The Future History of Adelaide: Governance & Political Organisation

Sharon Ede
11 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.

Image by Paul Downton, architect of the Halifax EcoCity Project and Christie Walk

A Sense of Place — The Tandanya Bioregion This panel introduced the concept of the bioregion to many people in South Australia and was reprinted in the ACF ‘Habitat’ journal later in 1991 as part of an extensively illustrated article on the Ecopolis idea. This may be the first image of the bioregion of the Adelaide Plains and first published presentation of the region as a place defined by indigenous people, linked to an ecological perspective. Kaurna people confirmed the general veracity of the bioregional boundary which, it is important to note, extends into the waters of the Gulf of St Vincent.

In traditional Kaurna society, governance and political organisation was determined by the Dreaming. Leadership was shared by elders, men and women, and there were no ‘kings’ or autocrats, which greatly baffled the incoming Europeans who were keen to bestow titles on one person. Law was a basic moral code which was supplemented by greatly detailed local law (Ed Dept SA, 1989 p53).

Once the European-imported systems of law and government were brought to the Tandanya Bioregion, the two systems clashed. The Kaurna were punished by European law for lighting fires, for example, but this was not punishable under Kaurna Law — firestick farming was a means of flushing out game and encouraging new grasses to grow (Ed Dept SA, 1989 p157). The nature of law in each system itself meant that the two were irreconcilable:

Kaurna Law…was given to the people by Dreaming ancestors and could not be changed… British law changed regularly, and this would have been difficult for the Kaurna to understand.

(Ed Dept SA, 1989 p157)

The Kaurna Law came off second best from this clash, and suffered further when the people were forced to move from the land with which their Law was intricately bound. The ‘borders’ of the Kaurna territory and that of their neighbours like the Permangk people were defined by natural features (such as the Adelaide Hills) rather than the arbitrary political lines drawn up by the Europeans.

Responsible Government & Party Games

Initially, the colony of South Australia was placed under a governor appointed by the Crown, and a body of commissioners who were to finance the venture, organising loans and land sales. George Angas later formed the South Australian Company which invested in and ‘kickstarted’ the colony (Scott, 1950 pp149–150). The first city council was elected in 1840 (Whitelock, 1985a p63). Self-government was granted in 1857, and South Australia adopted a derivation of Britain’s Westminster system. The Legislative Council was roughly equivalent to the House of Lords, and the House of Representatives is a close relative of the House of Commons.

Adelaide had come of age. It had attained self government both through parliament and municipal council. Tutelage and control from Government House had ended….with reforms like…manhood suffrage and the secret ballot, South Australians had achieved, with little if any of the attendant dogma and suffering, many of the aims for which the British Chartists had so bitterly and fruitlessly struggled.

(Whitelock, 1985a p76)

Women, of course, were not allowed to vote until 1894 — but South Australia was the second place in the world where women were given the vote, after New Zealand. The party political system in South Australia usually reflected the situation at the Federal level after Federation in 1901. The main problem with party politics was that it did not easily adjust to the needs of ecological development. Shaping ecological cities requires the input and inclusion of everybody and party politics, by its nature, excluded those groups and sectors of the community which lay outside its agenda.

The system of party politics became outdated into the 21st century, and increasingly unable to respond to the needs of people at a local level — to whom party politics had become irrelevant.

Ruling Lines, Mental and Physical

Electoral boundaries within SA were drawn on the principle that ‘…among the population of each electoral district a community of interest exists…’ (ABS, 1995 p78). It was never assumed, however, that a community of interest existed which related directly to the surrounding environs! This seems so patently obvious to us today, but at the time it was as if people thought cities simply perched on top of the landscape instead of behaving as a part of it.

By EC times, the historically arbitrary way in which South Australians had related to their environs was being challenged:

Government portfolios slice up the political landscape in the same way that political boundaries slice up the living landscape — with similar results of alienation, disconnectedness and dis-integration where INTEGRATION is the key.

(Downton, 1994b)

The first Department of Environment & Conservation was introduced by the progressive Dunstan government of the 1970s (Whitelock, 1985a p146), but it took decades for the notion to filter through that the ‘environment’ could not be ruled off from other portfolios as a separate concern. The narrow definition of what constituted ‘environmental’ issues, coupled with dealing with these issues at the ‘end point’ instead of the source (eg. pressing for catalytic converters on cars instead of questioning the urban form and the car culture itself) was eventually abandoned once the concept of ecological development began to be understood by both government and the wider community.

