Living Change: Adaptive housing responses to climate change in the town camps of Alice Springs

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Researcher/s: 
Professor Ralph Horne
Institution/s: 
RMIT University
Year Started: 
2012

This project will investigate how residents in Alice Springs' town camps have adapted their living practices in response to the delivery of new and refurbished houses. Working with the Tangentyere Council the research will focus on how people maintain comfort levels in the houses and employ healthy-living practices involving water and energy use. The aim of the project is to identify areas where energy and water use can be made more sustainable, and provide a framework that supports residents and tenancy management organisations in developing and promoting resilient community practices that are capable of adapting to the effects of climate change.

Executive summary

This project focused upon adaptive housing responses to climate change in the town camps of Alice Springs. It particularly examined household practices of staying cool and keeping warm in the context of increasing extremes of temperatures and climate.

In a departure from several other studies that concentrated on actively changing the behaviour of household residents or assessing occupant satisfaction with how houses performed, in this project the concern was on identifying the various elements of social practices. These elements include housing hardware (the physical house and appliances), management regimes, skills and knowledge, rules and common understandings.

Instead of starting with human behaviour as the driver of responses to hot and cold conditions, the project takes a starting point where the practices of keeping cool and warm are the central focus. Thus, instead of asking the question “How can we change the cooling behaviour of householders”, we ask “What shapes the practices of keeping cool?” Of course, people will have a variety of things that they do when it is hot (in this report these are referred to as ‘practice variants’ of the practice of ‘keeping cool’), and the practices change over time. Changes to any of the four elements mentioned above may modify how a practice is performed, and hence changed. Moreover practices are often connected to others (or ‘bundled’), so changes in a particular practice may cascade into multiple changes across other practices. This has implications for household (and community) resilience and vulnerability to changed circumstances.

The research found that town camp residents involved in the study deal with heat and cold in a diverse variety of ways. Diversity is widely regarded as a sign of adaptive capacity. Town camp residents retain variants of previous practice and embrace new practice variants, which have emerged since refurbishment and provision of new housing over the couple of years prior to the study. Town camp residents have many experiences of dealing with extreme weather events, and are (at least) bilingual, bi-cultural, and have strong cultural identities in Indigenous practice while participating in ‘mainstream’ economic and social life in Alice Springs and throughout Australia. As such, the town campers are well placed to adapt to changing circumstances, including changing climate conditions. However, that capacity is jeopardised by poverty and both chronic and periodic overcrowding, which remains an entrenched problem and cause of community stress, so adaptive practices need to be actively monitored and nurtured. The emerging tenancy management regime is partially supporting tenant initiated sustainable living practices and there is a need for further work in this regard, as indicated in the recommendations emerging from this research.

The full list of recommendations is detailed in section 7. The research highlighted the need to extend the focus of housing providers beyond the delivery and preservation of houses, and to extend community education programs beyond a focus on behaviours around protecting houses and using appliances efficiently. Programs should recognise what shapes how people do things in and around the home. The house is only one element that informs practices and effective adaptation to changed conditions requires accounting for all elements.

The research also underlines the importance for housing providers to know and understand how town camp residents use power and water in their daily lives. Electricity is an essential, yet scarce and costly commodity within the camps. Changes to the physical makeup of the houses and the appliances that they contain must be considered in the context of total household energy use. The same principle applies to water usage. It is important that the promotion of efficient energy and water use (using less of a scarce resource) does not compromise existing healthy practices unintentionally, or stifle new ones from emerging.

The report also recommends that specific responsibility for climate adaptation planning and resourcing should be assigned and plans and actions instituted to equip town campers with ongoing climate adaptive capacity.

Read the final report here

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