Just Keeping Things Moving Along – Yet again

The quintessential blogger seems to be either a professional writer/journalist or an amateur with lots of time available (almost on a daily basis) to set down their thoughts and share them with the world. Unfortunately, as any viewer of this blog will realise, this is not me!  If I must wear a descriptive cap, then I might claim to be an essayist. However, I will chip in now and again if something interesting pops up which I am not yet ready to put into a more extended post, or if someone has been kind enough to comment on one of my posts.

I have not made a recent contribution, partly because I have been involved in various activities related to environmental and planning issues (most notably, trying to get Heritage status accorded to an open-air stage with a graceful hyperbolic paraboloid roof close to where I live)  and partly because reviewing the many public submissions to a Government sustainable population strategy issues paper has proved to be a surprisingly complex exercise. Anyway, that will be my Next Big Thing. Today, I will mention some matters of interest which have cropped up and deserve a little attention.

In my initial scan of the submissions, I came across an interesting specification for a monorail model (the MonoCab) which I believed could usefully serve the many small communities which were postulated in my sustainable population model. This was discussed and relevant links provided in my previous post (The Sustainable Population Strategy 1). Since then, a gentleman called Philip Wong, commenting on another post (Infrastructure 2. Modes of Access), drew my attention to another interesting form of monorail – the evacuated tube transport system. In this design, a large tube is constructed above ground and supported on columns (or possibly A-frames, which are more likely to withstand the lateral forces due to the extreme flooding that we have experienced in various parts of Australia recently). The air is sucked out of the tube, creating a vacuum. Vehicles of various types and sizes can travel through the tube, powered by electricity. The key point is that the removal of the air, which in other circumstances provides a substantial amount of drag, reduces the amount of power required to drive the vehicles.  Philip postulates that speeds of up to 1,000 km/hr are feasible, though I am not sure that I would like to experience the acceleration and deceleration from such speeds. Also, I would like to know about the quantum and characteristics of any noise generated. However, there could be a great role for remotely-controlled goods trains. During the floods which I mentioned earlier, a lot of rail and road infrastructure was damaged. The floods were succeeded by a record harvest, but farmers were unable to take advantage of it, because of transportation difficulties. Imagine if we could close down a vacuum-tube line to normal traffic for,  say, 24 hours and then send one grain-laden train after another down it at full speed. The potential flexibility of these kinds of rail transport is quite breathtaking. It might even be possible to design vehicles that could travel on both systems. Imagine travelling from station to station picking up ones friends in various rural settlements, then once you have arrived at your regional hub – Woosh! You are getting out of the train in your capital city in less than an hour!

Although a relatively small proportion of my career was actually spent designing and building railways (not counting the years as a small boy when I designed many model railway layouts), I still have a huge affection for those days – even those spent in a remote African game park, where my dear wife got a nasty dose of malaria and elephants used to scratch their behinds on the gable ends of our prefab house!  I am totally convinced that rail transport has a pivotal role in the future well-being of Australia and I would now like to draw your attention to an article written by Paul Cleary in The Australian on February 11 this year. It was entitled “Reforms Must Run Faster”. Here are a few quotations from the article.

“Australia’s geography makes freight a huge and rising cost for industry at a time of high oil prices. Freight rates for road haulage can be up to twice the cost of rail and have increased twice as fast since 2001, according to the Bureau Of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics. Yeat half of all domestic freight is still moved by road. Holden ships its vehicles by rail to Western Australia and Queensland, but these account for only a quarter of its sales; the rest goes by road.”

And

“Transport and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese has become a passionate advocate of investing in the rail system to reduce business costs and boasts funding of a modest $3.4bn under the economic stimulus plan to make the national system work more efficiently. But that investment is modest when compared with the $16bn spent on school halls and canteens. As Albanese argues, a single train can take 100 semi-trailers off the road, and yet major Companies such as Woolworths still run about 160 B-double semi-trailers from Melbourne to Brisbane via Sydney. The focus on the Brisbane to Melbourne freight line involves new signalling systems and the removal of sharp bends. The investment should allow the Australian Rail Track Corporation to shave 11 hours off the route, he says”.

