The Future History of Adelaide: Land & Hinterland

Sharon Ede
14 min readJan 3, 2020

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.

Goyder’s Line, image from Wikipedia — the line demarcates cropping from grazing land, based on average annual rainfall

The Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains had completely different attitudes to the land of the Tandanya Bioregion than the newly arrived Europeans. To the Kaurna, the land was the basis of their entire societal structure — the land owned them, it was the life support system of the Kaurna.

To the Europeans, the land was a resource to be carved up and exploited. The land was also the life support system of the Europeans, but they became more and more psychologically distanced from this understanding. Even when the Europeans began to try to take care of the land, it was based on the idea that they were conserving it, when it was in fact the land which conserved them.

Land & Ownership

The military grid, which was planted on the Adelaide Plains as if the land was a blank canvas, set the precedent for the city of Adelaide to behave as if it was not a part of the existing environs. In South Australian surveying, the adherence to the grid pattern and the imposition of lines on the landscape which bore no relation to the reality of the land was so dogmatic and farcical that it prompted the editor of Borderwatch to produce the following satirical, mock-biblical piece:

And there was given unto these wise men chains and measures and staves and little flags…, and they went forth into the wilderness rejoicing greatly, and they measured the four quarters of the earth and all the surface thereof; but in straight lines only did they exercise their skill so that the earth became like unto a chess board. And the Governor saw that it was good. And it came to pass that as they measured the land only in straight lines, turning neither to the right nor to the left, lest their calculations should become disordered and themselves be lost; so did they mark out beautiful roads thirty cubits in width that went nowhere, others ran over perpendicular mountains or through impassable swamps, many went into deep watercourses or hideous caverns, and some did terminate in the depth of the ocean…and the people were exceedingly glad, but the working bullocks lifted up their voices and wept.

(Borderwatch, 1864 in Williams, 1974 p65, p108)

In order to own land, it was necessary to divide it up into such manageable parcels. But the very concept of owning land opened a can of environmental, economical social and political worms. Private property was protected by law, while the commons (air, water, etc) was up for grabs, to be used and abused at will. The perceived dichotomy between individual action and social consequence — that the actions of individuals were nobody else’s business — was challenged in the 1930s by the Principal of Roseworthy Agricultural College:

The land itself may be the temporary property of the individual but it represents the heritage and wealth of the State, and accordingly should be maintained in a progressive state of production and not be allowed to deteriorate through misguided systems of agriculture.

(in Williams, 1974 p307)

Williams cites this as a recognition that land was an asset to be held in trust for future generations, and while this appears to be the case, the motive is based on ‘wealth’ and ‘progressive…production’, not primarily concern for the environment. The line between what was private concern and what was public interest in terms of land became blurrier as time went on. During EC, Shann Turnbull (in Fisher, 1993 p15–16) pointed out the commonly accepted but bizarre situation caused by both the means of land ownership and the economic system:

Tax payers’ money is creating private wealth; paying money on water, sewerage, roads and other infrastructure services which increases the value of private plots of land. Now this is just ridiculous and outrageous! Creating new rules of land ownership was the only way of solving both environmental problems and socio-economic injustices, which had been created largely because of the methods of owning land. This way, ‘…any values added by the community can be captured and kept in the community…(and) you get a self-reinforcing economic incentive (for people to) contribute to the community infrastructure…’

The Halifax EcoCity Project was the first example of this ‘new’ type of land ownership in South Australia. Speaking during EC, Paul Downton (in Fisher, 1994 p11) stated that:

The Project proceeds from the philosophical proposition that you shouldn’t own the land, that land ownership is nonsense. Most cultures throughout recorded histories appeared to recognise that. No-one seriously suggests that you could take the land with you when you die…

Collective forms of land ‘ownership’ , such as Community Land Trusts, had been developed and used elsewhere. The Halifax EcoCity adopted a similar form of ‘ownership’ in that a community owned company ‘owned’ the land, but through this structure, individual ownership of land was prevented. Any activity undertaken on the site had to be considered with the effect on the community as a whole, and the value of any improvements made was captured and retained by the community.


