The Future History of Adelaide: Urban Form & Transport

Sharon Ede
11 min readJan 9, 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.

Urban Form & Transport

The form of any city is greatly determined by the types of energy and means of transport available to its inhabitants. Before the days of fossil fuel energy, Adelaide grew only as fast as people could easily access locations. People had to live near where they worked. Horse power and people power (foot and bicycle) were the only available means of getting anywhere.

Once public transport was introduced, urban development concentrated along these transport routes. But Australian cities, because of their unique historical, economical and political background, were denied the chance to ‘grow’ before the advent of the automobile. Adelaide’s streets were so wide, that it seemed the invention of the car had been anticipated. There were frequent complaints about the width and the condition of the city’s streets, which were ‘…notoriously bad — dust heaps in the summer and quagmires in the winter.’ (Whitelock, 1985a p178). In fact in 1848, the Register reported that a drunk had been fined for attempting to swim the liquid mud of Hindley Street, and that a bullock had actually drowned in the mud in Wakefield Street! (Whitelock, 1985a p74).

Adelaide’s growth took off after the Second World War, boosted by immigration, urbanisation — and the increasing availability and affordability of the automobile to the average family. With the exception of the Glenelg service, trams became extinct in Adelaide, which narrowly escaped becoming a city of freeways proposed as part of the 1968 MATS (Metropolitan Adelaide Transport Study) plan (Orchard in Parkin & Patience, 1992 p146). Instead, the inner western suburbs of Bowden, Brompton, Thebarton and Hindmarsh were rehabilitated (Orchard in Parkin & Patience, 1992 p148).

But until EC, our cities grew up with the car as the assumed mode of transport. The car was the most convenient form of transport because the city had been designed around them! The car ‘freed’ development from public transport routes, allowing locations to scatter and disperse, thus ensuring the requirement of a car to conveniently access most of these locations. Cars consumed vast amounts of urban land space for roads, car parks, garages, service stations and car yards — they were parasites feeding on cities in order to ensure their survival. Adelaideans were handing over their city to the car. The purpose of the city had to be re-examined. David Engwicht (1992 p17) defined the purpose of the city as ‘access to exchange’:

Cities were invented to facilitate exchange of information, friendship, material goods, culture, knowledge, insight, skills, and also the exchange of emotional, psychological and spiritual support…Cities are a concentration of people and structures that enable mutual exchange to take place while minimising the travel needed.

Engwicht categorised two types of space within the urban environment: movement space (roads, carparks, train tracks, walkways) and exchange space (homes, shops, schools, work places, parks etc).

Over-reliance on the car was both the cause and effect of sprawl, as ‘exchange’ space was eroded to provide ‘movement’ space, dispersing locations still further. The result was a sprawling, low density city, a characteristic which closely correlated with a particular city’s level of car dependence. By EC, there were almost one million motorised vehicles registered in South Australia, a state of around 1.5 million people (ABS, 1995 p1, p302), and the 90km sprawl of Adelaide was a major concern. As David Engwicht pointed out during EC, ‘We keep converting space from destinations into car movement space and it’s a vicious circle.’ (Engwicht in Collins, 1993 p72). The car was attacking the very reason for the city’s existence — ‘access to exchange’. And urban sprawl caused the city to march further into the hinterlands…

Public transport was one way of weaning South Australians from their addiction to cars but by EC, the city had sprawled so much that it was difficult to justify a public transport for such low concentrations of people — particularly in the outer suburbs. Public transport was not ‘economically viable’. But the costs of building and maintaining car infrastructure was borne by all taxpayers, not all of whom had access to a car, or were car users. The elderly, the young, people unable to afford a car, the disabled and people from one car households were subjected to inefficient, unsafe or non existent public transport, and made to feel that they were a burden on society when in fact the reverse was true. Public transport was in fact a form of affirmative action, allowing the same rights of access to people who had their space snatched from them by car users and the car’s massive requirements of urban space and infrastructure.

The Dunstan Labor government was the first to wholeheartedly accept the idea that public transport was (a) social service before it was a business undertaking (Radbone in Parkin & Patience, 1992 p196)

Once the wider costs of pollution and the resulting health costs in addition to deaths, injuries and the resulting social and economic costs were considered, the true cost of a car dominated city was too much to bear. It was not until EC that the attitudes which had treated cyclists, pedestrians, rollerbladers and other non-motorised travellers as nuisances to motorists began to change.

