The Future History of Adelaide: Culture & Communication

Sharon Ede
10 min readJan 13, 2024

This ‘future history’ of Adelaide was based on ‘Los Angeles: A History of the Future’ (1982) by Paul Glover, and is written from the year 2136. It examines how Adelaide became an ‘ecopolis’ — an ecological city — over 150 years, reversing the damage done to the region since European colonisation began in 1836. At the time, there was a proposal for a ‘piece of ecocity’ in Halifax Street, whose features and design principles are referenced as the first fractal of this change. This larger scale proposal did not eventuate, but a smaller scale exemplar, Christie Walk, can be found in the CBD at 105 Sturt Street, Adelaide.

This was written in 1995 at university, as a directed study for history, and reflects my thinking, understanding, available technologies and references at the time. The Ecological Crisis of the 1990s is referred to as ‘EC’ and phrases like ‘200 years EC’ mean 200 years after this Crisis.

Prior to EC, ‘communication’ was often linked with ‘transport’. At the time this was logical, because the only way to overcome Australia’s ‘tyranny of distance’ was through communications technology. As this improved from the slow voyage of sea mail to the telegraph, telephone, satellite TV and e-mail, we began to realise that what had been defined as ‘communication’ was merely the technology — the means. The content of what we were communicating was our culture.’

What is culture? Almost every individual would have a different definition. The most important thing to recognise, though, is that ‘culture’ is not something you have to go to the theatre to experience. ‘Culture’ is the way we relate to each other and our environs, based on our beliefs and value systems.

The culture of the Kaurna was manifested in every aspect of life through the Dreaming. Up until EC the second culture of Adelaide, and Western societies in general, tended to equate ‘culture’ with the arts — which is simply one of the forms of culture — and demanded ‘value-free’ judgements on which to base decisions — which was a strange idea because it did not acknowledge that everyone has their own values and ways of seeing things as a result of each individual’s unique life (ie. cultural) experiences.

The European immigrants of 1836, because of their cultural filters, could not ‘see’ an Aboriginal culture or economy. The culture of the Kaurna was not understood and dismissed as primitive. In the eyes of the settlers, the land needed to be developed and tamed. Little effort was made to understand the Kaurna culture or the new land, which explains why in the early years of the colony, settlers starved for want of their familiar foods without even considering the bountiful food supplies the Kaurna had subsisted on for millennia (Ed Dept SA, 1989 p127). The Europeans set about creating a society, an economy — a culture — which was almost completely divorced from the reality of the place in which they found themselves. It was not until EC that the term ‘Tandanya Bioregion’ came into use.

The Culture of Cities

Stranger things happened once the city of Adelaide began to dominate the Adelaide Plains. The culture of Adelaide at this time is very much the culture of Australian cities. Originally, it had been the land which was seen as hostile; but by the late 1800s, the cultural climate in Australia had changed. In the 1880s the Heidelberg school of painters, who accurately depicted and celebrated the Australian landscape, emerged in Victoria. The Bulletin school of writers, such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, also emerged at this time. The split of city/bush was thoroughly entrenched, but now it was city life which was ‘bad’. Paterson’s ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ is an obvious example, illustrating that ‘…the struggle against nature is giving way to a struggle against the urban environment made wholly by man himself.’ (Williams, 1974 p476).

This attitude had profound implications for Adelaide, the only major urban area which dominated South Australia. It was almost as if, in the collective subconscious, an ‘anti-city’ movement emerged. People abandoned an urbane life for the suburbs where ‘…the suburbanite had the advantages of neither society nor solitude.’ (Mumford, 1961 p559).

The Car Cult

If, as David Engwicht says, the city is all about ‘access to exchange’, why did we allow Adelaide to sprawl over 90km from north to south by EC times? What kind of culture was it which designed a city around the car ? The impact of the car on city life was grossly underestimated even during EC times when the State government proposed yet another freeway! What was life like in Adelaide in a car-dominated culture? It is hard for us to imagine now, with our higher density, walkable centres linked by light rail.

