Some Database Considerations.


I designed my first database in the late 1960s. In those days, they were known as hierarchical databases consisting of a number of separate files. There was no metadata (an IT buzzword meaning “data about data”) providing any relationship between files and the relationships were only implied in the commands set out in the computer languages. Some languages, such as Algol (Algorithmic Language) were designed with this usage in mind, though other scientific languages such as Fortran (formula translation) were also popular.

A huge breakthrough came in 1970 when Ted Codd, a research scientist at IBM conceived the idea of a database structure based on predicate logic (an extension of mathematical ideas put forward by George Boole in the 19th century).  In essence, one can extract data from multiple tables by specifying that items of data in different tables are related by statements such as “equal to”, “not equal to”, “greater than”, “less than” and so forth. Unfortunately, it took until about 1978 before ordinary computers were large enough and fast enough to process these relationships.  Eventually, however, SQL (Structured Query Language) was created and became the most widely used database programming language for the next 30 years.

We are now at the cusp of a new phase in database design. A great deal of current data is not in the alphanumeric forms that we are used to and which are the basis of SQL.  With the advent of the internet, mobile phones and other technologies, a lot of data consists of pixels (e.g. pictures), waves (recorded conversations) and other esoteric formats. These could actually be stored in SQL databases as “binary large objects” (BLOBS), but the only processing available was storage and retrieval. The term “Big Data” has been coined to describe complex data which requires purpose-written procedures (usually called “functions” in database-speak) to extract meaning from it.

Another major development is a concept called “cloud computing”, where all of the data and database programming capability is contained in a huge collection of servers (the “cloud”) and the only functionality required on user-facing computers is to, in effect, ask a question and receive an answer. The advantage of this architecture is that data of different kinds, stored in different structures and managed by different database management software can all be accessed and cross-referenced as though it were all in a single database.

The database concepts to be discussed here will hopefully be able to take advantage of these new developments and many others which are not yet in widespread use (or even imagined!).


Sustainable population is but one facet of the climate change issue and any analysis of this topic is going to require research and data collection on a great number of fronts, conducted over a substantial period of time. The analytical model must therefore be capable of (1) providing a platform which can accommodate all sorts of disparate data (some of which we have not even begun to imagine yet) and (2) cross-referencing that data in order to draw the appropriate conclusions.

As stated in earlier posts, the model for the determination of the populations that can be supported by various patterns of land usage is built upon a map of Australia overlaid by a grid where each cell is what we will call a basic land unit, or BLU. Each BLU will have a unique RID (record ID) and all data pertaining to that BLU, whether collected in the field or resulting from research will carry this RID. Then, data from different research projects within the same BLU can be compared and amalgamated, as can similar data from different BLUs.  In addition, data from a block of adjacent BLUs can be amalgamated and laid over a map of Australia to provide a more comprehensive body of data from which policy decisions can be made.

The only data to be stored in the core database will be location information for each BLU and data defining the physical features of the BLU (rivers, mountains, etc.) All other data pertaining to an investigation will be stored in other databases, linked to the core database through the various BLU RIDs.

The specification for a BLU is a set of four GPS locations. Two are located on a specified lower line of latitude and two on an upper line of latitude. The two locations on the west side are located on a single line of longitude, as are the two on the east side. All BLUs north and south of any nominated BLU will share the same lines of longitude, but the north-south distance between the lines of latitude will vary, so that the areas of all BLUs will be the same. An area of 1 sq. km has been proposed. For convenience or because of limitations in the accuracy of GPS measurements, this uniformity may not be achievable, in which case, the area of the BLU should be included in the database record, with the values of the corner GPS values.

The remaining tables in the core database will identify physical data, such as rivers, mountains, gorges, ridges, escarpments and the like. There will be a table identifying all structures of interest and each structure will be defined by one or more points, each identified by its GPS location. Some points will be standalone, while others will be linked together in sequences which we will call chains. Some points, such as mountain peaks and river beds will have altitude and depth values attached to them, the latter being a measure of depth below the surface or height above it.  Where a feature such as a river is represented by chains of points, the order in which they are stored indicates the downstream direction.

Here are the specifications for structure types currently identified.

River. Three chains of GPS locations. The first represents the LHS boundary of the river, facing downstream. The second represents the RHS boundary similarly. The third chain runs down the middle of the river and each point has an altitude value attached to it, indicating the fall of the river from its source, or the point where it enters the BLU to the point where it leaves the BLU, plus a depth value, indicating the depth of the river at that point.

Escarpment. A single chain of points, with each point having an attached altitude,  indicating the local high or low point. The order of the points in the chain is such that the RHS represents the steep side of the escarpment.

Hill. A single point with an attached altitude.

Chain of Hills. A single chain of points, similar to an escarpment, but without the  implicit interpretation of a steep or shallow slope.

Lake. A chain of points, where the last point is joined back to the first.  Deep points in the lake may be represented by individual points, each with an attached altitude.

Island. This is similar to a lake in format, but may contain other structures such as hills within it.

Seaboard. Similar to a lake but the chain remains open.

Data Point. A single point located anywhere in the BLU, possibly with attached altitude or height/depth values, or a research project identifier.  Such points may be members of sets defining structures or may be discretionary items used to provide reference points in research projects, etc.

The structure names and types will be stored in a lookup table, so that new types can be added without modifying the main database tables..

The core database table structures are set out in the file CoreDatabaseTables.

The small size of BLU is deliberate, so that features which are limited in size, but are possibly important (e.g. habitats) can be accurately located. Very small areas can be defined by chains with appropriate identifiers.  For some projects it may be convenient to aggregate BLUs into larger elements, which we will call Extended Land Units (ELUs). An ELU is defined as a set of symmetrically connected BLUs. Hence, An ELU2 will consist of 2 x 2 BLUs, an ELU3 will   consist of 3 x 3 BLUs and so forth. An additional table can be created, quoting the GPS values of the corners held in common. As with a BLU, the GPS value of the south-east corner may constitute a unique reference (though ELUs may also carry their own names, to facilitate discussion).

Note that no data other than physical structure data is stored in the core database. Vegetation, settlements and the like are objects for research and will be stored in their own databases, linked to the core database with references to the RIDs at the appropriate structural level. The data in the core database will always represent the current or basal situation. Thus, intended modification of the surface (such as a deep excavation for an open-cut mine) would be represented within a research database which was essentially a copy of the core database. Then, if the modification did take place, its definition would be incorporated in the core database, while the records of the situation pertaining before the modification would be transferred to an archival database. This latter could then be used to track changes over time.


The intention is to provide maximum public access to the system, so that any person or organization can contribute (via their own database, but linked to the Core database) information which they may feel to be of use. For instance, it would be possible to conduct counts of birds, animals and plants for biodiversity research. Most of this work is conducted by amateurs, through school projects, interest clubs and the like.  However, it is also open to corporations, farming and other business organisations to conduct business-oriented research which is of a confidential nature and link it to the Core database. This will provide a context for any information that they subsequently publish.

Management could be carried out by a suitable organization (the CSIRO, perhaps) or an academic committee. The importance of the data, particularly in the context of climate change, is such that there must be no risk of its being modified merely to serve commercial interests (though one might justify making land usage decisions which avoid significant damage to the interests of groups such as agriculturists in general). Representatives of commercial corporations could serve in a committee of management, provided that their interests were known and they excused themselves from decision-making which affected their interests directly.