The Tandanya Bioregion was well equipped with the resources required by the Europeans. The Torrens (Karra Wirri Parri) ensured a reliable supply of water. The Mount Lofty Ranges provided a close source of timber: ‘The hills are covered with a species of wood called stringybark…There are hundreds of thousands of acres of this timber…within seven or eight miles of the town.’ (Nance & Speight, 1986 p34).

In addition, the explorer Barker had praised the ‘rich, fat, chocolate-coloured earth’ of the Adelaide Plains (Whitelock, 1985a p14). One of the settlers also commented on the ‘…first rate soil, black as ink and fit to plough up without any preparation.’ (in Whitelock, 1985a p46). In addition, there were bountiful supplies of fish in the River Torrens and the sea. Timber was required for shelter and fuel, and even though corrugated iron became available for roofing in the 1850s to replace stringybark shingles, most of the timber in the central part of the Mount Lofty Ranges had already been cleared (Nance & Speight, 1986 p35).

The lack of coal supplies forced the colony to rely on timber for fuel, and this demand soared after the copper mines at Kapunda (1843), Burra (1844) and Wallaroo-Kadina (1863) required enormous amounts of fuel to smelt copper ore — it was estimated that in 1851, the Kapunda smelters consumed 120 tonnes of wood daily, and the three Apoing smelters consumed 150 tonnes daily (Williams, 1974 p134). The removal of trees and shrubs removes nature’s agent for binding the soil, and excessive clearance promotes wind erosion, water erosion and salinity.

The gift of such resources was exploited to such an extent that by EC, 95% of the Mount Lofty Ranges and the Adelaide Plains had been cleared of vegetation (Nance & Speight, 1986 p45). Even after the Second World War, by which time wood was not required as the primary domestic or industrial fuel, clearing continued at an incredible pace.

By EC, there were over 10,000 hectares of market gardens in SA, 4,000 of which were in districts adjacent to Adelaide, such as Piccadilly Valley (ABS, 1995 p 234; Nance & Speight, 1986 p140). But much of the prime agricultural land had disappeared under the sprawl of suburbia in areas such as Lockleys, Athelstone, Paradise and Campbelltown (Nance & Speight, 1986 p140). Hobby farms and rural retreats also reduced the availability of land for growing fresh produce.

Increasing numbers of people moved into the Adelaide Hills, and many of the existing farms were subdivided into ‘hobby’ farms. That is, they were occupied by people who worked in the city, but they produced few farm products. The spread of the suburbs over the Adelaide Plains and the break up of farms in the Hills…robbed SA of some of its most fertile and productive farm land.

(Nance et al, 1989 p84)

Land well beyond the city limits was also affected by the human beings and their settlement in the Tandanya Bioregion.


Up until 1855 agriculture in South Australia was for subsistence, but after this time commodities were grown for export. The money received was then used for purchasing all other requirements. Agriculture in SA became a player in the market economy at an early stage (Williams, 1974 pp420–421). South Australia suffers frequent droughts, and up until EC, there were thirty four years of drought in just over 150 years of European occupation (ABS, 1995 p9).

The principles and ideologies that underpinned the plan for the South Australian colony included the establishment of a yeomanry in the new colony. The yeoman had become a romantic symbol of pre Industrial times (MacGillivray in Nicol & Samuels, 1992) and so the objective was to settle the ‘small’ man, the farmer, on the land. After the Strangways Act of 1869, which allowed farmers to purchase up to 640 acres on credit with a 20% deposit and a four year term, the hunger for land became insatiable.

Surveyor-General Goyder had determined Goyder’s Line in the mid 1860s — the line of demarcation based on rainfall which separated agricultural land from pastoral land. This was increasingly disputed after several good crops of wheat and decent rains. The government response under such pressure was to pass the Waste Lands Amendment Act of 1874, which threw all land north of Goyder’s Line — previously ‘out of bounds’ — open for selection by farmers (Meinig, 1963 p55).

