Cities and taking on climate change

August 2018

Professor Brendan Gleeson, Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne, isn’t afraid to tackle some of the most contentious topics in political circles—environmental and urban policy. We spoke with him about the lay of the land, and how we might better manage it.

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What are some of the areas that the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute focuses on?

We focus on the questions of climate response and on securing sustainable and resilient cities and regions.

Our task is to generate the science and skills needed to support achievement of these ideals—a stabilised climate and sustainable cities—and to ensure that this knowledge and expertise is made available to the communities that need it, including policymakers, industry, non-government organisations (NGOs) and civil society.

What other areas of research are you currently working on?

We’ve investigated the benefits of addressing homelessness. Our research has shown that it’s far more cost effective to provide humane shelter for all than to let some people fall between the cracks.

What do you see as some of the key challenges facing Australian cities over the coming years?

The main challenge facing Australian cities over the next few years is climate change. New weather patterns are already starting to form, particularly hotter days, declining rainfall and wilder storms.

Over time the threat will extend to include rising sea levels and many parts of our large coastal cities are exposed to this change. Climate warming has grave implications for human health, biodiversity and resource security.

It is frankly amazing that we aren’t giving it much higher priority in our planning for cities and settlements. Apart from this, population growth and the absence of public resourcing to cope with this will place increasingly difficult and disruptive pressures on our cities and local communities.

What strategies would you like to see policymakers adopting to promote housing affordability in Australia?

I would like to see us end the public subsidies we provide to investor housing in a variety of costly and ineffectual ways. Indeed, these subsidies make things worse by driving up competitive cost pressures and making it harder for people to enter into home ownership. They do not stimulate the supply of affordable housing as intended or still claimed by some.

We should also increase public housing to deal with the backlog of demand and mounting social stress that housing policies and systems have created to date. We also need to relieve cost pressures on renters and provide them with security of tenure—a rising proportion of Australians are tenants, but we act as if this isn’t happening.

Are you optimistic about local and global action on climate change in the wake of the 2015 Paris Agreement?

I’m ‘hopeful but not optimistic’, to adopt the approach of the renowned cultural critic Terry Eagleton. I’m not optimistic because effective response and change won’t happen without some radical shifts in political commitment, especially in Australia, and it’s hard to see this at the moment. But I’m hopeful because I think, as a species, we are pretty good at getting out of the tight corners we make for ourselves.

Learn more about the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.


My ideal retirement

A small sustainable house, a garden for veggies and reading, a modestly stocked cellar, and a train station nearby. Regional Victoria looks rather nice!