Should I stay or should I go now

Should I stay or should I go now

If I go there will be trouble

If I stay it will be double

So you gotta let me know

Should I stay or should I go


While Council searches for solutions, an experts’ report says Lismore needs to build a ‘new heart’. Robin Osborne looks at early suggestions for the flood-struck city’s future.

 The quandary is not new, ranging from the collective to the personal. Should We Stay or Should We Go, asked best-selling author Lionel Shriver in the title of a recent novel, while punk band The Clash wondered the same in 1981.

Like many others, for various reasons, they posed a question whose answers are frustratingly elusive.

Lismore, devastated by flooding, is facing the same dilemma – should it go, by folding its tents and moving uphill, or stay, like King Canute, the champion of stayers, and try to win the battle against nature by increasingly clever engineering and building solutions.

The options for the city’s future are now facing intense scrutiny from many quarters: all three tiers of government, experts in such fields as hydrology and town planning, and the thousands of residents and businesses whose homes and livelihoods have, quite literally, been turned upside down.

Opinions and visions abound, with a major, and likely heated, debate likely to develop when decision time approaches. Meanwhile, one thing is abundantly clear – doing nothing is the only unacceptable option because of the numbers of homeless and business premises gutted. Looming over it all is that no one can confidently predict that the city – and the downstream villages and farmland – will never be flooded again.

In recent weeks two significant reports have been released, one a study by Lismore City Council with the prosaic title of “Review of Lismore’s Land Use Management Strategy - A Discussion Paper on Growth and Rebuilding in Lismore”, the other, “On Higher Ground – a new future for Lismore”, a challenging contribution by three local academics.

Council’s plan begins with a reference to the likely ongoing impacts of climate change, noting what is required is ‘a complete re-think about how we plan to rebuild a regional city located at the convergence of two rivers. There can no longer be a ‘business as usual’ approach to planning for Lismore.’

What is needed are ‘big ideas about how we can adapt, mitigate and live with the flood risk so that we are not endlessly repeating the same heartbreaking clean-up processes.’

The broad approach looks at how the CBD might be protected and “de-risked” through mitigation measures, concurrent with a strategy to “de-populate” other more vulnerable areas.

Suggestions include a ‘land swap’ program for eligible residents in North and South Lismore, along with encouraging house raising and other flood protection measures. It also recommends the rezoning of new flood free industrial land at Goonellabah and preliminary feasibility and design work for the creation of a new commercial centre on the golf course land at East Lismore.

‘All of this will require significant and ongoing support from both State and Federal Governments,’ the Review says.

‘Council is seeking feedback on the recommendations made in the report from landowners, business and industry and the general Lismore community. All feedback received will be considered by strategic planning staff and addressed in a report to Council.’

The golf course - whoever thought it would be seen thus – is also regarded as suitable “higher ground” in the second study by Adjunct Professor Barbara Rugendyke, Geographer Professor Jerry Vanclay and Environmental Scientist Mr Angus Witherby who begin with the proposition that ‘Lismore is a shattered town’ and argue that for the city to prosper into the future it is essential that it build ‘a new heart.’

Saying mitigation works to flood proof the current town are not possible  – a pity this was seldom stated in all the flood levee reports and debates over recent decades  – they conclude that, ‘a cursory analysis of the financial costs of rebuilding the town after repeated flooding events, compared to the cost of relocation of the town now, supports the argument for relocation of much of the CBD and of housing subject to inundation.’

In a statement of the bleeding obvious that could have value well beyond Lismore, they add, ‘One of the basic principles of environmental management is: if you can’t remove the risk, move people from the risk. This is apt and applicable in Lismore’s case and would provide an exemplar for future relocation of parts of other towns or cities in Australia which repeatedly experience the ravages of environmental disasters.’

Such reports, and no doubt more to follow, raise a number of key questions. These include who should manage the relocation process, who will bear the costs and what might happen to those who refuse to leave CBD premises or North and South Lismore dwellings.

The only general agreement is that something must be done, and it must start soon.

One imaginative proposal, a kind of “Bladerunner solution”, is for the CBD area to undergo a futuristic redesign to accommodate businesses and residents who do not wish to move to ‘higher ground’, say Goonellabah or the golf course, which itself would have to be moved, unless the popular facility is to be scrapped altogether.

Under this plan, which is yet to see the light of day, the new CBD would be built several stories up over levels of carparks and eventually consist of three large shopping malls starting with Woodlark Street from the north side located over the Brown’s carpark. This could incorporate layers of apartments for inner city living, and bring people into the centre of town, with the mall containing shops, offices, a cinema, restaurants and other features.

The mall would be joined by an aerial walkway to the next mall, which would be located from the eastern edge of Keen Street and again more businesses could be relocated. This would again be joined by an aerial pedestrian bridge to a third mall starting from the southern edge of Magellan Street and extending to Conway Street.

Part of the funding for these malls would come from the sale of upper-level apartments, and again existing CBD businesses would have preference to the shops in the new mall.

The area between the western side of Molesworth Street and the river would need to be looked at carefully, the theory goes, as buildings such as the Summerland Credit Union and the Westlawn building are already flood safe. However, a critical look at most of the others would necessitate some tough decisions being made.

Once the businesses have shifted from the central CBD area, the buildings would all be removed and the area turned into a town square in the manner of many European and South American cities and towns. There could be small street level enterprises and events, restoring charm to the city’s heart.

To borrow from Yes Minister, adopting such a plan would be a courageous decision indeed, but perhaps that is what the city needs if it is not just to survive but thrive in the years ahead