Nation-State to City & Region

By the late 20th century, it was becoming apparent that ‘…a nation’s borders (were) increasingly porous affairs.’ (Myers, 1990 p84). Transnational corporations called the economic shots. The interdependence of the world environment and economy placed enormous stress on the nation-state system.

Globalisation and international trade are putting serious pressure on governments everywhere, causing (a) leading Japanese commentator…to confidently predict the demise of national and state governments and the emergence of regions and city states.

(Lennon, 1995)

State governments began to feel the same effects, including the move toward regions. These regions, however, related more to economic concerns (and human culture to an extent) than to the reality of the physical environment. During EC, Chapman (1995) defended the role of State government against the move toward regions (albeit economic regions) arguing that such regions ‘…have a near random relation to state government borders…’ and that ‘…a reorganisation based purely on efficiency (would result in) Adelaide’s domination of regions with its gravitational pull and the effective disenfranchisement of regional SA.’

While he may have had a valid argument, this was because the regional system would have simply been laying a new pattern over the old system. No concept of bioregions or development of autonomous city-regions — in other words, an overhaul of the whole process of creating and shaping cities — was included in the debate. The fact that the disputed economic regions bore no relation to State government borders was irrelevant, because State government borders during EC bore no relation to the reality of the physical environs and the human ecology!

At the same time, Lennon (1995) predicted that city-state governments would be the way to govern in the 21st century: ‘City state economies have one government for a metropolitan region.’

There was a fatal flaw in this line of reasoning, however, as city-states which focus solely on the city fail to include their local region — without which the city could not exist — in the equation. Cities and regions are coevolving systems, each dependent on the other for survival. It was not until the focus shifted to the city and its region, its bioregion, that Adelaide began to move towards a framework of governance which supported ecological cities and ecological development.

Biological Regions & Tandanya

The big question during EC was ‘What exactly is a bioregion?’ The term was popularised by Peter Berg of the Planet Drum Foundation in San Francisco, and is ‘…a unifying principle celebrating cultural and biological diversity and…an ecological politics of ‘living-in-place’…’ (Eckersley, 1992 p34).

Bioregions are areas having common geographic characteristics such as soils, watersheds, climate, native plants and animals, and common human cultures.

Bioregionalists seek the integration of human communities with the non human world at the level of the particular ecosystem through the practice of ‘reinhabitation’ or learning to live in-place.

(Eckersley, 1992 p34)

Ecological development and ecological city making required a decentralised, autonomous form of government, as local responses were required quickly for local problems and issues. The apparatus of party politics, centralised in comparison, began to seem more and more like a straitjacket. During EC, Peter Berg (1991 p32) argued that:

…people haven’t been able to fully express their priorities for the fate of the human species and the planetary biosphere (because)…political structures have become welded to the industrial direction of society.’

The Adelaide area became known as the Tandanya Bioregion after the term was introduced during EC. A coalition of Adelaide’s universities adopted the name — meaning ‘place of the red kangaroo’ (also the name of the Tandanya Cultural Institute) — soon after, calling themselves ‘Universities of the Tandanya Bioregion’. Bioregionalism embraces the virtues of human scale communities, local autonomy, decentralisation, self sufficiency and co-operation (Eckersley, 1992 p34). The Murray-Darling Commission of the 20th century was an early form of ‘macro-bioregionalism’; this evolved from the need for intergovernmental co-operation concerning Australia’s only major river system, which had previously been subject to several sets of State government laws, not to mention Federal government jurisdiction!

There were some issues which needed to be resolved about governance via bioregions, as Eckersley (1992 p36) pointed out:

…linguistic, religious and cultural boundaries do not necessarily follow geographic contours.

This was certainly true during the initial stages of bioregionalism, however bioregions were defined to include human demographics. In addition, as we began to relate to and respond to our local bioregion, these inconsistencies began to disappear over time. It was some time into the 21st century before the transition to bioregions was in full swing because communities had to have ‘ appropriate social and ecological consciousness…’ in order for governance by bioregions to succeed (Eckersley, 1992 p36).

Other issues included equality and co-operation between bioregions (eg. where one area had greater riches in terms of resources and infrastructure than others). Again, the understanding and education necessary to govern via a system of bioregions was a prerequisite. The interdependence of regions had to be recognised, just as the interdependence of politics, economics and the planetary environment — which gave rise to EC in the first place — had to be understood in order that people would act willingly, knowing that their well being depended on everyone else, and vice versa.