In the most general sense, land usage evaluation is but one of the many lines of research and documentation that can be attached to the database (and thereafter become available for examination in relation to other attached endeavours). However, it will be discussed in more detail here because the raison d’etre for setting up the database was to facilitate research into the consequences of increasing population densities on a national scale. The ability to absorb greater numbers of people depends upon identifying (1) locations of new settlements and settlements capable of expansion, (2) the availability of sufficient food-producing land to support the population of each settlement and possibly provide income from external sales, (3) the availability of resources such as power and water and (4) suitable positioning of transport infrastructure, broadband towers and the like.

In designing the land usage database, it is assumed that each land usage is defined by a set of parameters that are totally unique in type and content. This would seem to imply that each land usage would need to be stored in its own table. However, the amount of programming effort to service this structure and make comparisons between different land usages would be huge and inflexible. To facilitate the addition of new land usages and to standardise the methods of access to the data, the following methodology is proposed.

The Observations table holding the collected or computed data which will determine the land usage, will actually consist of a set of fields of different data types, with anonymous names, such as Integer-1, JPG-1 (a picture or graph), Text-1 and so forth. New fields, similarly named, can be added to this table without disturbing the labelling or content of existing fields. Records will be identified by the BLU, Structure, Chain and DP RIDs and a land usage code.

The data in the Observations table will be interpreted by a series of other tables which contain the necessary metadata. This metadata is used to drive the functions which will extract and process the data from the Observations table.

The first metadata table lists all possible land usages and for each usage maps each relevant anonymous field name in the Observations table to a parameter name which is meaningful in the definition of that particular land usage. This will allow computation formulas to be expressed in a meaningful way. Remember, however, that a particular field in the Observations table may have entirely different meanings in relation to different land usages and other fields may remain unused.

The second metadata table set out profiles for practical land usage, listing the values of the various parameter ranges or single values which must be satisfied for a particular land usage to be feasible. Multiple profiles may be stored, defining optimal and sub-optimal usages. This is necessary, because (for instance) a tract of land adjacent to or within a settlement may be useful in a number of different ways, but not all usages will be optimal at the same time. By looking at different combinations of usage, the overall best use the land can be computed.

The Results table stores the profile data which matches the data in the Observations table and assigns rankings so that different combinations with different degrees of optimality (is that a real word?) can be compared and decisions made to meet the criteria required by a particular land usage. For example, a railway construction project would obviously be looking for land usages where food production usages would be significantly sub-optimal, but the underlying land could easily be excavated and compacted.

The data in the Observations table will be derived from research projects or field data gathering exercises which will be registered in their own right, so that the data can be used in projects other than that examining land usage (e.g. water supply planning).


In posting this document, I must stress that my proposals do not provide a complete scenario for sustainable population research.  They should be considered as an outline or sketch to which I hope that many other people will provide detail or colour. After a 30-year career in IT, I am fairly sure that I have got the basics right, but I will readily concede that the technical and conceptual aspects of database design have moved on and that inputs from others more in tune with today’s marketplace will almost certainly be required.


With the increasing world population and degradation of food-growing areas, there is going to be huge demand in the future for research into methods of improving food production and making desert areas fertile again. The relatively small element size of the BLU makes it more likely that we can focus in on small areas which lend themselves to experimentation, but which could then be applied to other areas anywhere in the world. This knowledge could be sold or donated as appropriate to other countries, such as those in the Sahara region, Chile, the Middle East and Central Asia.  The presence of food-growing capability however modest, would help to moderate the temptation to migrate.

Another idea is to look for hot spots of water supply in really arid areas and use them to develop what are in effect oases.  In a very old version of that excellent ABC rural affairs program ‘Landline’, an article dealt with a fellow who replaced his glasshouse, shattered by hail, with a huge plastic structure where all aspects of the environment were computer-controlled. He was able to get six harvests of legumes and tomatoes every year and, if I remember rightly, used only about 60,000 litres of water which he constantly recycled.

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The Urban Landscape For A New Era.

At last, we seem to have said all that needs to be said about the “What” and now we can get on with the “How”!


This post is based upon the premise that our current major cities cannot be allowed to expand indefinitely and that they must either be redesigned to contain more housing units, preferably of more modest dimensions or the population must spill over into other old or new settlements, to which the same development rules apply. Matters to be discussed include planning for more compact urban areas, measures to reduce current market distortions and the design of modest or flexible housing units to provide a pleasant living experience within this new environment.  I should stress, however, that many of the suggestions made here (which may be considered fairly radical by some!) are put forward on the understanding that we are looking at an extended time-frame (30-50 years perhaps) and could be introduced gradually in a relatively painless way.


Over the last thirty years or so, there has been a substantial drift of population from country cities and towns to capital cities and a few regional centres. This is due largely to the centralisation of commercial and administrative activities, which has prompted people to follow in search of work. Those who remain have suffered some loss of quality of life, because the local population is inadequate to support even the reduced services left behind.

This situation has been considered quite acceptable by state and city administrations because substantial political and fiscal benefits flow on from the increased profits accruing to the private sector and the employment opportunities which they may offer. On the downside, the need for much more housing has meant that nearby land reserved for food production and biodiversity support has been rezoned for urban development.

Australian cities, by world standards, are quite spacious. In the mind of the homemaker, the “quarter-acre block” (about 10,000 sq. ft. or 1,000 sq. m.) has been for many years and still is the desirable minimum for the area of land required to hold an average-sized house (about 16 squares or 150 sq. m. with a garden capable of being used for various other purposes such as housing a garage or workshop, playing modest outdoor games or growing flowers and vegetables.

I first set foot in Australia in 1965 and over the next 25 years bought several houses in West Australia and Victoria. To qualify for finance in those days, the accepted criterion was that the house should not cost more than 3-4 times annual salary, taking into account the employment stability of the applicant, and a deposit of at least 10% was required. This situation pertained until the boom times of the later 1990s and early 2000s. Today, the situation is radically different. A house and land package will cost upwards of $500,000, depending on location, services and infrastructure. Given the salary ranges pertaining today, such prices equate to 6-8 times annual salary and, in order to make houses affordable, banks have almost totally waived the need for an initial deposit.

There are a number of reasons for this distortion.

