Jamie Simmonds & Cameron Davies on Grantham

24 May 2022

After a flood-saturated summer, Marketing & Communications Manager Emma Eldridge caught up with Jamie Simmonds and our director Cameron Davies – to consider the Strengthening Grantham Project and learnings it might have for our climate uncertain today and tomorrow.

Emma: It’s been over a decade since you worked together on Strengthening Grantham, which saw the flood-ravaged town moved to higher ground. Jamie, you’ve written a book on the Project, but with the recent floods across the East Coast I wonder whether you’ve both been reflecting on it anew?

Jamie: This summer was certainly a difficult time for flood-prone communities across Queensland and New South Wales. Some have experienced multiple major floods; I really feel for them. Having gone through what we did in Grantham, I can’t help but think about the challenges they face moving forward – to get back to something that resembles ‘normal.’

It’s a long and difficult road, but one that can bring out the best in people. When leaders step-up and drive good outcomes for communities, the recovery process can encourage belonging and connection. Giving a disaster-struck community hope for a swift and successful recovery – and delivering on that recovery – allows people to move forward in a positive way. That’s really what they need during such challenging times.

Cameron: Our expectations of the frequency and severity of natural disasters is changing, and that plays into our decision making with respect to risk. It’s not just about codes and requirements, but considering how resilient the buildings and infrastructure are in the likely aftermath.

Emma: Can you tell me a bit about how you worked with Council and community to effect such a creative, rapid and strategic response for Grantham? I imagine there are towns along our east coast that would now welcome a blueprint of sorts – not only did you complete a successful relocation, but you did it in a timeframe that was unprecedented.

Jamie: Mayor Steve Jones dove in pretty quick with the idea of relocating the town to higher ground. Once we knew what we wanted to do, we worked to get the community on board and understand what they needed to make it a success. Without them, we might have ended up with a nice new estate with no one in it. Worse still would have been promising to move them then failing – delivering another blow to an already grieving community.

So we held regular meetings with the community to discuss how we might relocate to higher ground, but it was really at your master planning workshops (pictured) that ideas started to crystallise. These started only two months after the flood – Steve and the team were able to get some really good input and buy-in from those worst affected by the floods. The workshops didn’t just deal with the technical aspects of building a new estate, but the physical and emotional connection people had to their place. Like many small communities, acknowledging the history of Grantham was an important part of the process. Without an understanding of why people wanted to remain in Grantham, Steve and the Council wouldn’t have been able to propose something the community would get behind.

By putting in the time early on in the process, we were able to move into a delivery phase and feel confident that the community was on board. We knew that people move on quickly – to be successful, we had to give them a new estate in the timeframe promised, otherwise the community would either rebuild on the floodplain or move elsewhere. Neither of those outcomes were acceptable to Steve, Deicke Richards or the team tasked with making the move happen.

Emma: My understanding is Grantham was not as impacted by this year’s flooding. Have you heard from the Council and community – in relation to the Project’s success, or the need to move residences that have remained in the flood zone?

Jamie: I have spoken to some who relocated to the new estate and they were certainly very happy to be high and dry this time around. Grantham did experience major flooding, though it wasn’t as devastating as in 2011. There are a few people who did not participate in the land swap – if they are now interested, they should be considered for a block on the new estate. I’m not sure what position Council is in to support this but getting people out of harm’s way will save money and lives in the long run.

Emma: Architects Without Frontiers founder Esther Charlesworth talks about the three cycles of disaster management: what can be done before, immediately after and long-term. Do you agree that in Australia we focus on the aftermath over steps we can take to mitigate and ensure a more sustained recovery? If so, what is required to shift that focus?

Jamie: Yes, I think that many countries, including Australia, are focused on responding to disasters rather than planning for them. Being proactive is always challenging because areas that are being affected by disasters are more pressing than those that could be in the future. In relation to flooding, better planning in flood prone areas needs to be a focus. Not getting that right is just setting up communities for a lot of pain in the future. Governments should also be setting up funding programs for communities that want to be proactive in removing the flood risk for residents, such as land swaps. The US is trying hard to establish programs like this and I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of those discussions. Yet, as far as I know, there are no Australian programs that support these types of initiatives – at any level of government.

