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Ideas, Progress & the Future

Still fighting for climate change resilience: UC’s Professor Emerita launches new book

Professor Emerita Barbara Norman is a trusted expert on urban and regional planning and climate change adaptation and resilience – she’s spent over 40 years working in industry, policy, and research. She has written two books on climate change and planning, with her most recent work, Urban Planning for Climate Change, to be officially launched this month at Parliament House.

Barbara’s latest book follows on from her first, Sustainable Pathways for our Cities and Regions: Planning within Planetary Boundaries. Also launched at Parliament House by then Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development Anthony Albanese, it focused on climate change and urban and regional planning on a global scale.

Her latest book focuses more on what communities and countries can do now – from an urban and regional planning lens – so that they are more resilient to climate change.

“There’s been a lot of work on targets and energy infrastructure, and we need to translate those targets into impactful actions across infrastructure, policy and planning. There hasn’t been as much progress in the built environment for meeting our targets and adapting to climate change, so I wanted this book to focus on the ‘how’ for planners, policymakers, community leaders, academics and students,” Barbara says.

The book also follows on from the 2019-20 Black Summer Bushfires, which claimed her family’s holiday home and cottage in Mallacoota, where she had spent her summer holidays since she was eight years old. Losing the cottage her mother had built added a very personal heartbreak to the larger climate crisis.

“My brother now owns the property, and is planning to rebuild. The area is regenerating well, which is a source of healing for us too,” she says.

The cover of her latest book features a photo of the bushfires approaching Canberra in 2020, which may bring back memories of poor air quality and a sense of foreboding for some. It was shot by local suburban wildlife photographer David Flannery.

Barbara proposes 10 essential actions for urban planning for climate change, drawing on her extensive experience in research, policy and industry, with the hope they form a helpful starting point for planners. The actions include taking a holistic approach to planning, rather than addressing one issue at a time; incorporating nature-based solutions; collaboration between emergency management, climate scientists, urban planners and communities to co-design and develop climate resilient plans; and incorporating Indigenous knowledge.

Over the course of her career, she has seen a shift in the importance and value of urban and regional planning from governments and industry.

Urban planning was seen as ‘big planning’ in the 1970s, with the Whitlam Government funding urban renewal and servicing of new urban housing developments – but pressures to cut red tape and speed up developments have since devalued the role of urban and regional planning, favouring short-term benefits and commercial gain over long-term sustainability and security. With the climate crisis, Barbara is noticing a positive shift for planning, its value is becoming better articulated and prioritised internationally.

A long-term advocate of action on climate change, Barbara says that the concerns she raised 20 years ago made headlines, and she was seen as a climate extremist.

“A lot has changed,” she says. “The community certainly understands the climate crisis now – we’re seeing the impacts of climate change in our communities with extreme weather events, coral bleaching, flooding and such, so governments are playing catch-up. Hopefully now is the time we act on the advice we have, to prevent major catastrophes.”

Barbara recently transitioned to a Professor Emeriti position, retiring from her role as Chair and Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at UC after nearly 13 years, but continuing to support the University and contribute to the field of climate change and planning in a different capacity.

Reflecting on her career at UC, she’s very proud of helping outstanding graduates grow, and forming and leading impactful research and advisory groups and organisations such as Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF) and UC’s Climate Change and Adaptation Resilience Research Network (CCARRN).

Many of her former urban planning students now work at all levels of government, in industry and with communities.

“I am confident they will be significant leaders and contribute to creating a more sustainable future for all.”

CURF (the Canberra Urban and Regional Futures) has provided outreach to Canberra and the region’s communities on critical issues like sustainable development, transport, resilience, climate change adaptation and more over the past 10 years.

“CURF came to a natural conclusion with funding completion and people moving on, but I won’t be surprised to see an equivalent organisation or group emerge again soon, to meet an important need to connect the University with the Australian Capital Region. I was also delighted to initiate CCARRN at the University and leave it in very good hands with Professor Jacki Schirmer for ongoing climate change research and teaching at UC,” she says.

“I’m always happy to give back – mentoring, teaching and training others."

"I see my professional future as providing strategic advice to both the public and private sectors, including boards and wider international engagement, particularly in our region, connecting the global to the local. I’d like to thank UC for having me as a professor and for the honour to continue as a Professor Emerita.”

Committed to service, Barbara continues to volunteer her time and expertise to local and global climate change advisory organisations, including the United Nations’ Planners for Climate Action, Columbia University’s Urban Climate Change Research Network (leading the Australian Oceania Hub), and more.

Her next appointments (commencing late 2022) include a two-year advisory appointment with the government of Singapore, and a role as Chair of the Commonwealth Awards for Planning. She will also take over as Chair of the Australian Coastal Society in 2023, continuing a long-time commitment to sustainable coastal futures.

“I’m always thinking of solutions and I’m grateful to continue working in a field I’m passionate about.”

Words by Kailey Tonini, photos by Tyler Cherry.

Barbara’s new book, Urban Planning for Climate Change, is now available for purchase.

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