekly dialysis undergo treatment and then, because of unavailable cheap accommodation, end up sleeping rough.
Out of sight
As such, Kilgarriff is an easy nine kilometres out of town, and could become a cheap place – out of the sight of the main city – for these people to stay. In the process, it could become a poverty sink.
The other scenario is that Kilgariff becomes a middle-class, white-flight neighbourhood, gated and safely out of the way of the social dysfunction in the city centre.
This scenario is backed up by the outcomes of a territory government forum that ran over four days in April and acted as community consultation to examine what the site could be.
Middle class enclave
According to the published outcomes of the forum, there was “a unanimous view reached that excluding public housing in the short-term would encourage a ‘positive start’ at Kilgariff”.
If this is the approach taken, it’s hard to imagine how Kilgariff would not become what is increasingly the norm in Alice Springs: a gated, middle class white enclave.
In January 2010, the territory government produced a Residential Capacity Study for Alice Springs.
This excellent surgical analysis of all available land for residential development within the CBD was the opening move in an exploration into what it could mean to concentrate resources back into the city – and in the service of problem solving at a larger scale for the entirety of the city.
Each new urban development in a city offers opportunity to increase the level of amenity in the environment into which it is placed.
A slow bleed
These developments might simply be those which aim to increase the level of public awareness and eyes on the street, lending greater levels of security to an environment. Or it might be more tangible benefits, such as, retrofitted public spaces, public art programs, community facilities, and so on.
What is most unsettling about the scenarios outlined above is that underpinning each is a bleeding of both public and private resources out of the existing city and into a development site nine kilometres out of town.
Alice Springs, with its limited and stretched resources and the reality of its heavy burden of health care responsibility, is being denied the opportunity to exploit development of Kilgariff to its own benefit.
What the territory’s residential capacity study asks of us, and the Kilgariff plan does not, is a significantly higher level of political leadership then we are used to in Australia.
The easy way out for Alice Springs, for the traditional owners, for the local council and the territory government from is to open the pressure valve and develop Kilgariff.
But in doing so, they will slow bleed the urban life out of the city.
The much harder option is to set in place the mechanisms for an inclusive and serious disagreement and negotiation of conflicting interests and needs such that a city can be developed sustainably over the next 30 to 50 years.
Anybody who has a stake in Alice Springs’ future needs to step up to that challenge.
This will be a test case that will determine how well we can negotiate real differences and yet remain able to live together.
If we fail at this, Kilgariff will become a testament to giving up and deciding to live apart.