  • Firstly, there are more people moving to the cities than there is available land to accommodate the homes required. Many cities are already built up to the boundaries dictated by legislation and governments will only release land reserved for agriculture or biodiversity (known locally as green wedges) when the political pressures to provide more housing exceed those to maintain environmental balance.
  • Secondly, there is a financial process in place called negative gearing, where a house may be considered an investment, allowing its costs to be offset against income tax.  This means that home buyers are competing against investors who have a considerable financial advantage.
  • Thirdly, some years ago, the government of the day introduced a scheme of grants to first home buyers, to assist them in buying a home. The idea was that the grant would provide a reasonable deposit, so that smaller and more affordable mortgages would be required.  In practice, house prices rose to absorb the grant and, in order to enable the transfer of the grants to the seller, banks loosened their lending criteria, advancing money to persons who would, at best, be marginal candidates for finance on the required scale. The high repayments were tolerable so long as the boom times continued, but many home owners were left in very vulnerable positions when the good times evaporated (as they did in 2008). In countries such as USA and UK, the collapse in the housing market was catastrophic. Australia has avoided this problem thus far because the mining boom has cushioned the nation from the worst effects of the downturn, but the adverse effects on our housing market may yet be painful, as the number of loan defaults is rising.
  • Fourthly, there is a tendency for houses to be much larger than was previously the case.  Houses of 30-35 squares, or 280-325 sq. m. (known derisively as ‘McMansions’) are not uncommon and the reason why there is a demand for these is quite interesting. Paul Gilding, in his fascinating book “The Great Disruption: How The Climate Crisis Will Transform The Global Economy” (pp 70-72, 190-192) suggests that there are two levels of happiness. The first is the aggregation of sufficient resources to live comfortably and without stress, doing all those things one would like to. Once this is achieved, the second level is that of maintaining a position of social respect and appreciation from one’s peers and friends, and this is reflected in one’s possessions (“keeping up with the Jones” syndrome, perhaps) and the ability to give gifts and assistance to others. These are the drivers for the current wave of consumerism. Now, if one wants to broadcast a message as to one’s achievements and social standing, what better signal is there than a really spacious and well-equipped home!

The current situation cannot go on indefinitely and a number of measures to alleviate the situation will be discussed in the following sections.


The first thing to recognise is that settlements will, in the future, only be able to grow if there is adjacent land available that has no demands upon it for environmental or agricultural purposes. Hopefully, the analytical model I have put forward in earlier posts, will identify locations for new settlements (if needed) meeting these criteria, but sufficiently close to areas of productive land. . Also, land suitable for development under these terms may be reclaimed from land damaged by mining activities or from the sea, lakes or rivers. A good article on this latter form of reclamation in Wikipedia shows that the practice is surprisingly widespread.

In earlier days, buying agricultural land on the fringe of a city and then lobbying to have the zoning changed to residential could confer huge profits on the owner, because of the difference in value between residential and agricultural land. A town planning firm I worked for once suggested that if land was to be rezoned, it should only be sold to a government instrumentality called a Development Corporation. Owners would receive cash at the agricultural zone valuation, but would also receive shares in the Development Corporation, so that they would receive  some of the profits from all land sales, the remainder benefiting the community. If something like this were introduced today, it would remove much of the incentive for developers to press for distortions in the planning scheme.

When the land available for expansion is limited or non-existent, there are only two alternatives. The first is compaction, where more dwelling units are fitted into the same space. The second is redirection, where nearby settlements are accepted as satellites to the main city, or more distant settlements become virtual satellites using broadband networks to connect to head offices, customers, hospitals, schools and so forth.  In these latter cases, there are significant requirements for infrastructure to connect the various settlements, provide services and so forth, to ensure that people moving out from the city are not unduly penalised for doing so.  It may also be appropriate to offer tax relief to people prepared to live in distant communities. Whatever the case, the availability of a larger number of dwellings will help to reduce demand and therefore price.

All financial processes (such as negative gearing) which put upwards pressure on house prices should be withdrawn. In fact, there is a case for reversing the process where dwellings could attract a tax depending, not so much upon their size, but rather upon their degree of utilisation. In the UK, first-home buyers were allowed to rent out unused rooms in their houses without paying income tax on the money received. Similarly, we could adopt a situation where unused rooms could be rented out to reduce the tax otherwise payable.


Situations already exist where a number of housing units are located on one extended block of land, with a modest amount of garden space which is, in effect shared.  This type of housing is usually directed at retirees, whose families have grown up and left home, or at people needing some sort of care, where it is advantageous for them to be located in one place, where appropriate services can be provided economically.

We can go back to the past for a useful variant on this idea.  Some of the finest housing in major cities of the world, such as London, Paris and New York, consists of terraced units, often in a square, with a communally owned garden in the centre. The fact that later developments in Australian capital cities included substantial amounts of terraced housing for the well-to-do, shows that this pattern of development was well favoured at the time. With the coming of the industrial revolution in Britain, terraces sadly got a bad name when reduced to the minimum in terms of space and utility, simply to house the workers close to coal mines, shipyards, factories and the like.  However, if we can establish reasonable design and construction standards, terraces may yet have a future, as they have, in fact, got some practical advantages, such as superior insulation (on account of the shared walls), fewer metres of roads or tramways per dwelling and so forth. There is also a case to be made (though not so compelling) for the minimal terrace (usually referred to as semi-detached or duplex), where two housing units are joined together and surrounded by garden space. In Britain, after the second world war, a lot of new and rebuilt city housing units were duplexes and some were quite grandiose in design.

The near-iconic feature of today’s cities is, of course, the tower block. While the highest ones are usually commercial buildings or hotels, we are now seeing some very substantial housing blocks, notably in China and Hong Kong. While these are very effective in cramming a lot of people into a small area of land, they do have some issues, which will be addressed when discussing building design. However, one issue which is relevant to the overall urban context is the outlook from a building, which is tied into the distance between buildings. The design parameter which governs this aspect is something called the plot ratio, which is the ratio of the total floor area of a building to the area of the block of land it stands on. For a given plot ratio, if the number of storeys is doubled, then the area of a single floor is halved, and so on. The intention is to avoid the ‘concrete canyon’ effect, where people on the lower floors are deprived of a reasonable amount of light because they are overshadowed by neighbouring buildings. It is important that, for dwellings, at least, this parameter is adhered to, though there are many cases in Melbourne where it has been ignored in the commercial areas, because the developers have significant  influence over the planning authorities. At one time, I was a member of a team which prepared a master plan for the City of Melbourne and we protested to the city planner that the design for the headquarters of a major steel company substantially exceeded the plot ratio specified for the area. It was explained to us that the company had threatened to move its business to Sydney if its design was not accepted and, as the planning officer said, “business is business”. The building is located at what is, in consequence, the windiest road intersection in the city.  I myself have lost three umbrellas there !


This term is usually used in the context of dividing a development area into separate blocks of land, each of which will be sold to become a separate property.  I would now like to extend this idea to existing houses which have large gardens upon which to build a separate house or which have an appropriate design for separating the house into a number of self-contained units.

In my youth, I lived in the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne, UK. A very wealthy businessman came to live in Newcastle, much to the chagrin of many of the existing business leaders, who viewed him as reducing their standings in the community.  He built a very large house indeed, by the standards of the day (it had three bathrooms and a six-car garage) which caused even more irritation because of its flamboyance. When the owner announced that he was moving away in pursuit of better business opportunities, everyone looked forward to him losing a lot of money, as his home was considered to be a complete white elephant. The smiles soon disappeared after a few doors were blocked up and the house sold as a block of flats!

While this is a fairly extreme case, it suggests that if houses were designed so that they could easily be divided into one, two or three separate living areas for sale or rent, the increased opportunities for other people to be housed within the same city boundary would reduce the cost of each unit.  They could even be bought back and the original house restored to its previous design, if a family size warranted it.

Finally, many houses are built on very large blocks, in order to engage in outdoor activities of one kind or another (tennis, for instance).  Earlier in this piece, I suggested taxing houses where they were being used in a sub-optimal fashion.  Perhaps the use of land (over and above the accepted garden space) for outdoor activities should also attract a similar tax, as the community as a whole receives no benefit.  I suggested earlier that the tax could be reduced by renting unused rooms, and this idea could be extended to the relief from taxation of private open space by making it available for some sort of public use (a junior tennis club, for instance).