And again

“The faster rate of road freight charge reflects the higher degree of energy intensity compared with rail. Ian McGowan, a senior industry analyst with IBISWorld, a consulting firm, says rail uses one third the amount of fuel compared with road for each tonne that it transports”.

And finally

“Farmers on the Darling Downs and in the Bowen Basin in Queensland are paying more to ship their grain by road because the mining companies now monopolise the rail network. Agforce president Wayne Newton, a grain farmer from Dalby, believes that up to 70 percent of all grain produced in Queensland has now been forced onto the road. Without government and business giving greater emphasis to making our national transprot network more efficient, Australians will pay even more for their daily loaf of bread, and just about every other consumer item.”

I have deliberately reproduced quite substantial parts of the article, because I wanted to keep the focus on the technical and economic aspects and not be distracted by the references to the attitudes and behaviour of politicians and powerful industry groups. However, the entire article can be read here.

In another recent post (Urban Landscape For A New Era) I suggested that we could build houses with substantial steel frames, which could be easily modified for different uses. If we were to adopt this idea and we were to be build a monorail network on the lines I have discussed here, I would suggest that any construction contracts should specify the use of Australian-made steel. The Australian steel industry is in a parlous position at the moment because the iron ore we ship to China and other countries is being imported back to Australia at prices we cannot match. In a true free-market economy, one would have to say “so what”, but the trouble is; we do not know whether the steel articles we are importing are manufactured under the same free-market rules, or whether they are subsidised to reduce the amounts payable in Australia by overseas mining giants (and others). Already, we have seen substantial overseas investments in Australian agribusiness and real estate and now we read (“Mining’s Small Change”, in The Age on 18/02/2012) that flaws in the mining tax legislation will allow tax avoidance on the grand scale. We really must have an open discussion on a comprehensive future vision for Australia. The current political operating mode and the capture of many media resources by business and political interests stifle open debate and I look at my gorgeous grandchildren and think about their future with some dread. Whoops!  Once personal feelings intrude on what is meant to be an intellectual and practical discussion, it is time to close the file and turn off the computer. Well, for another day.

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The Sustainable Population Strategy 1.

In May, 2011, the Australian Government released a paper entitled “Sustainable Australia – Sustainable Communities” and subtitled “A Sustainable Population Strategy For Australia”. This was followed by “Sustainable Australia – Sustainable Communities: An Overview”, reports from three panels of experts and more than two hundred published contributions from a wide variety of individuals, corporations, interest groups, local government and others.

Over the next few weeks, I will be trawling through all of this material to try and identify (a) matters where the project I am proposing could make a significant contribution and (b) whether there are additions or modifications I can make to my ideas that would enhance their usefulness or relevance. I should make the point that my blog is not about espousing any particular philosophical, social or economic policy, but only suggests tools that would ensure that any policy directives were based on the best information available.

I have divided the external submissions into categories in accordance with the role of the authors in the community. For instance, we have private individuals, industry organisations, local government and so forth. This meant taking at least a cursory look at all of the papers presented and there were a few surprises. Among the individual contributions I had expected to find a lot of people simply putting forward an opinion (particularly in the area of immigration !), but I found many offerings, even  among these, which actually raised issues well worhy of investigation, so I will have to make quite a big effort to categorise the issues properly, so that they ca n be discussed in an  appropriate context.

Along the way, I did find a few gems, which I will discuss as they arise, because I think they are important or at least interesting.

Here is one which appeals to me particularly as an ex-railway engineer. It describes a monorail system carrying a variety of vehicles including private passengers (the size of a motor car, possibly extended to carry a container holding the passengers’ own motor car), public passengers (a railcar the size of a railway carriage) and sundry commercial vehicles.  The designer, David Whittaker, views his creation as either a suburban network or as a city-to-city fast train service or connecting remote communities to cities. I can visualise a more extensive use for this technology, connecting settlements to each other and to local hubs. In earlier posts, I have discussed Bill McKibben’s concepts of a highly distributed population living in small, village-like communities, to make maximum use of relatively small parcels of land for food production.  For this to work, the sense of isolation must be mitigated by fast, robust transport systems and a powerful broadband network.

This is where David’s concepts may have a substantial role to play. Here are a few of the useful features which make it an attractive proposition.