Spontaneous ‘exchange’ was greatly diminished in a society where trips had to be planned and carried out using a car. People simply didn’t bump into each other or make the casual contact necessary to building and maintaining a community. Streets became dangerous for children once they became movement spaces for cars instead of places. TV shows like ‘Sesame Street’ became the substitute ‘…where children play safely and go exploring in a street where there is exciting interchange between friendly neighbours…’ (Engwicht, 1992 p48).

Increasing levels of traffic bisected and killed community life. An interesting physical and psychological study was done on this phenomenon in San Francisco in 1970 (Appleyard in Engwicht, 1992 pp48–49).

The level of traffic in a street had a direct impact on contact between the residents of a street:

The physical reality of street life impacted on the residents’ sense of ‘home territory’, with big implications for the sense of community in a street.

People were isolated in their cars and not on the street. The biggest deterrent to crime is eyes on the street, but the logical response to the fear of crime in the car dominated city was to take the car — it was safer…

Once you get past the middle ring of most Australian cities to where the bulk of the population lives, you notice a change in the landscape; its flat and a carpet of evenly spaced red roofs rolls away to the horizon. As one young person commented, ‘This is Mad Max territory. People drive around in cars all day and massacre each other in shopping malls.’ The urban form, lacking variation and thin on the ground with commercial centres or recreational facilities, precipitates a crisis in urban culture.

(Collins, 1993 p124).

The over reliance on the car was one factor which caused the atomisation of the city. Another was the preference for the detached house on a large block of land, the ultimate grasp at individualism.

The Cult of the Individual

Suburbia was the collective manifestation of the Great Australian Dream, but urban Australians — including Adelaideans — failed to understand that people did not live in their Dreams mutually exclusive from others in their Dreams. The collective city, driven by the uncoordinated actions of individuals, began to suffer. During EC, Stevens (1992 p10) pointed this out:

Winding streets and cul-de-sacs designed to exclude traffic only heighten isolation. Large houses are sparsely occupied — private castles in an urban desert…Housewives suffer loneliness and depression. Bored kids rely on being driven to their activities.

Even in the middle of Adelaide, the situation was no better. The city had become a place to work and a place for business, not a place to live. The urban form itself mitigated against any form of community:

As a city dweller with a young family I have often felt isolated…I have no neighbours who I could see socially throughout the day…It seems crazy to me that if I want to take the children to a playground we have to get the car (from a 24 hour carpark and drive to a playground).

(Lord in City Messenger, 1995)

During EC, there were moves made to entice people back to living in the city, but none of the developments provided any means for rebuilding the spirit of community which had been lost. The Halifax EcoCity Project of EC times was the first development which actively engaged residents in the creation and management of their living space through Potential Residents’ Meetings and Barefoot Architecture Programs. These methods, in the various guises we find them today, now seem second nature to us, but at the time the ‘mainstream’ could not comprehend involving people in the design of the places where they lived!

Just as our environment suffered due to its then lowly status as the commons, so the focus on individual property and space caused the quality of common space to be eroded. Van der Ryan & Calthorpe (in Engwicht, 1992 pp134–135) explained how the emphasis on the private at the expense of the public accelerated the decay of urban culture:

..our public space lacks identity and is largely anonymous, while our private space strains towards a narcissistic autonomy. Our cities and communities are zoned black and white, private or public, my space or nobody’s space…Inversely, private space is strained by the physical need to provide for many activities which were once shared, and is further burdened by needs to create some identity in a surrounding sea of monotony.

With the new potential for unparalleled ownership and seemingly endless wealth, the private domain has quickly overtaken many of the functions of the public realm. Transportation moved from rail to car. Recreation moved from park to yard. Entertainment moved from circus to TV…Childcare moved from neighbourhood and extended family to nuclear family. And commerce moved from the public street to the private mall.’