The provision of transport infrastructure in Melbourne has always been quite expensive, relative to similar cities and this is partially due to the generous size of individual house blocks, which increases the number of metres of tramway or road per housing unit. Tower blocks go some way to ameliorate this, of course, though they have their own issues. One advantage of the terraced house design is that, if located on streets at right angles to major arterials, tramways or railway lines, a given length of infrastructure item will serve more housing units, as more of them can be fitted into a given length of residential street.


Some time ago, the BBC in UK ran a very interesting TV series on unusual houses, which they followed through the construction phase until the family moved in and could comment on the living experience.  The one which caught my attention was the Huf Haus, which was prefabricated in Germany, loaded onto a number of lorries (complete with all of the bathroom and kitchen fitments!), driven over to England and erected upon the site within a couple of weeks or so.  It is common practice to sneer at prefabricated houses, where the picture in mind is of a fibro cottage erected at a mining site with a lifespan of perhaps 20 years.  However, a visit to the web site of this construction company ( will hopefully lead to a more understanding and accepting attitude. Certainly, it gave rise to quite a few ideas of mine, some of which I would like to discuss here.

One of the main tenets of my proposals on sustainable population is that we must examine the consequences and rewards of redistributing population inflows to new and existing settlements distributed all over the country.  Three drivers for the viability of this idea are: (1) the ability to build houses quickly in response to demand, (2) the adaptability of housing for differing needs and, and (3) the cost.  There are many reports extant of outback housing (particular that for indigenous people) costing much more than in the major cities but, leaving aside any questions of rorting the system, it is probable that these costs arose because builders were trying to transplant established building practices (timber frames, single-leaf brickwork cladding and so forth).  These are quite labour-intensive and require a number of different skills, resulting in expensive relocation payments and temporary housing costs. Well-designed prefabricated housing, transported on the rail services envisaged as serving these communities and erected by a small team of experts should go a long way to reducing these costs.

In many of Australia’s cities, there has been a substantial conversion of commercial and industrial properties for residential use.  This took several forms. Sometimes, an entire building would be bought by a developer and divided up into units that were then sold individually. On other occasions, an entire floor would be sold under a strata title and the new owner would then divide the area into rooms, build in the necessary services and so forth. The interesting thing about this process, is that sometimes the interior walls were permanent, while in other cases, they were secured in such a way that they could easily be removed and rearranged.  This last idea has suggested to me that ordinary houses could be constructed in the same way, so that over the years, they could be modified to meet the requirements of the day.  Prefabricated houses on the Huf model would lend themselves to this sort of usage.

Many commercial buildings (particularly offices) are designed with entire floors being single open-plan areas. These can subdivided at will with simple partitions to suit the needs of multiple tenants or to reflect the business practices of single tenants. The same methodology can be applied to residential blocks, provided that multiple connections are built in for services, which can be drawn on as required. Also, better use could be made of certain high-rise features.  For instance, many tower blocks sit upon a podium, which is a building a few storeys high which usually covers the entire site and houses commercial and retail enterprises. The residential tower is set back somewhat and the exposed roof of the podium is attached to the units on the lowest floor in lieu of a balcony. It is suggested that a better use of the podium roof would be as shared space, again for growing flowers, vegetables or small trees. In such cases, it might also be useful to use the floor above the podium for small-scale commercial enterprises servicing the residents. This resonates somewhat with the famous Unites d’Habitation buildings designed by Le Corbusier in the 1950s, though he carried the idea of communities totally self-contained in their buildings to a much greater length.

Here I will express the view that residential towers, where people live twenty-four hours a day, must be designed with more sensitivity than commercial buildings where people spend only a few hours a day.  The impact of high-rise buildings on the people living nearby should also be taken into account.  Here is one example. When I first visited Circular Quay in Sydney, the famous Opera House was readily visible from all points on the waterside. Later on, a high-rise building was constructed near to the Opera House, cutting off the views from the adjacent waterfront, causing great indignation from the local population. It occurred to me at the time, that if the developers had purchased air rights over Macquarie Street at the rear of the building, the building could have been constructed to bridge across the road, with each storey stepped back from the one below it. The view would have been preserved and the tenants would have benefited from the substantial balcony space (not to mention being relieved from sarcastic remarks by visitors!).


As my analytical model is looking into the fairly long-term future, where we might expect considerable pressures on food supply, it seems to be a good idea to build as many units as possible with flat roofs, which can be used as gardens for growing vegetables or fruit. This has the additional advantage, that if extension is really required, an additional floor can be added (within reason, of course). In making this suggestion, I am assuming that, with the construction marketplace being driven by the need to transport prefabricated buildings over substantial distances to new or regenerated settlements, the most appropriate structural material would be steel. Furthermore, such houses would be much more robust and better capable of withstanding cyclones, floods and even fires, all of which may arise more frequently because of climate changes.

Because, unlike traditional house models, the cladding of a steel-framed house is not a major load-bearing element, there is much greater scope for varying the material and appearance in the walls (whether interior or exterior). Also, there is more flexibility in the placement and design of windows. For instance, the provision of corner windows would have much less impact on the stress in the walls and their consequent stability than in a conventional house. There might be a question as to whether large window areas are advisable in very hot areas, probably needing powerful air-conditioning installations to offset the radiation into the building. However, a recent blog post in Smart Planet ( describes research into coatings for glass surfaces that change their properties as the temperature rises. When cool, they let more light and heat in. When they warm up to a specific temperature, they start reflecting heat, so that the interior remains relatively cool. This would help to reduce the energy demand and hence the carbon footprint of the building.

The most interesting feature of the building models I have described is that they are very liberating in terms of promoting new ideas.  Rather than listing a whole lot of things that can be done with really sophisticated prefabricated buildings, I will leave it to readers to suggest ingenious improvements to the basic model.

One thing I will do before closing is to point out that there are a surprising number of Australian construction firms already involved in building prefabrication or who are considering becoming involved.  To be sure, some of them are still working with traditional wooden structures, but they will surely apply their imaginations in due course and meet the challenges of future housing needs, particularly in remote areas. Others are already starting to use steel structures as I have described, but the ones I have seen are mainly concerned with commercial structures.  However, as always, demand will promote supply.

Here are a few sites worth looking at. An internet search will reveal many more.

Local builders of prefabricated housing, etc.

Overseas builders of prefabricated housing, etc.

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Clarification 1.

I recently received a private email from a lady who had inspected this blog. The points she raised, while apparently critical, arise, I believe from a misunderstanding about what this blog is about. I am, in fact, broadly in sympathy with what she has said, but I can see that some clarification is in order, so that any future discussion is not sidetracked into mere statements of views, but hopefully, is directed into suggestions for improving the quality of data or for new avenues of research.. Here is the text of the message:

Indeed. What place would biodiversity have in your version of utopia? Do you see any need to preserve the environment in order to maintain a sustainable future for our children? I think I’d rather work on making existing townships – which have usually been established with some geographic logic – work rather than plonking new ones on what is left of our farmland, bushland, grasslands etc. The security implications of an overcrowded world are horrific to be sure. But my feeling is that strong defence policies combined with far better aid policies are a better way of dealing with this than importing more people. History shows that migration can lead to fifth columns: I think you allude to that too. Your message is a bit close to the old discredited “populate or perish” theory. These days, with the world bulging at the seams and the seas rising as a result of climate change the message should be “stabilise populations or perish.”