Cameron: Prior to 2011, the approach to floods was focused on keeping all new development out of the flood plain. Now at least there are provisions and dispensations that allow communities and properties in the flood plain to at least be more resilient in the instance of a major event. Unfortunately, none of this deals with core vulnerability. Until there are better mechanisms like the land swap arrangement in Grantham, there will still be a human cost to natural disasters.

Emma: Jamie, you’ve written ‘I had never heard the term managed retreat when we embarked on the vision to relocate Grantham. We weren’t doing it to address a broader global issue and never placed the town or flood in the context of climate change or adaptation. We simply saw a community that was ripped apart by a terrible natural event and gave them an option to be safe and stay in their community. Without that option, they could either rebuild and live in fear of the next event or move away for good.’

Can you expand on the concept of managed retreat, and how Grantham has become an exemplar for it? Have there been any relocations since Grantham – and do you anticipate that in towns such as Lismore this option will have to be considered, instead of the usual rebuild or move away?

Jamie: Managed retreat seeks to keep communities safe from future disasters or the effects of climate change by moving them out of harm’s way. There’s a lot of discussion and debate around when managed retreat should be considered (before or after a disaster strikes) as well as who should pay for it and how it can be done successfully. There are very few examples around the world of managed retreat as it involves complex social, economic and community issues. The Grantham land swap is certainly a poster child for managed retreat as it is widely regarded as the quickest and most cost-effective relocation in the modern world.

Although communities have different challenges and opportunities, Grantham can provide an example around the keys for success: strong local leadership, moving quickly and keeping the delivery team small and adaptive. These proved vital in Grantham and seem to be consistent with other successful examples of managed retreat around the world.

Can Lismore consider a land swap? Absolutely. Of course, there would be challenges, but I’m sure there are elements of managed retreat that could be put in place to ensure people can remain in the Lismore community without continuously risking the safety of their families. In this changing world – where 100-year floods are increasingly commonplace, levees, dams and evacuation plans are not going to keep people safe. Eliminating the risk by moving people out of the flood plain does.

Emma: You’re currently travelling in the US, Jamie – prior to that, what were you working on? Any upcoming projects you’re able to share? Cam, how has working on Grantham impacted your approach to and vision for work – has the experience remained with your terms of architectural and urban design projects?

Jamie: Part of my trip to the US is to discuss Grantham and managed retreat with a range of people and organisations here. I recently spoke at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. about the relocation of Grantham and decision-makers are very interested in how to effectively undertake relocations for at-risk areas. It feels like we are now starting to understand the importance of managed retreat in adapting to a changing world, where natural disasters are becoming more severe and deadly.

Cameron: I’ve been asked on a number of occasions what has been the most important project of my career and I always say the relocation of Grantham. The vision and humanitarian aspect of that project really drove the entire project team. It also revealed to me the incredible capacity people have for creating community, even when they are in the midst of personal tragedy. In our profession, it can be easy to get caught up in the layers of control and legislation and forget the human side of design thinking and complex problem solving. Grantham taught me the importance of focusing on human-centred outcomes and to let those drive your energy as you navigate the design process.

Emma: Moving across time, what kind of action would like to see us all – federal / state / local government, the private sector, communities, individuals – take to feel safe and maintain social fabric in an uncertain climate future?

Jamie: Governments and communities across Australia need to understand that our traditional ways of managing disasters is becoming outdated. The number and severity of natural disasters we are experiencing is only getting worse and our response and recovery efforts are not coping. Just now, I read that Brisbane and parts of Queensland are flooding again in May. The multiple flood events that happened in Lismore is heart-breaking, but I’m afraid that next year some other community will become ground zero for another terrible natural disaster and Lismore will be forgotten by governments and the media.

There needs to be funding and support available for communities to quickly and efficiently implement relocation / land-swap options so they can keep their communities safe for the next disaster that’s just around the corner. These communities need to move quickly and implement their plans before government changes their focus to the next disaster. Right now, there are communities affected by bushfires in 2019–2020 that have not recovered and have been long forgotten as COVID-19 and flood-impacted communities such as Lismore have stolen the headlines. We as a country cannot let that happen any longer.

Read more about our work on Grantham here.