In the end, however, it was recognised that transport was a derived need, and that it was in fact the urban form itself which was causing transport difficulties. As Richard Register, founder of Urban Ecology in the US pointed out: ‘The quickest way to get from A to b is to build B next to A.’ (in FOE, 1991). Australians’ preference for detached housing was also a factor which contributed to the low density of Australian cities, and thus urban sprawl.

The Great Australian Dream

After the First World War, the ideas of the British Garden City concept influenced Adelaide, with ‘…a few examples of winding streets and irregularly shaped blocks which (added) a welcome variety to the chequerboard landscape of the suburbs.’ (Williams, 1974 p453). The first Australian Town Planning Conference was held in Adelaide in 1917 (Kwan, 1987b p46), where the proposed Mitcham Garden Suburb, which came to be known as Colonel Light Gardens, was first suggested.

Suburbia was the collective manifestation of the Great Australian Dream. The emergence of the suburbs allowed Australians to escape from inner city industrial areas and to enjoy a high quality of life for decades. The post war years and subsequent boom economic conditions provided a ripe environment for the Great Australian Dream to take off, which it did spectacularly, encouraged by banks, speculators and governments.

By 1971, home ownership in Australia had reached 71%, the highest figure achieved (Spearritt, 1992 p42). In addition to an increasing population, the number of households had also increased. The number of people per occupied dwelling had fallen from 4.5 people in 1911 to 2.5 people in 1986 (ABS in Edgar, Earle & Fopp, 1993 p126). The ‘traditional’ nuclear family of married parents plus dependants comprised 42.8% of the Australian population by 1986 (ABS in Edgar, Earle & Fopp, 1993 p310).

Seventy five percent of the dwellings in Adelaide were detached houses, and according to the Planning Review undertaken for Adelaide during EC ‘…changes in household form have led to a mismatch between housing need and available housing stock.’ (Planning Review, 1991 p14, p28).

The providers of this stock and the defenders of the Dream argued that the supply only filled the demand, and that people wanted the Dream. While this may be true, the questions must be asked: How much choice was really available to Australians? Where were the other examples of urban living? Who profited by selling the Dream as the ‘Holy Grail’, and how much ‘freedom’ was there as the surrogate owner of your home while tied to a 20 year plus mortgage? The reality is that by the late 20th century, the Dream was no longer relevant to a large proportion of the population.

The urban consolidation policies of EC helped stop urban areas from further encroaching on agricultural land, market gardens and water catchment areas. It saved governments money. However, simply putting more people in the existing urban space did not solve the problem of access, as the policy did not address the arrangement of uses within the physical boundary of the urban area. Urban consolidation was a useful tool for checking urban sprawl and opened debate about the limits of cities, but it was not a cure-all. The truth is that most Australian cities had passed their optimum point with regards to the Great Australian Dream. By EC times, it was really a case of too much of a good thing. Australian cities became unable to sustain the individual Dream in the face of the collective nightmare — increased difficulty in accessing locations, environmental problems of excessive car use, the isolation of the car-less. The future was catching up with Australian cities. Australia’s major cities had to move towards a higher density (that’s higher, not high) or become less and less liveable.

The paranoia which was harboured by most Australians toward high rise living, coupled with the perception of limitless space within this country, resulted in the blind acceptance and pursuit of the Dream, and — until EC — a lack of debate about other housing options. Some developers did not help to promote examples of medium density living, and took advantage of urban consolidation by simply stacking as many dwellings as possible onto a site without regard for the occupants or the existing urban environs.

During EC, the Friends of the Earth Green Cities handbook (1991) targeted urban consolidation as falling short of the mark in terms of creating higher density, liveable cities, stating that:: ‘…we must not mistake the desperate, grotty little squeezed-on backyard developments that litter our suburbs as anything to do with medium density living as it can be.’ Building at a higher density required a more effective use of space in relation to the whole urban environment, not just reducing the available space for each dwelling.

An example which received more and more attention during EC was the modern co-housing movement, pioneered in Denmark in the late 1970s by groups of residents who felt that this type of community living would provide a better quality of life. Co-housing consists of clusters of households in either small groups (6 to 12) or large (35 or more households), and gives people the chance to live as private or public a life as they choose with the provision of shared facilities like the dining room, kitchen and laundry. Residents can choose to live a ‘normal’ private life with the usual facilities provided in dwellings, or a ‘common’ life eg. cooking for a group of people once or twice a fortnight and relaxing while others cook the meals the rest of the time! The extent to which a ‘common’ life is lived is entirely up to the resident. Co-housing enables a more efficient use of resources and facilities, as well as resulting in increased urban density. Its key features are participatory process, intentional neighbourhood design, common facilities and resident management (McCamant & Durrett, 1988 p36).