 The misunderstanding I refer to arises, I think, from her view that the purpose of the blog is to calculate the absolute maximum population the Australian landmass can accommodate and then open the doors to migrants until that number is achieved. This is definitely not the case. In fact, all the blog does is to describe a tool for managing data from which policies can be developed. For a given target population, there will be one or more maps of land usage, which will answer two specific questions. The first is “what will be the cost of providing appropriate infrastructure and services ?”. The second is “For any land usages which are sub-optimal, what are the natural consequences we will have to accept ?”. These consequences may include loss of habitat for various species (particularly those which are under threat), impacts on indigenous practices and beliefs, loss of food production and so forth. The adoption of a particular land usage map and its attendant population is a policy matter which will be adopted by the governments of the day. There will be arguments for and against, depending upon the viewpoints of various interested parties, but hopefully, this model will provide real information which will support or undermine either the entire policy or only questionable parts thereof. The real gain will be if we can avoid arguments based only on beliefs or prejudices. One point I would like to make is that the small size of the grid elements relative to the size of the country is deliberate. Many significant features of the land which may have important impacts if changed are relatively small and if they constitute a larger fraction of a smaller land area, they have more chance of being identified and taken into account. This is why there is a need for very substantial data collection and computing resources with many organisations and individuals participating. As I suggested earlier, there are opportunities to involve schools, universities and special-interest groups of individuals such as “twitchers” (bird-watchers). While an important focus of the model is to identify unused or inappropriately used land for settlements and various agricultural or service activities, the model is also useful for analysing the consequences of expanding our current settlements. Already, there is significant overcrowding in Melbourne (for instance) and we hear strident arguments for and against the expansion of the its urban envelope, but these are couched in very general terms, mostly reflecting more a point of view than any reasoned position. If the optimal solution is to “plonk” new satellites at some remove from the CBD, but with decent public transport, services and communications, some fairly firm numbers can hopefully be generated from my model.

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Just Keeping Things Moving Along – Again.

I had hoped that by this time, I could move on to a discussion of some ideas I have for the development of remote communities and the activities and lifestyle they could support. However, my brand new computer crashed rather horribly (the SMART technology in some WD disk drives is not so smart!) and I had to await a major disk replacement. This, of course, involved a lot of work on my part; firstly, to rescue all of my data from the old disk and secondly, to lay it all out on the new disk.  This delay, while annoying, had a very useful side-effect, in that the Queensland and Victorian floods all occurred before I could write anything for the blog and these phenomena have had a considerable impact on some of the things I would like to have talked about.

On 13th January, The Age contained an article by Professor Linlin Ge from the UNSW School Of Surveying and Spatial Information Systems. In it, he suggested that we needed a satellite-based observation system (“An Eye In The Sky”, he called it) to observe weather patterns and give early warning of rainfall, winds or fires which would cause significant damage to infrastructure and human activitiy.  This accords very well with the suggestions made in this blog for a grid-based information system. If the information received by this satellite was identified by the grid elements it was taken from, analysis could be undertaken to compute the future consequences of the phenomena, both for the elements containing the data and those in the path of the water, wind or fire.  Knowing the land usage for the grids might also allow the financial and social consequences to be computed.

The article may be read at this reference:

The influence of dams on the Queensland flooding was discussed at some length. In particular, the delay in releasing water from the Wivenhoe Dam until it was absolutely necessary to safeguard its structural integrity was severely criticized.  The view was that the progressive release of water in advance of the flood would have resulted in less severe peaks.  This is true, but it seems to me that the managers of the dam were left between a rock and a hard place.  Given that we are just now emerging from one of the worst droughts on record and the prime reason for constructing the dam was to store water for public use, the early release of water would have been similarly criticized if it was found afterwards that it was unnecessary.  This could not have been forecasted in advance.

Another line of discussion was whether more large dams should be built.  The difficulties which were pointed to included the lack of suitable sites, the costs and the times to completion.  However, I would suggest that there is a role here for the smaller dams which I discussed briefly in an earlier post.  These would have little impact on the agricultural production capacity of the area, because they could be covered with concrete roofs, which in turn would carry topsoil and drainage aggregate, thus allowing some type of profitable activitiy of a plantation nature.  Suppose that the ground under the dams was excavated to some convenient depth (the roof would require taller columns, no doubt) and levees were built around them. The volume in the pit would be used for normal water supply and limited by a release pipe within the levee. When heavy rainfall occurs, a valve in the release pipe is closed and water in the dam is captured until it overflows the levee. A network of such dams offers much more refined control over flood waters and they can be built and brought into service progressively at optimal cost.

Because the assimilation of a larger population requires many new communities out in the bush, I would have hoped by this time to have got into some discussion about a topic of particular interest to me – the rapid and economical construction of buildings suitable for the warm temperatures and arid conditions found over most of Australia’s hinterland.  However, the extra-ordinarily intense flooding experienced in Queensland (and to a lesser extent in Victoria) suggests that more thought needs to be given to structural matters and waterproofing of the building shell – so this discussion must wait for another day.

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Project Summary 1.

First of all, I will remind you that the main objective of this exercise is to create a terrain model which can be used to estimate the true sustainable population-carrying capacity of the Australian continent at varying standards of living, though it may function afterwards as a design template.  It will consist of a map of Australia divided into a lot of relatively small zones for each of which there is a list of appropriate land usages.  Within or adjacent to these areas will be a lot of dots, each representing a new or existing settlement which will interact with these land usage areas for productivity, repair, or maintenance, etc.  Superimposed on this map will be some larger areas which are water catchments of various sorts. These catchments may feed into rivers, or may just sit there waiting to be used. Examples of the latter include dams and the Great Artesian Basin.

Settlements will not survive in the long term if they are too isolated from the rest of the country and the effectiveness of this model depends upon the support given to these settlements, particularly with regard to transport, communications, health and educational services and so forth. It is clearly never going to be economic to provide a universal set of services to every settlement, so there will need to be some sort of organisation with one settlement acting as a hub to a number of surrounding satellite settlements. If required, these hubs could in turn act as satellites to a secondary hub (probably a regional or capital city).  The important point to be made is that connecting services must be established at quite a high level.  The key ones will be fast train services (not necessarily the so-called Very Fast Trains, which require dedicated lines) and high-capacity internet services. Roads will, of course, be required, but the specifications could be quite modest in comparison with those of recent structures.

Another point to be emphasised is that the model is dynamic and at any given time, the outcomes will be predicated on the data fed into it. The world we will inhabit in fifty years’ time will almost certainly be significantly different from the one we know today and to obtain optimal results we will be looking to find the best and most efficient layouts, materials and processes. Some of these will be current best practice. Other ones will be the results of research and imaginative design.  The model itself may provide signposts as to where research and development should be directed.

This post completes the specification of the model (in very broad terms) and the future discussion will (I hope) be centred around ideas for its improvement, filling in information gaps, identifying instances of best practice and current research projects, putting forward ideas for new research topics and so forth.  Any relevant comments and ideas, however off the wall they may be, will be welcome.

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Infrastructure 5 (Communications).

