Doublethink on the Waterfront

“Doublethink,” a term coined by George Orwell in 1984 (the book, not the year), is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “believing two contradictory ideas at the same time” and I think it describes the CBRM’s approach to waterfront development.

This past week, I had reason to have a look at the 2014 Municipal Climate Change Action Plan (MCCAP) which contains the following references to threats posed by rising sea levels in Sydney Harbour (this list is not exhaustive):

  • The loss of coastal boardwalks which are very well used is a concern. The boardwalk behind Cambridge Suites has been subject to storm surge damage and has required maintenance repairs.
  • The Civic Centre on the Sydney Harbour water front will be susceptible to wind and storm surge flooding of the back parking lot. Back-up power might be an issue.
  • The Civic Centre on the Esplanade is the Primary Emergency Coordination Centre but it is recognized that there are potential high water issues with the back parking lot. This location has back-up power, with the fuel tank on the first level.
  • Table 5. 1 copied from the ICSP [“Cape Breton Regional Municipality Integrated Community Sustainability Plan,” Stantec, 2010] report indicates a number of large scale projects that, in addition to the dredging of the harbour approach and changes to the cruise ships berthing, are creating major economic development opportunities. However, as harbour-based facilities, these developments are especially prone to climate change impacts such as sea level rise and storm surge.
  • In terms of the fiscal sustainability, a severe climate related event could put serious strains on the CBRM’s budget. The ICSP notes even maintaining existing infrastructure occupies a large portion of the municipal budget…Depending on the facilities or infrastructure components affected by climate stress and disasters, the cost of repair or replacement could be beyond the Municipality’s capital budget capacity.
  • Tourism, particularly harbour-side activities and supporting cruise ships, is an increasingly important part of Sydney and CBRM’s economy. Because these facilities are often in coastal locations, there is a risk that investment in these areas can be lost due to climate change at a time when financial resources are already limited.


Think again

In short, there is reason to be concerned about the threat posed by climate change to infrastructure located on (or planned for) the Sydney waterfront, not least because if it’s seriously damaged we may not be able to afford to repair or replace it.

The MCCAP was adopted by CBRM council in April 2014 and that very same month, council also received the Sydney Harbourfront Conceptual Vision & Design  from Dartmouth-based design firm Ekistics Planning and Design.

Ekistics also supplied this video illustrating its “vision” for our waterfront, of which I have already said:

That “vision,” as presented in this 2014 YouTube video, was something closer to a hallucination, involving extensive residential housing development right to the water’s edge (because the CBRM has super powers and is immune to climate change) and a sand beach (complete with bathers) in the cove beside the government wharf. (No sign of a coliform bacteria testing station but you know there must be one.)


Here’s what the report says about climate change:

The potential impacts of climate change and rising sea levels are forcing a more detailed examination on investment and infrastructure along Canada’s coastlines, the role of open spaces in community health and the renewed understanding about the valuable role of density in place making and public space creation.

Note, the authors don’t say who, precisely, has been forced into “a more detailed examination on investment and infrastructure along Canada’s coastlines,” but it seems reasonable to assume — since this is literally the only reference to climate change in the entire, 84-page document — that it’s not them.

Council “adopted” the Ekistics vision for the waterfront (whatever that means) and in 2017 when it called for proposals to develop the waterfront, CBRM simply asked that they be in keeping with this 2014 vision, without asking whether this vision had taken on board any of the concerns raised in the MCCAP.

I call Doublethink: acknowledging that existing coastal infrastructure is at risk while planning to put unprecedented levels of infrastructure on the coast.

Honestly, does this look like the work of someone who is really concerned about rising sea levels?

"Wentworth Gate" Detail from Ekistics Sydney Harbourfront Conceptual Vision & Design

Detail from Ekistics Sydney Harbourfront Conceptual Vision & Design


And Harbour Royale Development Ltd has taken things a step further by deciding to put a particularly important piece of community infrastructure on the waterfront — the library.

The question is, do we give in and accept that we can be both concerned and not concerned about waterfront infrastructure simultaneously or do we continue to insist that our approach to waterfront development should make some sort of logical sense?

Full disclosure: even I have days when I think it would be easier to just accept that low is high and down is up and wet is dry.