The focus on the individual, the private, in what was an obviously collective environment, the city, was a very peculiar feature of EC urban culture in Australian (and other Western cities). This expropriation of public space for private use was evident in the ‘mall’ culture of EC times:

Vast shopping towns have replaced the old village square for grans, gangs, the lonely and bored…(there are) mall junkies spending days in dazed isolation among the shopping throngs.

(Haran, 1994)

The mall became a social focus after the displacement of independent shops and street based markets, but only during management’s opening hours. There was almost always a cost to enter private space which had previously been accessible, free, to the public at any time. Teenagers with nowhere to congregate away from home used to ‘hang out’ at such malls, but they were quickly moved on by security guards. Their disposable income was often low, and gangs of young people frightened other shoppers.

In addition, people became largely passive rather than active participants in the culture of this time. ‘Culture’ was something provided for you by someone else, whether it was TV or a rock concert. Collins (1993 p132), writing during EC, was scathing in his assessment:

It’s a culture that lacks creativity, that encourages lounge room sloth, where escapist TV fantasies get lost in an alcoholic stupor before they get to the end. Even the backyards are barren and unused. There are no facilities or venues for participation in creative processes. Only shopping malls and video stores.

During EC, there was an emerging trend towards ‘cyber reality’ — life via the PC and the Internet was touted as the way of the future. Eventually, after the novelty wore off, people realised again that this technological advance was only the means to an end. People still needed flesh and blood people, and the spontaneous, unexpected events of life which the computer — like the car — could not replace. In our times, both have been placed in their rightful positions — as the tools, not the masters, of urban culture.

Rediscovering Our Place

All in all, the urban culture which permeated Adelaide and other Australian cities was confused up until EC. We were never quite sure whether the city was a positive place to be, and we had never really reconciled our cities with their respective places. Our culture had become globalised as improved communications technology ‘shrunk’ time and space, and while this brought many benefits, it distracted us and blurred the connection between ourselves and the place where we lived.

The very first piece of ecological city, the Halifax EcoCity Project, was built in Adelaide during EC and for the first time provided us with a positive example of city making. The EcoCity reaffirmed the reason’s for the city’s existence by abandoning the car culture and the cult of the individual in favour of a genuine urban community life, thus reclaiming the commons as a necessary and valuable part of urban living. This enabled a wealth of ‘exchange’ opportunities, and provided urban dwellers with the chance to live as creative participants in an urban culture.

Linking this society with the realities of our place in the Tandanya Bioregion — not in Britain or the United States — has allowed us to develop a culture which recognises that our city and its region is an interdependent, co-evolving system. Our dwellings now respond to our physical environs. We are familiar with names like Tjilbruke. We are participants in the global village, but we have retained unique features of the cultures of the Tandanya Bioregion.

At long last, we have a culture with psychological roots in the place where it exists, where people can easily communicate and where people have a sense of purpose and belonging — just like Adelaide’s first culture, the Kaurna.


Messenger Press (1995) ‘City isolation’ (Letter to the Editor) City Messenger (9/8/95).

Collins, Tony (1993) Living For The City. ABC Books, Sydney.

Education Department of South Australia (1989) The Kaurna: Aboriginal People of the Adelaide Plains. Education Dept of SA, Adelaide.

Engwicht, David (1992) Towards an EcoCity: Calming the Traffic. Envirobooks, Sydney.

Haran, Peter (1994) ‘Mall junkies’ Sunday Mail, 11/9/94.

Mumford, Lewis (1961) The City in History. Penguin, London.

Stevens, John (1992) ‘Compact neighbourhoods: addressing urban sprawl’. Habitat Australia (November). Australian Conservation Foundation, Sydney.

Williams, Michael (1974) The Making of the South Australian Landscape. Academic Press, London.



Sharon Ede

Regenerative Cities Activist | Circular Economy Catalyst | South Australian Government | Award Winning Author | |