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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

20 November 2020

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Embracing natural vibrancy

Leaving a small town to pursue big dreams in a big city – it’s a story that we’ve heard a thousand times. But our regional locations have inherent attributes that can’t be found in large, urban locales.

JCU’s Associate Professor Lisa Law and Associate Professor Nick Osbaldiston walk us through the small bright spots on North Queensland’s map and give insights into how to increase their vibrancy.

As an Associate Professor in Planning, Lisa has worked extensively with regional cities and towns and is passionate about their vibrancy.

“A place is vibrant when everyone believes in the story a place is telling about itself,” Lisa says. “It’s a simple thing, but if it’s a story everyone feels included in and benefits from, there is a dynamism to that kind of narrative.”

Lisa relates this to Cairns, which has a story – supported by its UNESCO World Heritage listing – about the value of its environment. Locals believe in that value and so do the tourists who come from around the world to see it.

Nick, a sociologist, agrees that natural settings play large part of people’s motivations to live in regional locations. “Culture can contribute to vibrancy, but I think that landscape and natural amenity is a massive component to how and why people move to areas like Cairns,” he says.

However, environmental amenities aren’t what sustains a community. The value that we place on our environment must be combined with valuing the resilience of a community.

“Vibrancy also relies on ensuring that planning is appropriate and not causing overpopulation,” Nick says. “These are repeated issues that areas of high environmental amenity experience in developed nations around the world.”

Lisa suggests that to increase our vibrancy, we may need to rewrite our narrative.

Small towns, big challenges

Unfortunately, a unique environment with an abundance of natural amenities doesn’t create a care-free community.

Regional locations across Australia face severe challenges, with lack of services having a particularly heavy impact on remote communities.

“A minimal number of basic services in health is a major issue,” Nick says. “This includes mental health, which is a growing challenge for regional Australia.”

Without access to health and wellbeing services, the struggles of people within regional and rural communities go unaddressed and are left to worsen. This creates a community that lacks the support and ability necessary to contribute positively to its overall condition.

There are also challenges presented by the ageing populations within regional communities.

“Urban shift and a lack of opportunities in rural areas force younger people to move to Cairns, Townsville and beyond, resulting in shrinking rural communities,” Lisa says. “Left behind are ageing populations in towns unsuitable for the elderly, with wide streets, high kerbs, empty shops and little entertainment.”

Nick says a “long-standing issue” for rural places is the impact that the departure of younger generations has on industries that are reliant on regional communities, such as agriculture. Without a new generation to take over and only an ageing population left, rural communities are left without anyone to contribute to their story, let alone believe in it.

These issues each stem from one large problem – jobs.

"Jobs are a massive influence. Jobs will define how we potentially see young people move in the next ten years in this recession."

Associate Professor Nick Osbaldiston

The issues that Lisa and Nick have identified – lack of services, lack of opportunities, lack of jobs – existed long before the effects of COVID-19 swept through rural communities’ economies. Facing a recession and an uncertain future has heightened these challenges. Regional communities now require new solutions to old problems.

Acknowledging such challenges must be included in the stories of regional locations so that their narratives can also include improving and serving the community in the ways it needs most.

Landscape - farmland
Airplane on a rural airstrip

Creating change by facing challenges

Local councils, state governments, and federal organisations have responsibilities to protect and care for regional communities, from their environments and infrastructure to the services provided for their inhabitants. However, Lisa and Nick note that this responsibility isn’t always acted upon by councils and federal organisations. This lack of action can shift the responsibility from governments to the communities themselves.

“Communities can take some of the responsibility on board,” Nick says. “But this is where I get concerned about how much regional communities are held responsible for the town’s resilience.”

“How does a rural town take responsibility for the devastation wrought by dairy deregulation?” Lisa asks. “Or by banning logging in wet tropic heritage areas?”

"We need to find effective and affordable ways that local government and communities can take the reins in shaping their own future."

Associate Professor Lisa Law

Since 2015, Lisa has been researching how urban design strategies can stimulate positive changes within regional communities. These changes can include attracting tourists and new residents to agricultural townships through improving access and signage along highways, enhancing liveability for current residents through providing meaningful urban experiences, and keeping local youth engaged and participating in their communities through creating lively streets and civic spaces.

“I work with governments to shape a process that goes beyond town beautification and delivers a deliberate engagement with key socio-economic concerns in each place,” Lisa says.

Rewriting the narrative

Revitalising entire towns and cities can seem like an overwhelming task, but it is a task vital to Australia as a nation.

“Regional economies play a massive role in the overall Australian economy,” Nick says. “Look at how much North and Far North Queensland tourism feeds into the Queensland economy. We must also remember that agriculture has a big role in our nation, especially as we move into a climate-changed future.”

Apart from their economic importance, regional locations also provide unique lifestyles with a slower pace and a greater sense of community, as well as natural amenities. But there is a richness within these settings that goes much deeper than lifestyle.

“These towns have rich histories with many stories of first peoples, immigrations, farming, military history, and mining,” Lisa says. “They also often have a high percentage of Indigenous populations that are poorly represented in the town fabric.”

Lisa has recently been working with her TUDLab team to help regional communities develop a main street that reflects their history as well as their future aspirations.

“We work with the local government to improve civic amenities, native landscaping, and commissioning public art as part of an integrated design that connects the town’s natural and cultural attractions,” she says.

Rewriting a community’s story to include their challenges, history, and diversity has the potential to transform the beliefs of its inhabitants and spark interest in those outside of the community. By taking action to not just tell a story but to create a new, more resilient narrative, we have the power to create stronger, more vibrant communities in any region.

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Researchers profile picture

Featured researcher

Associate Professor Lisa Law

Associate Professor

Lisa Law is an interdisciplinary researcher whose research focuses on creating inclusive, quality urban spaces in Southeast Asia and tropical Australia. She is interested in how we understand liveability in regional areas and how to deploy place-based strategies of urban design. Lisa is the founder of JCU’s Tropical Urbanism and Design Lab, an interdisciplinary team of geographers, architects, sociologists, and planners interested in urbanism in the tropics. Lisa has particular interests in responsive urban designs for tropical built environments, social and urban geography, and disaster resilience in the wider region.


Researchers profile picture

Featured researcher

Nick Osbaldiston

Associate Professor

Associate Professor Nick Osbaldiston is a sociologist at JCU. His research encompasses many areas within sociological and social theory, but three main themes have been the focus of his research: lifestyle migration, critical engagements with higher education, and cultural sociological understandings of place and self.

Nick has published widely in the area of lifestyle migration and is presently investigating the purposes behind migration and the related environmental risks. He has co-led projects and co-published papers examining work/life balance in Australian academics. In 2012, Nick published his first monograph Seeking Authenticity in Place, Culture and Self with Palgrave Macmillan. His second monograph entitled Towards a Sociology of the Coast also explored the relationship between self and place.