  1. It is above ground, with the rails being carried on columns. Railways in general can handle only very flat gradients and large-radius curves. This requires substantial earthworks in the form of cuttings and embankments. All a monorail requires is space for a foundation slab, perhaps sitting on piles when in an area of soft ground. Variations in the terrain can be accommodated simply by increasing or decreasing the height of the columns. No land need be purchased and the only requirement is temporary access for construction and maintenance.
  2. The railway, when traversing agricultural land, will result in little or no loss of productive land. On the contrary, the farmer may find the monorail a readily accessible form of transport for produce of appropriate kinds.
  3. As pointed out by David, the track could act as a carrier for the NBN fibre network. In addition to the construction savings for the NBN project, access to the network by the vehicles will result in more effective and safer control mechanisms (important in a remote rural setting).
  4. One of the problems with remote communities in Australia (largely because of the rugged landscape) is easy access to education and health services.  This can be seen particularly in indigenous communities in the north of the country. A fast service of the kind envisaged would allow the operation of quite modest hospital units and boarding schools serving quite substantial areas. (As an aside, the Masai tribes in East Africa, where I once worked, were very intent on not compromising their nomadic lifestyle and had schools and hospitals built around the fringes of their tribal lands, so the concept is a credible one, dependent only on the economics).
  5. I have made the point before that the great advantage of trains is that they have the possibility of carrying their own power. As envisaged by David, his vehicles will be powered by electricity from rails in a conventional manner. Unfortunately, there is considerable absorption of power in simply conducting the electricity in areas far removed from the urban grids. However, the concept is capable of using a variety of electricity-based or hybrid power schemes, providing a high degree of adaptability to meet specific circumstances in remote areas. For instance, hybrid motors using diesel fuel, petrol or biofuel can be used to recharge batteries. Also, where it is inconvenient to adopt power rails over the entire length of a journey, they could be used in sections where they are close to local community power stations (hopefully consisting of solar or geothermal equipment !)

All-in-all, the Monocab VRT Solution is an elegant and practical concept, with huge possibilities for adaptation to suit different circumstances (not to mention profitably satisfying a variety of commercial demands !). The submission made to the Department of Sustainability can be found at

http://www.environment.gov.au/sustainability/population/consultation/submissions.html

It is file 0271.pdf in a very long list.  A visit to the web site www.monocab.com should also prove very rewarding.

 

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Core Data Considerations.

1. TABLE CAPACITY REQUIREMENTS.

If, as I have suggested, we set the size of our basic land units (BLUs) at about 1 sq. km., we will require about 8 million records. The actual size of Australia is about 7,700,000 sq. km. (including Tasmania) according to the SBS World Guide. The additional records allow for the fact that some of the BLUs will extend over the sea and the amount of land area covered will be somewhat less than the sum of the BLUs.

For the child records, we could guess at about 20 structures of interest in each BLU, with each structure being defined by 4 chains and each chain containing 5 data points (i.e. 20 data points per structure).  This would require 160 million Structure records, 640 million Chain records and about 3.2 billion Data Point records. The bulkiest data items are the GPS co-ordinates.  These will be discussed in more detail later, but one would imagine that about 128 characters each would suffice for a first estimate. The BLU table would require 4 sets of GPS co-ordinates, or 0.5 Kbyte in total. Allowing another 0.5 Kbyte (512 characters) for descriptive data, each BLU record will be 1 Kbyte, giving a table size of 8 Gbytes.  The Structure records only contain pointers to data points, but there could be more elaborate descriptive data. If we allow 0.5 Kbytes per record, say, the size of the Structures table would approximate to 80 Gbytes. The same arguments apply to the Chain and Data Point tables, so allowing 0.5 kbytes per record in each, the storage requirements would be respectively 320 Gbytes and 1.6 TBytes respectively.

Indexing needs are very hard to evaluate and often add up to several times the amount of data actually stored, but when one notes that many household PCs have internal disk capacities of the order of 1 Tbyte (i.e. 1,000 Gbytes), to which can be added multiple external disks of 1 Tbyte each, it can be seen that the core database is of very modest proportions in the context of the work to be done.  This is actually quite important, because when searches are conducted for project materials stored in a multiplicity of other databases and all the links are managed through the core database, its’ compactness and efficiency  will have a significant impact on the analytical work in hand.