Bioregional thinking has rekindled the value of (a) sense of place, and has alerted people to the extent of their impacts on nature.

(Register, 1987 p7)

Despite some kinks which needed ironing out, bioregional governance has given us back our sense of place, our identity, our ability to take action at a local level and a means of repairing the damage done to the planet. This form of governance was only able to manifest once democratic societies became truly democratic and participatory.

Passive Democrat, Active Democrat

One of the most disturbing factors about Australia as a whole during EC — besides the fact that people were compelled to take up their democratic right to vote — was the political apathy of the people. Because the right to vote had not been fought for and won in bloodshed, coupled with the barely concealed contempt the populace had for politicians, Australians took their democratic system for granted. The very low turnouts for council elections, where voting was not compulsory, illustrates the general attitude.

The apathy of the people, however, was probably a product of the people’s lack of faith in their elected members, their cynicism and distrust fuelled by the feeling that party politics had not responded to their needs. David Engwicht, determined to stop a freeway being built through his Brisbane suburb, discovered the widespread feeling of helplessness first hand after doorknocking for support in his local community where he was told without exception:

‘Once the government makes up its mind to do something there is nothing you can do to stop it.’ (This is)…indicative of an overwhelming feeling of loss of control throughout the whole of society.

(Engwicht, 1992 p68)

Paradoxically, people who were largely indifferent or apathetic about governments and politics often expected the government to solve every problem which arose. Without realising it Australians had ceded their power, that treasured feature of the Australian character — self reliance — for the privilege of electing people in a process which operated over and above them once the elections were over.

The shaping of Australian cities thus progressed largely without the input of the people who lived there. Planning was almost entirely undertaken by white, middle class males up until EC, while the needs of women, the elderly, youth, people from ethnic backgrounds and people from lower socio-economic areas failed to make it onto the planning agenda.

During EC, Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) advised the State Government to overhaul the ACC electoral roll ‘…to remove ‘discrimination’ against commercial voters…(and) ‘residential thinking’ has ‘unfortunately had far too much influence on ACC decisions’.’ (James, 1995).

This was an interesting assessment of the situation at the time. Commercial voters had as many votes as they had properties (owned or rented), while residents typically had one vote only (Hoyle, 1995). Despite the fact that the City of Adelaide was the capital of the state, effectively representing all metropolitan and rural constituents, only property-owning or commercially renting people within the local government area had a say about what happened in this area. BOMA’s attempt to doctor the power structure of governance within the city was underpinned by the assumption that the city should serve primarily as a commercial centre, and that residents should not participate in the governance of the city.

Access to increasingly faster means of communicating, such as faxes and computers, allowed people to become more active in what had loosely been known as a democratic society, although people also had to be aware of governments who became skilled at ‘…circumnavigating the choppy seas of democracy with the power of the mass media.’ (Downton, 1992 in Ioannou, 1992 p238).) The active democrat had begun to replace the passive democrat by EC times, through ‘Increased popular assertiveness at the grass-roots level…(with) citizen’s movements striving for fundamental change in key social, economic and political structures.’ (Klare, 1993). One of the manifestations of this phenomenon was the increasing popular support for bioregional governance which we enjoy today.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (1995) South Australian Yearbook, 1995. Government Printer, Adelaide.

Berg, Peter (1991) ‘More than just saving what’s left.’ Habitat Australia (April). Australian Conservation Foundation, Sydney.

Chapman, Paul (1995) ‘Defending the state.’ Adelaide Review (January).

Downton, Paul (1994b) ‘Urban Environment Issues’. Fact Sheet. Centre for Urban Ecology, Adelaide.

Eckersley, Robyn (1992) ‘Linking the parts to the whole.’ Habitat Australia (February). Australian Conservation Foundation, 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.

Ioannou, Noris (1992) Craft in Society: An Anthology of Perspectives. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, WA.

James, Colin (1995) ‘Push to ease city’s residential ‘burden’. The Advertiser, 6/6/95.

Lennon, Michael (1995) ‘Promoting ourselves as Adelaide city-state.’ City Messenger, 24/5/1995.

Myers, Norman (1990) The Gaia Atlas of Future Worlds. Robertson McCarta/Gaia Books, London.

Register, Richard (1987) Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.

Scott, Ernest (1950) A Short History of Australia (8th Edition). Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Whitelock, Derek (1985a) Adelaide: a Sense of Difference. Savvas Publishing, Adelaide.



Sharon Ede

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