There is currently an argument raging between Australia’s two main political parties on the need to provide a national broadband service to all regions of Australia and what should be its form and specification. The Labour government favours a comprehensive fibre-optic network while the Liberal opposition favours a wireless network. My own view is that neither proposition is optimal.

Let us look at the fibre-optic solution first. Australia is a huge country by any standards and if, as I am proposing in this blog, we are going to distribute population more evenly than is currently the case, then we will be investing huge amounts of money just on the inter-settlement network before even a single household or business has been connected.  As these services will, in the main, be offered by commercial organisations, there will be pressure to defer connections to distant settlements.

The wireless option sounds like a plausible alternative, but if we are going to have businesses distributing their operations to distant settlements, as I have suggested, the reliability of the system will probably not be acceptable to them.  The reason is that wireless broadband uses the mobile telephone network. That is, every computer connected by wireless is allocated an underlying telephone number. Advocates of the wireless solution mostly live in and work in large-scale urban areas and their experience of wireless connectivity is gained through using their laptops when away on business in another city, where there are many service towers to deal efficiently with wireless signals.  This does not apply in rural areas or around small settlements, where  a connection slows down or fails completely simply because the limited number of towers cannot cope with the number of mobile calls and the sophisticated packet checking required by internet connections.

I myself live in a semi-rural area where I do not have a landline and all of my connections (2 mobiles, 1 home telephone and an internet connection) are all wireless.  My broadband connection is nominally 7.2 Mb, but the reported speed in practice never exceeds 80Kb, little more than the dial-up connection I had 20 years ago.

As I described earlier, my model for rural communities is a circle of satellite settlements connected to a hub settlement by fast trains and various services, which will also include a fibre-optic network. The hubs are connected to each other and to major cities by satellite-based wireless connections, which are fundamentally different and more powerful than the tower-to-tower mobile networks. The advantage of this configuration is that development of the system can be conducted in a more progressive way, with communities being connected as required, with a relatively constant cost per nest of settlements.

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Infrastructure 4. Power.

One of the most interesting features in “green” power sources is the capacity for localisation.  Oil-fired or nuclear power stations are situated at a single location to which the fuel is delivered, after which the generated electricity must be distributed (sometimes over enormous distances) by cable.  Most environmentally friendly power sources, be they wind farms, solar farms, geothermal power stations, or even satellite solar reflectors, can be located close to or can deliver directly to the communities or operations that they serve.  The reverse is also true, in that the presence of a power source (geothermal, hydroelectric), or an attractive site for a farm of some kind (wind, solar) may also prompt the location of a settlement.   In other words, instead of losing a lot of power to lengthy delivery lines to distant locations, we should follow the power.

Railway trains can readily be powered from these sources, whether by having solar panels on top of all vehicles or by charging and exchanging batteries at stations.  A slightly less environmentally friendly power source would be bio-fuel of some kind, which is better than, say, diesel-electric but can be refuelled from local stations where the biofuel is manufactured.

Ideally, all domestic and commercial buildings should be autonomous; i.e. they generate their own power from solar panels or possibly windmills.  On occasions, they can even feed back excess production into a network.  Whether the same can be said of industrial buildings depends upon the power demands of the processes that they house. One can suggest, however, that the only customers for oil-fired or nuclear power-stations should be those industrial enterprises which have very high power demands, such as desalination, smelting of ores and (let us not forget!) the machinery and products for environmentally friendly power supply.

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Infrastructure 3. Water.

The availability of an adequate water supply is usually the key determinant in any decision to create a settlement.  Natural sources of water in Australia are the sea, lakes, rivers, captured rain and the Great Artesian Basin (though this last is somewhat compromised due to the prodigal and wasteful manner in which its resources were accessed in times past).  Generally speaking, water supplies are (and should be) sourced locally. However, there are two substantial conflicts of interest which must be resolved. The first relates to rivers, which are conduits of water from the places where rainfall occurs, to places where rainfall is much reduced, or non-existent. There is an ongoing debate as to the rights of access of upstream and downstream users, especially when some of those users engage in very water-hungry activities such as growing cotton. The second relates to capital cities which, because of their huge concentration of people, often need to draw their water from distant sources. This would not be a problem if these sources were not used by other communities or to maintain  flora and fauna habitats.  However, as the new pipeline serving Melbourne’s water requirements has shown, arbitration between conflicting demands has proved very divisive.


If we are going to encourage human settlement in the more remote parts of the country, we urgently need a national water plan. This will consist of an inventory of all possible water resources, identification of areas which have excess water to contribute to other areas needs and the identification of all storage and flows required to transfer excess or generated water capacity (e.g. desalination plants) to areas which are short of water

Such a plan would need to address the following issues:

  • Determination of the quantities of water which must be allowed to traverse the entire length of each river in order to maintain its health.  This should take into account that the natural habitats served by some rivers assume a seasonal rainfall and would not prosper if the flows were changed to be more uniform.
  • If the river flows are inadequate to meet all requirements, identify natural or artificial sources which are conveniently located to supplement these flows.
  • Average and minimum water requirements per hectare for all types of activity to be serviced by a river. This would include riparian properties plus any more distant land supplied through dams, pipelines, etc.
  • Determine the storages, such as tanks, dams, pipework, etc. which will be required to capture excess flows (if any) for future use or support of more distant communities or other river systems and transmit them to points of need.
  • Identify “hot spots” where there are singular difficulties in providing enough water and take steps to provide a constructed water supply (e.g. pipes from a desalination plant.). Note 1.

Some policies on the implementation and management of such a plan should include the following:

  • Where the water usage would be distorted by industries of high water demand, insist that water in excess of average agricultural or domestic requirements be met from desalination plants or sea water.
  • Engagement in extensive research to address the problem of evaporation. Solutions could include floating panels of insulants (providing environmental factors were not a concern), or in the case of dams, constructing roofs which would support agricultural activities over the dam (Note 2).
  • Current water rights should, where the water plan indicates that the water drawn exceeds that conferred by such rights, be exchanged for rights falling within the range permitted by the plan.  Grants or other assistance should be available to the relevant agribusiness to modify its processes or products.

Much of the information required could be supplied through the mapping exercise described in my earlier post.  Appropriate sites for desalination plants would also be identified as another type of land usage.


The Great Artesian Basin offers some interesting possibilities as a water source. It is recharged naturally by excess rainwater in the northern latitudes and is transmitted very slowly to the south and west through porous sandstones (this is one theory, anyway !).  The supply from this source is dwindling due to excessive and wasteful drawing-down in the past. If left alone for a few hundred years, no doubt it will fill up again. (Note 3).


Note 1.

I believe that the order of priority for the allocation of water should be:

  • The health of rivers and other storages.
  • Agricultural use (especially direct food-growing operations).
  • Urban and domestic use, particularly cities close to the sea and not directly related to the foregoing.

With regard to the last item, there are substantial opportunities for economising or finding alternative sources of water. Cities have huge paved areas which could be used to capture rainfall. While this and waste water would required recycling, the output would normally be potable, if not quite to the high quality that we have become accustomed to.  Alternatively, water for human consumption could be stored in tanks on the property and replenished by tankers (why not;: we have no problem buying bottled water at exorbitant prices), leaving the other mains-supplied water for washing dishes and clothes, bathing, garden maintenance and so forth.

Note 2.