The pioneers of the new urban form in the Tandanya Bioregion were the co-initiators of the Halifax EcoCity.

Higher Density Living in an Ecological City

Business-as-usual suburban housing of EC times used to fit approximately 24 dwellings onto a 2.4 hectare site, with just enough left over for road access. Almost double that number of dwellings fitted onto a similar site under the EC policy of urban consolidation. The Halifax EcoCity incorporated between 350 to 400 dwellings, with a significant amount of open space retained at ground level, as well as rooftop gardens. A conventional developer of EC times who suddenly placed 800 people on a 2.4 hectare site would have be confronted with chaos — but had usually pocketed the proceeds and was far away by the time this manifested. Building at such a high density, relative to previous Australian standards, required a careful process which allowed as much community involvement as possible.

The co-initiators of the Halifax EcoCity Project involved the community from the Project’s inception — local business and commerce, trade unions, indigenous peoples (particularly the Kaurna, Aboriginal people of the Adelaide Plains), community groups, local and state government and environment groups. The process was community-driven, and despite the lack of exposure in the ‘mainstream’ media, UEA received hundreds of Registrations of Interest. People keen to live in an EcoCity were able to mix at the six-weekly Potential Residents’ Meetings, at fundraisers and public events held by UEA and by dropping into the Centre for Urban Ecology, the ‘shop front’ for all this activity, which was located next door to the proposed site of the Project.

The community of the Halifax EcoCity Project was forming well before residents put the key in the door. People who moved into the Halifax EcoCity already knew the people who lived next door, upstairs and around the corner, as they had at least some contact prior to moving in. This was vastly different from the conventional residential development of EC times, where people suddenly found themselves thrust together in a common place, but not a community.

The difference of process with the Halifax EcoCity Project was community participation, not the favoured EC rhetoric of ‘community consultation’ which all too often meant a workshop to gauge public opposition after the decisions had been made. Community participation was more work, the process was longer, but in the end much time and effort was saved as people’s real needs were met the first time, rather than being sidestepped with token efforts to allow community input. This only buried dissent which surfaced later.

There were no cavity walls in a community of 800 plus people — instead, stabilised rammed earth walls 400mm thick were used. These walls not only served the purpose of energy conservation via thermal mass (ie. keeping dwellings cool in summer and warm in winter, reducing the need for electrical appliances), but the social purpose of sound insulation.

The site was compact, with everywhere five minutes’ walk away — not five minutes’ drive. The car was relegated to the underground and periphery of the Project, and there was no through traffic, meaning more people could enjoy the outdoor areas of their immediate environs through increased safety and no fumes. More people outdoors provided not only ‘natural’ surveillance — the best form of security — but afforded opportunities for casual social interaction, essential for building and maintaining a community.

The Halifax EcoCity Project demonstrated that it was possible for Australians to live an harmonious, ecologically responsible lifestyle at a higher density, provided that planning was integrated and that the appropriate processes which account for the needs of people were set in place. This higher density allowed people to keep transport to a minimum, and to take full advantage of the city’s facilities, services and lifestyle — the whole point of city making in the first place!


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

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

Edgar, Don; Earle, Leon & Fopp, Rodney (1993) An Introduction to Australian Society. Prentice Hall, Sydney.

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

Friends of the Earth Nouveau (1991) Green Cities Handbook. Friends of the Earth, Adelaide.

Kwan, Elizabeth (1987b) Living in South Australia: A Social History (Vol 2: After1914). Government Printer, Netley, SA.

McCamant, Kathryn & Durrett, Charles (1988) Co-housing: a contemporary approach to housing ourselves. Habitat Press/Ten Speed Press, Berkeley California.

Parkin, Andrew & Patience, Allan (Eds) (1992) The Bannon Decade: The Politics of Restraint in South Australia. Allen & Unwin, St Leonard’s, NSW.

Planning Review (1991) Vision 2020: Ideas for Metropolitan Adelaide. Department of Environment & Planning, Adelaide.

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

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 | |