By Dominique Hes, with Elena Pererya

    It is easy to be angry about the danger the West Footscray factory fire has posed to our kids, nature and even our veggie gardens. When I started writing this piece, the first thing I wrote was a page on taking responsibility and needing to be held accountable, and venting my anger.

    Then I realised this won’t help or prevent this from happening again. Making people behave through regulations, fines and prosecution doesn’t prevent things; it just means people fight harder to be secretive, to find loopholes and spend lots of money and energy in the courts.

    What we need is engaged industry, engaged community and engaged government working together for the thriving of everyone.

    Here in Melbourne’s inner west, we have faced crises before, along with ensuing health and environmental fallout – from the Coode Island fire in 1991 to the recent factory fire in West Footscray. We are a community that cares about each other and our surroundings. Yet we can and must do more to foster and enhance that potential.

    The recent factory fire is a coughing canary. While people have seemingly escaped immediate ill-health effects, time will tell.

    There has clearly been significant long-term damage to Stony Creek as well as to the ecosystems and mangroves in the adjacent wetlands. Sentiments expressed at the subsequent community forums demonstrate people’s discontent and outrage with the lack of oversight of these factories and the inappropriateness of large inaccessible industrial zones so close to residences.

    Community cohesion has been unsupported in the local area; Several community groups have proposed community-building initiatives to council, but to no avail. Conversations need to be brokered between industries that have warehouses, the community that live around them, and those that have an interest in the protection of our health and environment. It is too easy to store things away from where you live and not be too worried about their impact when that impact is on people and systems you don’t care about, which whom you have no connection.

    Having constructive and involved conversations may sound Utopian, but it is not. It is what we need to move to so we can have a thriving future – one that isn’t filled with fear of those that do not care for us. Council has a central role in this as the elected representatives of our community, charged with our wellbeing and care. They need to be an active part of bringing all the parties around a table to work out how to work together to stop future accidents happening.

    It is not just those who were part of the fire that should be part of conversation either – it is all industry in the area. We want them to thrive with us. The jobs, the diversity, the value industry brings is immense and needed, it cannot be an us and them.

    We have many ways of facilitating conversations that will enable all parties to benefit mutually – conversations that empower industry to feel like they have a contributive role in the community. The first step is to come to a place of common values, this needs to be built through understanding each other, and what each brings to the table. The second is to look at how together we support each other to be better, stronger and more vital. What does the industry provide, the council, the community and so forth? How do we build on the good things together and plan for a healthy future for this place, the inner west? This approach has many names: one is regenerative development, which aims to increase the viability, vitality and ability to adapt to a system.

    Yet none of this is possible while we have an “us and them” mentality. We are all connected to this place, at this time, through where we live work and govern. We need to take this seriously if we are to thrive together.



    Polluted waterways can be regenerated and restored. In one example, a community looked to natural systems supported by human systems to help restore a water body in Fuzhou, China: the Baima Canal and a Tributary to the Minjiang River. This was a very polluted canal, something full of disease and smells that could knock you flat. There was a very expensive proposal to clear the river using mechanical systems, machines, filters, chemicals, etc. Ecological designer John Todd proposed what is called “a living machine” – a system designed with plants, fish, snails and a wonderful boardwalk that not only cleaned the water but also grew flowers seasonally and provided a new safe way for people to walk in that area.

    It did this at a fraction of the cost. While its success was undermined by a subsequent drought upstream, it worked wonderfully for many years, contributing to the health, vitality and beauty of the area. John looked at the flows and combined human engineering thinking with nature’s ability to deal with excess nutrients and chemicals and produced something low cost, low energy and effective.

    Dr Dominique Hes is the Zero Building Carbon Lead at the City of Melbourne. Dominique mixes theory and thinking, with doing and testing to discover how we can best contribute to the well-being and thriving of place, people and planet.

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