Consider the Underground Car Park at Melbourne University.  The roof over the car park consists of about 120 umbrella-shaped concrete structures, each consisting of four hyperbolic paraboloid shapes. The significance of the HP geometry is that it supports nearly 2 metres depth of soil over the columns reducing to about 40cm at the midpoint between columns.  The project was extremely economical to build as six sets of forms were each used more than 20 times. Laying the concrete was also very easy, because the HP shape is formed from intersecting straight lines, thus facilitating the tamping of the concrete into place. The lawn above the car park contains a number of substantial trees (whose weight, as well as that of the supporting soil is taken directly by the columns below). If similar structures were constructed over dams with a suitable topography, there is scope for leasing out the area over the dams for plantation-type agriculture, such as fruit or nuts.

Note 3.

One wonders whether one could speed up the process by artificially recharging the basin by directing water from desalination plants into the aquifer.  For several hundred years, London (in UK) drew its water by pumping it from aquifers trapped between dense clay layers. Recharge was effected by pumping waste water and excess river flows back into the aquifers.

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Infrastructure 2. Modes of Access.

Once the locations of possible settlements have been identified, the next step is to determine the best modes of access and the routes that they should follow.

In this post, I hope to make the case that, for remote communities, the most effective modes of transport are trains and lighter-than-air vehicles. Of course, roads are necessary for personal journeys and for transport operations where waiting for scheduled services is inconvenient and they will also be discussed. Conventional air services are useful for those occasions where there is an urgent need to travel long distances, but they do require space for and investment in airfields and service buildings and for the present, we can assume that their main uses will be to connect the hubs of outlying settlements with capital cities or other major centres.

Let us discuss each mode of transport in turn. 1.



 In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vast tracts of Africa, South America and to some extent, Australia, were opened up to settlement and exploitation by building railways in from the coast. In Australia’s case, the main interest in railways was to interconnect capital cities in the various states, though there was a quite substantial network to join up settlements supporting agriculture and mining. Sadly, a lot of this secondary network was dismantled or left to languish in the 1970s and 1980s, with a greater emphasis on road haulage. In some cases, this was due to political reasons, with the Railways Union seen as having an undue influence on railway management. However, much of it was also due to the inability of the old and relatively lightweight lines to carry increased traffic. Railway technology has made great advances in recent years and it can be argued that it is time for a renascence of this mode of transport (Note 1).

Arguments for the adoption of railway transport.

Railway transport is better placed to take advantage of green power of various kinds; solar generation (either on-board or sourced from local power plants), hybrid systems (diesel-electric power has been available for more than 50 years) or biofuels (railways can haul more tonnes per kilolitre of carbon-based fuel than the corresponding number of road or air vehicles).

Many years of constructing heavy-duty railway lines for mineral transportation have generated a track construction technology capable of withstanding substantial heat variations and supporting higher speeds. In addition, improvements in engine power have enabled the adoption of trains nearly a kilometre long, loaded with ores or other heavy minerals.

Trains are very versatile, offering services dedicated to carrying people or goods or mixtures of the two. Last-minute variations in the services are also possible, simply by adding carriages or wagons as required.

The width of a railway “traffic lane” is about the same as that of a road. The unit cost of a railway line is usually somewhat more than a road with the same number of lanes, because the gradients of railway lines must be kept fairly flat, resulting in the need for substantial cuttings and embankments, whereas roads can follow the ground contours to a greater extent. However, the unit cost per lane must, for roads, be multiplied by the number of lanes. On a per-lane basis, maintenance of railway tracks is cheaper than for roads and the capacity of a railway line can usually be increased simply by adding more or longer trains. The capacity of roads beyond a certain point requires additional lanes, in effect creating a second road. Hence, there is a payback over the longer term for railways.

Train Types.

Systems usually entitled Very Fast Trains or VFTs, with speeds of 300 km/hr and more, have been in service in Japan and Europe for many years, though the technology has yet to be adopted in Australia. However, they require specialised track with very long straight sections and where curves are required, they must have a superelevation appropriate to the speed at which the train is travelling. (Superelevation is where the outside rail is higher than the inside rail to counter centrifugal forces). The range of speeds where the superelevation is comfortable is quite limited and in cases of vehicles which are simultaneously high and heavy there may even be a risk of overturning at very low speeds. Hence, VFTs generally require a dedicated track used only by these services, though they may also travel over general-purpose tracks which meet the required specfications for VFT travel..

In Australia, trains are currently quite slow by world standards, though there are now intercity services which do reach speeds of about 100 km/hr on selected sections of standard track. However, it is quite feasible to introduce services (at least in open country) where speeds of 150 km/hr or more can be maintained over long distances on existing tracks. In hilly country where the tracks are weaving through valleys and gaps between hills and outcrops, some realignment with cuttings and embankments may be required to maintain this level of service (Note 1). Nevertheless, in assessing infrastructure needs, speeds of this value will be taken as the norm and services of this kind will be referred to as Fast Trains, or FTs. Trains such as the very long trains which carry ores and other heavy volumes of materials cannot be expected to reach these speeds in the immediate future and they will be referred to as Standard Trains or STs.

Some advantages of train travel.

In addition to its usefulness in transporting goods and people between communities, efficient train services have amenity value which can act as an encouragement to persons thinking of moving to more remote settlements. Features which should be considered include: ·

  • At the local level, FTs provide very quick access between clusters of settlements, which may then behave more like the traditional cities we have become used to. They may be conventional trains or railcars, depending upon the amount of traffic to be accommodated. ·
  • Currently, great value is placed on having a home within easy reach of the sea. However, sea access for the large majority of residents is mainly valued for recreational reasons. With FT services, a day beside the sea is feasible for people living two or three hundred kilometres away, particularly if the environment and services on the trains are of a high quality. 
  • Given the time currently required to travel from airport to capital city centres, VFT travel may be a very competitive option between adjacent capitals in cases where time is critical. While the reduction of air travel prices due to the simplification of services offers a substantial challenge on cost, the more comfortable accommodation and better in-journey service on trains plus the city-centre to city-centre routing can still be very attractive. (Note 2).


It is almost axiomatic that the development of new railway lines will start from current centres and especially capital cities, though it may be feasible to commence the construction of railways connecting satellites to hubs in advance of the completion of the external connections. As we are postulating a more distributed population in smaller settlements, a service which is targeted at a very remote settlement will pass others on the way, which means that traffic (and therefore earnings) can be generated well before the project is finally completed as each section comes into use. Some sections of the project may be designated as part of a future VFT link and built to the appropriate specifications, leaving only the final sections connecting projects extending outwards from the major city termini to be a direct charge to the VFT project.

As an aside, I would point out that many of Australia’s capital cities are “overcrowded”, though this is due to the fact that our domestic plot sizes are among the most spacious in the world and many more people could be accommodated (with substantial savings in infrastructure costs) if more compact housing layouts, such as terraced houses and apartment units were made available. The main point I wish to make, however, is that housing pressures could also be relieved by turning adjacent towns and cities (which often have an attractive culture and lifestyle of their own) into satellites. FT connections to these satellites could be the starting point for the networks under discussion.


Like trains, these vehicles are enjoying something of a renascence. While they require ground space and services, the areas required for them is less than a conventional airport. Also, they are not long and narrow, but are quite compact and can be located nearer to the centres of the settlements they service. One issue is the limited supply of helium and research to create safer hydrogen-borne vehicles may pay dividends.