Drought in the early 1880s vindicated Goyder’s warning, and many farmers were forced to retreat from northern, marginal lands. The pursuit of land for the farmer, for wheat in particular, led to the drainage of land in the South East, a climate which was often too humid for wheat (Williams, 1974 p190). Technology in the form of the stump-jump plough allowed the clearing of the previously undesirable mallee lands (Meinig, 1963 p104), ridden with roots and stumps that had previously shattered ploughs. Extensive clearance of mallee lands on both the Eyre and Yorke Peninsulas and the Murray Mallee followed. Much of the 2.9 million hectares of land cleared between 1907 and 1941 was in the mallee regions (Nance & Speight, 1986 p43).

Concern over farmers’ preference for a monoculture of wheat was raised in the 1870s. Despite the government’s offer to recognise (for the purposes of credit selection cultivation requirements) one acre of olives, vines, apples, pears, oranges, almonds etc as equal to six acres of cereal, a farm reporter found that there was not one selector who had taken up this option (Meinig, 1963 pp116–117). There was also no incentive to care for the land — farmers could ‘exhaust’ land, and then simply transfer their credit purchase to new land (Meinig, 1963 pp116–117).

The cockatoo of South Australia is a very bad farmer — and that is so because he has hithero been able to make a living by bad farming.

(Trollope, 1868 in Nance & Speight, 1986 p212)

By the late 19th century, falling wheat yields, in part caused by the overworking of land, gave rise to experimentation with superphosphates and strains of wheat resistant to drought and disease (Williams, 1974 pp49–51). Pesticides were thought to be the answer to the lack of crop diversity, which caused monocultures to be vulnerable to drought and disease. The nutrients taken out of the soil in the form of food, away to the city or for export, were compensated for with tonnes of superphosphates and other fertilisers (Downton, 1995).

The transplantation of European agriculture into the South Australian environs had taken its toll within a few short generations.

Sick Soils

The soils of Australia are geologically old and extremely fragile. During EC, it was estimated that it may take 1,000 years to produce a millimetre of topsoil in coastal areas, and in inland areas, the process was so slow that scientists declared that ‘…for practical purposes it isn’t happening at all.’ (Egerton, 1990 p94). Soil was and is, in human terms, a non-renewable resource.

The introduction of hard-hoofed animals like goats, sheep, cattle and horses to land which had previously been occupied by soft-footed marsupials like the kangaroo severely damaged and compacted the physical structure of the soils, making them susceptible to erosion. This situation was exacerbated when these animals began to graze, thereby removing vegetation and grasses which ‘anchor’ soil. The clearance of land and native vegetation, the introduction of hard-hoofed animals and the intrusion of agriculture into ‘…vast areas which should never have felt the plough…’(Whitelock, 1985b p8) was one of the most damaging and lasting examples of South Australia’s exploitation and manipulation of their environs.

The problems of soil erosion were recognised after just a century of poorly managed European farming practices. Soil erosion was mapped by the Soil Conservation Committee in 1938, but ‘…the committee was reluctant to identify as the cause the decades of too-frequent cultivation and excessive bare fallowing of wheat fields.’ (Griffin & McCaskill, 1986 p27).

Soil salinity was another major land problem, caused by the twin actions of vegetation clearance and irrigation. The excess water from irrigation caused the water table to rise, bringing mineral salts with it (Egerton, 1990 p96). There was nothing to replace the function of the trees, which had previously soaked up all this water.

By EC times, the state of the land and the condition of the soil had become a national emergency. Dust storms resulted in the loss of tonnes of precious, irreplaceable topsoil. The cost of land degradation was estimated at $1,500,000,000 annually (Egerton, 1990 p98). Over 200 Landcare groups were formed in SA over 3 years, after the 1990s were declared the Decade of Landcare by Prime Minister Hawke in 1989 (CCSA, 1994 p5). Diversification of crops helped nurture the soil and the replanting of trees helped reverse the process of salinisation and halt erosion. Crops more suitable to the South Australian environs were adopted, such as hemp, which:

…is softer, warmer, more water absorbent and more durable than cotton, with three times its tensile strength…it is two to three times more productive than cotton, uses half the water and fertilisers, needs no pesticides or herbicides, improves soil structure and doesn’t exhaust the soil fertility.