In the post on database design, some other tables were mentioned, listing the users and projects which were utilizing our database. It is suggested for reasons of security and confidentiality, this information should be stored in a separate database, linked to the core database through the various RID keys.

2. GPS RECORDS.

There are a number of GPS formats in use. Two of them use variants of the usual degree/minute/second co-ordinate system. A third, the Universal Transverse Mercator format, uses the grid lines drawn on maps. Being dependent upon external data, it is not appropriate for the current proposal. The two degree/minute/second formats vary only in that the first uses three separate numbers for each co-ordinate, while the second uses only two. These are degrees and minutes, with the seconds being incorporated as a decimal fraction in the minute value.

Because it is intended that the core database will be accessible to the maximum number of users, the version to be used should be that mounted in the largest number of GPS locator types and mobile telephone brands.

A GPS record consists of three data segments. The first consists of a number and a character string. These are respectively, the Waypoint Number and the Waypoint Name, which are identifiers for the GPS point. The second segment contains the letter N or S, indicating whether the point under consideration is north or south of the equator. It is followed by the latitude in degrees, minutes and seconds or degrees and decimal minutes. The third contains the letter W, indicating that the point is somewhere to the west of the datum line which runs north and south through the observatory in Greenwich, England. It is likewise followed by the longitude in the same format used for the latitude. The limits on the latitudes are 0 and 90 degrees, respectively north and south. The limits on the longitude are 0 and 360 degrees.

3. CORE DATA CAPTURE.

It is anticipated that the detailed physical topography will initially be obtained by processing satellite imagery.  Such power of procedures may in the near future be significantly enhanced by the use of circular polarized light.  This possibility was raised in a recent Catalyst programme on the ABC, which was examining the eyesight of various creatures which used this technology to view their surroundings in quite extraordinary detail. The commentator suggested that it should be possible to construct cameras which in effect mimic the actions of their eyes.

Places of particular interest or which are accorded a marginal status could be examined by flying over them with cameras and measuring instruments or by site visits.  Back in the 1960s, I was employed on the design of a section of the W.A. Standard Gauge Railway Project and needed to identify catchment areas for drainage purposes.  At that time, the area of interest had not been covered by the Ordnance Survey authorities, so we had to do our own assessment.  We hired a helicopter and flew low over the ground until we could identify a high point as the boundary of the catchment area. We would land and determine the point’s height above sea level (in order to calculate the gradient of the water flow) from the helicopter’s altimeter. Once we had identified one point, we could follow the ridge around the perimeter of the basin, taking measurements as required.  While crude, this procedure was perfectly adequate for our purpose and took surprisingly little time.

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Some Database Considerations.

1. INTRODUCTION.

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!).

2. CORE DATABASE STRUCTURE.

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.

3. MANAGEMENT OF THE CORE DATABASE.

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.

4. THE LAND USAGE AND SUSTAINABLE POPULATION RESEARCH PROJECT.

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).

5. CONCLUSION.

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.

6. AFTERTHOUGHTS.

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”!

1. INTRODUCTION

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.

2. HOUSING COSTS AND PRESSURES.

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.

3. REDUCTION OF MARKET PRESSURES.

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.

4. HIGHER DENSITY DEVELOPMENT.

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 !

5. SUBDIVISION.

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).

6. PUBLIC TRANSPORT.

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.

7.   HOUSE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION.

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 (http://www.huf-haus.com/en/home.html) 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!).

8.   HOUSE FEATURES.

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 (http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/pure-genius/-8216smart-8217-windows-in-the-works/6002?tag=search-river) 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.

http://www.swanbuild.com.au/

http://www.zenarchitects.com/

http://www.informdesign.com.au/home

http://www.prebuilt.com.au/

http://www.eliteoffices.com.au/index.html

http://www.imagedesignerhomes.com/

http://www.klmodular.com.au/

http://www.modscape.com.au/?gclid=CMT284Hz5qgCFQHhbgodHl8fCQ

Overseas builders of prefabricated housing, etc.

http://qdxgzex.en.made-in-china.com/

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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:

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/its-time-for-us-to-have-our-own-eye-in-the-sky-20110112-19o68.html

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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