In the USA and Africa, many of the first roads (as we understand roads to be) were actually built to service the railway lines and ran alongside them for many miles. They were (and indeed, many still are) simple two-lane highways, relying on distance to sort out any local congestion. Australia started off the same way, but being a rich country, the arrival of cheap motor cars created a demand for more elaborate roads to make driving more comfortable and the switch to road transport for commercial goods exacerbated the situation by creating more risks for motor car drivers. We now have a situation where the multi-lane divided highways take up large areas of land which could be used for food production, reafforestation or other green activities. One interesting counter-argument is that the hard road surface could act as a significant water catchment if appropriately designed.

One of the greater segments of road transport today is the carriage of goods in standard containers which can be carried on trains with equal ease (and probably greater economy). The role of roads in future, so far as commercial traffic of this kind is concerned, will revert mainly to local distribution. Motor cars in the renewable energy age will not be very long-distance vehicles, due to the need to recharge batteries, although hybrid cars may be more versatile, at some cost to the environment. (Note 3).


There are currently arguments taking place regarding the relative economies of aeroplanes and VFTs. When first introduced, the trains had a certain advantage in that airports were situated well away from city centres, so that extra time and money needed to be spent to complete the journey. Travel costs have been substantially reduced (mainly by cheapening or removing on-board services). However, given the air industry’s dependence upon fossil fuels, it remains to be seen how much longer they can remain competitive. Overseas travel is, of course, a different proposition entirely and air services will be necessary for a long time to come (unless the Chinese vacuum-pipe-housed magdev train is an overwhelming success ! ).


Note 1.

I have been involved in the design and/or construction of railway lines in East Africa (the Gulu-Pakwach railway) and Australia (WA Rail Standardisation Project, Koolyanobbing-Kalgoorlie section). These have presented some interesting design problems. For instance, just how do you shape the intersection of a cutting and an embankment to discourage elephants from walking down the cutting and encountering a train bulging with cotton bales ? Or what is the fairest and most economical way to pay a contractor for constructing embankments out of bulldust (which really does exist and is a clay of the same consistency as talcum powder in its dry state). Also, the general method for computing flows through culverts consists of calculating the catchment area, looking up a table for the volume of rain per unit time and then calculating the maximum flow per unit of time reaching the culvert after flowing the length of the catchment area. However, in Africa and Australia, there are huge and flat catchment areas which result in computed maximum flows which are too small, resulting in frequent washouts of the line. I developed methods of calculation based on local thunderstorms which are much smaller than the catchment areas, but have much more intense rates of rainfall. Culvert capacities calculated in this way are often twice the size of the ones computed using the rote methods. I mention these experiences mainly to illustrate that there is still a lot of scope for innovation in design and construction.

I also at this point indulge in some opinion sharing, suggesting that innovation is stifled by the current practice of competitive tendering for the design and supervision of projects, allowing no time for second thoughts. In the days when I was involved in civil/structural engineering, fees were calculated as a percentage of the total cost of the project, which did give some latitude for comparing alternatives or digging more deeply into apparently wilder ideas. We were also supervised at all points by engineering staff working for the client. There are significant problems with Public/Private Partnerships, where any developed technology knowledge tends to remain with the private company, stifling future development by railway staff or future contractors. Furthermore, a signifcant management difficulty is that problems can in general not be anticipated (for lack of warning) and can only be dealt with after the adverse consequences have been experienced. Melbourne’s public transport systems have been leased out to private operators which have not resulted in any improvement whatsoever. In fact, one rusty overhead cable snapped one day and because of its proximity to the city centre, brought down almost the entire system for many hours. Development of the Myki “smart” ticketing system began in 2004 and only started operating in 2010. So far it has cost $1.3 billion AUS. (

Note 2.

While on holiday in UK some years ago, I travelled quite frequently between Buckinghamshire and central London. Two types of train service were available from the local station. One type was the London Underground trainset. The other was a fast train carrying commuters from Oxfordshire to and from London. These trains had economy class carriages with bus-type seating. They also had business class carriages where people could sit and work at tables fitted with aids such as internet and telephone connections. The travel time from Oxford to London was between one and two hours, which included several stops along the way.

Note 3.

When I first came to Australia, in the middle 1960s, I lived in Perth, Western Australia. In the early 1970s we moved to Melbourne. Instead of driving across the Nullarbor Plain, a very arid and hot area, we travelled in great comfort on a new rail service known as the Indian Pacific. This offered a drive-on, drive-off car-carrying service at a minimal extra charge. Given that in future, Australia is going to be a hotter, drier place (we believe), theis mode of long-distance travel would appear to be much more attractive than driving for hours in the glare and the heat (not to mention what happens when the air-conditioning fails).

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Infrastructure 1. Remote Settlements.

Bill McKibben, in his book “Eaarth”, makes the point that in a world where conservation of water, power and arable land is of prime importance, the most efficient and economical form of settlement is one of modest size and as self-sufficient as possible.  However, because some forms of service connecting the settlement to the outside world (banks, hospitals, etc.) cannot economically be provided for very small settlements, we can imagine one settlement acting as a hub within reasonable travel time from a surrounding set of satellite settlements, the whole forming a single identifiable town or city.

The eminent Greek town planner Constantinos Doxiadis once defined the optimal city as one where the time travel from the outermost boundary to the city centre did not exceed one hour. It is uncertain whether he coined the term, but he described any city which exceeded his definition as a Megalopolis.  (He got a surprise when he undertook a consultation contract with the City of Chicago and found that the city, according to his definition, extended out into several neighbouring states, because of the number of people commuting daily by air – but that is another story !). Anyway, as a measure of distance between satellites and the hub, it is a reasonable definition for our purposes.

A feature of almost all renewable power sources is that they can vary in size to suit requirements without undue additional costs.  The cost-efficiency of coal- or oil-fired power stations on the other hand, rises substantially with increasing size and therefore, they must service very large areas via complex networks of cables and transformers (which of course, absorb substantial power in themselves).  Nuclear power-stations, of course, are right off the scale, so far as economic power generation is concerned, requiring substantial subsidies from the state.  Nevertheless, these large centralised installations may have a role to play and this will be discussed in a later post.  For the moment, the only point to be made is that remote communities can be totally self-sufficient with respect to power. Indeed, given the large areas required by solar arrays and other sun-dependent installations, they need to be distributed widely for the huge total national power output to be generated.  Therefore, in terms of location, it makes sense for new communities to follow the power, so to speak. (Hey, that’s a great tag line, isn’t it. I might use it in other posts ! ).

In these remote communities, self-sufficiency implies that a greater proportion of the population will be engaged in food production, mainly for local consumption. However, if a community is to have comprehensive services and cultural opportunities, it is essential that the centralisation of businesses and services in recent years be reversed and in this regard the Internet, delivered on a satellite-based broadband network could be invaluable in reducing the sense of isolation and allowing people employed by large corporations and government departments to work from home or in small local offices.  If government were to provide support with tax relief and other measures, distribution of business operations in this way might be an attractive proposition for large corporations.

This post provides only a skeletal idea of a remote community. You might also like to think of it as a charcoal sketch on a canvas where the colours will be added later  The concept will be fleshed out when we come to discuss food production, construction techniques for buildings, lifestyle aspects and so forth.

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