(Danenberg in Britton, 1995 p36)

Hemp has over 30,000 uses including textiles, paper, building materials (such as insulation, and medium density fibreboard), biomass energy, oils, food and protein, and medical and therapeutic applications (Danenberg in Britton, 1995 p37). Hemp trials began on the Yorke Peninsula during EC (Coorey, 1995).

New ways of viewing the relationship between urban areas and the landscape helped people to understand the enormous impact of cities, and allowed the process of healing the land to begin.

Reducing the Ecological Footprint

The concept of the ecological footprint was developed by Professor William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel of the University of British Columbia, Canada, during EC. It provided a timely means of qualifying and quantifying the impact of the built environs beyond the city limit. The ‘footprint’ of a house, a neighbourhood or a city could be calculated in terms of energy use, timber requirements, food sources — the amount of land required to support consumption. The ecological footprint of the average Canadian’s lifestyle during EC (on a par with the average Australian) was 4.8 hectares per person.

This assessment was a shock, because if everyone lived the lifestyle of the average Australian or Canadian, humanity would need at least three planet earths to provide all the energy and materials and absorb carbon (Wackernagel, 1993 pp2–4). Footprints were made by cities not only on their immediate regions, but often on people and places far removed from the city. There were enormous impacts generated from industries such as mining and forestry, with the products ending up in cities half a world away. Even the city dweller’s demand for coffee and tobacco affected people’s lives and environments on the other side of the planet.

Ecological footprints can thus be calculated not only in terms of resource use, but also as an assessment of the damaging effects of an urban environment. Halifax Ecocity architect Paul Downton, flying over South Australia during EC, was scathing in his assessment of the city-generated impacts on the landscape:

Native vegetation has fallen to fossil-fuelled exotics imported from alien ecosystems, wholly dependent on the industrious farmer. Their manipulated genes are bought from the huge companies with money gambled from bankers in the gridded cities. The corn and cattle checkerboard of the hinterlands is generated deep in the culture of our cities…In less time than it takes to go 200 times around the sun the millennia old mallee ecosystem has been killed.

The agriculture which replaced it is failing. The view from the sky is of a dying landscape with the dunes protruding like bones from under a desiccated, shrinking skin. All farmers should fly and bankers should be forced to do geography…A snaking freeway pumps city commerce across the country, nourishing the death machine as it leaps across the continent’s algae choked, toxin-tainted main artery…The cracked sores of the planet’s skin wash soil to the sea…

(in Britton, 1995 pp8–9)

The apparent ‘separateness’ of the city from landscapes on which it depended was an illusion. To survive, the city had to develop in a way which did not destroy the landscape, and which in fact helped to heal the damage that had been done.

Reuniting Town And Country

The Halifax EcoCity Project set about reconciling the city and the land on which it depended. Ecological development required a process which made the city a sustainer, not a destroyer, of life and land. For every one of the 800 plus EcoCity residents, one hectare of rural land in South Australia was revegetated and brought back to health. Some of this land was made productive using the principles of permaculture, such as the village at Kooringa, Burra, in the state’s mid north.

The exhaustive procedure of selecting materials, products and processes to construct the ecocity ensured that the birth, life and death of the city would have the least amount of impact on any people and any environment, anywhere.

The material for the rammed earth walls was sourced from areas in SA which had been devastated by erosion. The steep, metres-high gullies which had gouged through the landscape were remodelled at a gentler gradient, and the sides were stabilised with native vegetation. Once the erosion problem had been dealt with, the remaining earth was brought into the urban environment to construct the ecocity. This is an example of development which sustains the ecology and actively sets out to repair the damage caused by past practices.

The Halifax EcoCity linked the land to the urban environment in a practical, psychological and spiritual way. People began to recognise and rediscover the interdependence of city and country, and the residents of the Halifax EcoCity — and all those that followed — were able to contribute to the healing of the land simply by living in an ecocity.


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Sharon Ede

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