Current Issue #488

City of Firsts: Adelaide's Unique Climate Change Opportunity

City of Firsts: Adelaide's Unique Climate Change Opportunity

Adelaide, a city of firsts, is the perfect place to show the world how cities can respond to climate change through experimentation.

How do we build a city that prospers? A prosperous city needs sustainable social, political, cultural and economic foundations.

Only by looking to these pillars can we give life to our cities for years to come. South Australia’s mounting economic crisis is the local experience of global uncertainty. Our traditional industries are in decline and under pressure to transform.

As part of a new normal where our systems are at the mercy of global forces, politics has largely failed to find solutions; as a result, prosperity has escaped many and could elude many more. A number of factors of social, political and cultural origin are at play, but they can only be dealt with successfully by also tackling the greatest threat facing the world – climate change.

As much as it threatens the security of our future, climate change also holds opportunities for Adelaide to showcase its global potential for sustainable adaptive solutions to it. This potential to cultivate new ideas is written in Adelaide’s history of bold experimentation.

climate-change-unique-opprtunity-adelaide-reviewGreen walls are currently being trialled and implemented across the CBD

Adelaide, a city of firsts, is the perfect place to show the world how cities can respond to climate change through experimentation. The city itself was founded as an experiment to build a free, progressive society in a deliberately designed urban form. Our industries and capabilities for economic renewal demonstrate a proud tradition of firsts.

Australia’s first innovation district now grows with activity and economic importance at Tonsley, incubating possibilities for Adelaide’s competitive place in the global knowledge economy. Such transformations could not be possible without the antecedents for industrialisation found in the post-war construction of Elizabeth and the state’s manufacturing industrialisation – at the time an urban experimental first in Australia.


At the social level, South Australia legislated the right of women to vote more than one hundred years ago, decriminalised homosexuality before any other Australian jurisdiction, produced the nation’s first female Prime Minister and its first astronaut.

Australia’s oldest mosque resides in a socially and culturally diverse CBD neighbourhood, emblematic of Adelaide’s long multicultural history. Research into Adelaide residents’ happiness begun by SAHMRI in 2016 represents a world-first experiment in how we might develop better-targeted social policies. On this firm foundation of firsts, Adelaide has applied its flair for the experimental in tackling the causes and effects of climate change.

Adelaide residents and visitors alike can ride the world’s first solar-powered bus, Tindo, around the city. We’ve showcased the potential for a sustainable urban future in Australia’s first zero-carbon house, and ongoing carbon-neutral infrastructure evaluation projects further demonstrate our interest in sustainable urban living. Adelaide stands at the forefront of action on climate change, having cultivated our renewable energy sector over the past decade and recently taking up the challenge to make Adelaide the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2050.

climate-change-unique-opprtunity-adelaide-reviewAdelaide’s Tindo bus is the world’s first fully solar-powered public transport

Success in addressing climate change will act as a beacon for the state’s sustainable energy transformation, influencing policy and decision-makers to take further steps toward our transition away from fossil fuels. The potential to transform Pt Augusta’s coal-fired power station into a solar-thermal farm stands out as the greatest opportunity in this regard to transform our economy, society and environment.

Yet it seems Adelaide is known better for our failures. The stories of experimental success mentioned above have not occurred without numerous failures running in parallel – the abandoned multi-function polis and completed one-way expressways; failure to invest earlier in electric railways and not thoroughly planning for a future without a mining boom.

climate-change-unique-opprtunity-adelaide-reviewThe Park Lands provide a unique green space and carbon-absorbing buffer to the city.

One clear factor that influences a stronger perception of Adelaide’s failures is the economic uncertainty obscuring our vision of the future. We cannot return to comparable levels of post-war prosperity without undergoing massive economic transformation. But that transformation will begin with the experiments in climate change adaptation happening here right now, such as government incentives for architects and planners to innovate green building and infrastructure design, and cross-sector collaboration on strategic industrial transformation to a low-carbon economy.

Testing the world’s first driverless car has created the potential for Adelaide’s ongoing role in a future electric automotive industry, and engaging expert panels and boards to advise government is an innovative way to make these initiatives possible through sophisticated modern policy.

Local designers like Oxigen, responsible for much of the Tonsley Precinct’s renewal, will be instrumental in Adelaide’s experimentation going forward.

These experimental initiatives can benefit from our unique urban form – our carbon-absorbing parklands, public spaces, progressive democratic reforms and design innovations. Experimental urban form, political processes and close-knit social ties are key ingredients to developing climate change resilience.

Where our history shows that Adelaide has, and remains, a world leader in experimentation, it is a city with global potential to meet the challenges of climate change.

It’s time that we celebrate the way bold ideas have always defined us, harness our reputation as a city of firsts, and use it to build the sustainable and prosperous future we all want.

Mark Dean is a PhD candidate in Political Economy at The University of Adelaide and a Board Member of the Australian Institute for Urban Studies – SA Branch (AIUS-SA)

Photos: Courtesy Adelaide City Council

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