Book Review: Cities in a Sunburnt Country: Water and the Making of Urban Australia

This book review is published in the Urban History Review/Revue d’histoire urbaine, Fall/automne 2023.

 Australia is the driest continent on Earth. Its regions fluctuate between punishing drought and intense rainfall. With their knowledge of Country, and their conservation cultures, First Peoples have had continual access to water for millennia. Water and weather shaped their everyday activities and cultural traditions. The British colonisation of Australia from 1788 onwards, and the development of its cities since the nineteenth century, has transformed how water is both understood and managed across the continent. The relationships between people, cities, and water, particularly the expanding provision of water infrastructure such as pipes and sewerage, is the subject of this remarkable new book, Cities in a Sunburnt Country: Water and the Making of Urban Australia

Seven Australian historians co-authored the book. Together, they hold remarkable breadth and depth in terms of historical and methodological knowledge. Brisbane is the realm of Margaret Cook and Peter Spearritt, who also writes on Sydney. Lionel Frost comes from Melbourne. Andrea Gaynor and Jenny Gregory are based in Perth. Martin Shanahan brings expertise from Adelaide. Ruth A. Morgan is an environmental historian, along with Cook and Gaynor. Frost and Shanahan are economic historians. It is often said that urban history is at its best when combined with insights from other historical sub-disciplines. The integration of urban and environmental historical approaches, combined with economic, social, and cultural histories, strengthen the volume. 

Cities in a Sunburnt Country has nine chapters that trace the provision of water from deep time (pre-colonisation) through to the present day. Acknowledging the diversity of Australia’s First Nations, the first substantive chapter considers First Peoples ancient and continuing social and cultural relationships to water. Water has been a living entity bound up in myth and, relatedly, recognised as essential for sustaining human life. First Nations have lived in places where fresh water was assured. For instance, over at least the past 32,000 years, the Gunditjmara developed a sophisticated aquaculture system for eel farming at Budj Bim, 300 kilometres west of present-day Melbourne. Following colonisation, the book notes that it is hardly a coincidence that colonial frontier war battles and associated massacres against First Peoples often occurred near to fresh water supplies. 

The subsequent six substantive chapters examine water since colonisation and adopt a broadly chronological format. The nineteenth century is addressed in a single chapter on ‘Domesticating Water’. Epigrammatic tiles are also used for the twentieth-century chapters: ‘Keeping Up’, ‘Transforming Homes’, and ‘Watering Suburbia’. The final two central chapters, ‘Crises of Confidence’ and ‘Twenty-First Century Australian Cities’, transition the book to the present day. Overall, water and sewerage development typically lagged population and housing growth. Moments of crises such as fire or flood spurred infrastructure and technology investment. In recent decades, ideologies of controlling water and nature have gradually shifted to narratives of co-existence with water and nature. The enduring cultural influence of Britain has led Australians to expect an abundance of accessible and cheap water, despite the challenges posed by the climate and landscape. 

All chapters cut across Australia’s largest five state capitals as measured by population today: Sydney (5.3 million people), Melbourne (5 million), Brisbane (2.6 million) Perth (2.2 million), and Adelaide (1.4 million). The chapters appropriately contrast the larger and older cities of Melbourne and Sydney with the smaller and newer cities of Brisbane and Perth. The capital cities of Hobart (250,000) and Darwin (150,000), along with the national capital Canberra (450,000), are not within the project scope. Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Hobart intensely developed from the nineteenth century. Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, and Darwin are twentieth-century cities. The absence of the three smallest capitals can be justified by their less forceful development pressures. Including Canberra would have, however, empowered a stronger consideration of national authorities and how they interacted with state and municipal governments, especially given enduring federal-state governance tensions. 

The structure and contents of Cities in a Sunburnt Country reflects the evolving Australian research environment. It is a key outcome of an Australian Research Council Discovery Project (DP180100807). The Discovery scheme is Australia’s primary funding mechanism for pure humanities and social sciences research. It is also a funding scheme that encourages collaboration among academics, hence the multi-authored single volume. The emphasis on the ‘National Interest’ in Australian grant funding encourages research that has clear relevance to contemporary social, economic, and environmental challenges. Few topics are more relevant than historical questions around the provision of basic human needs such as water amid the Anthropocene. 

Another effect of stressing ‘National Interest’ is producing research that has nationwide relevance. For not only Australian urban history, but also closely aligned sub-disciplines like planning and architectural history, research cutting across multiple cities and towns is now the norm. Within urban history, examples this century include Andrea Gaynor’s Harvest of the Suburbs: An Environmental History of Growing Food in Australian Cities (2006), Graeme Davison’s City Dreamers: The Urban Imagination in Australia (2016), Seamus O’Hanlon’s City Life: The New Urban Australia (2018), and my own Values in Cities: Urban Heritage in Twentieth Century Australia (2023). The urban history monograph on a single city is discouraged by the domestic research environment. A notable recent exception is Margaret Cook’s A River With a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods (2019). 

Although enabling comparative insights, a multi-authored, multi-city, multi-century historical volume has its inherent challenges. Given the multiple authors, are chapters and sections cohesive? Given the multiple cities, is each city given adequate and accurate coverage? Given the temporal chronology from deep time to the present day, are the major trends and issues covered? I will not quibble in answering these questions. Certainly, methodological differences are readable in the volume, particularly in the explicit shifts from governance or economic themes to environmental and social themes. The reasons why particular cities and events are used to demonstrate particular changes could have been made more explicit. The ambition of the volume to provide a relevant and satisfying chronological account explains the pre-twentieth-century chapters. A present-day chapter was necessitated by the project’s objective to affect contemporary water policymaking. Every chapter draws on a mixture of original historical research, prior research of the authors, and the existing historiography. The book is thus strongly inflected by each author’s individual research interests and the existing strengths in the literature. The chapters on ‘Transforming Homes’ and ‘Watering Suburbia’ especially appealed to me as a social historian. Overall, this is a cohesive collection.

Canada and Australia have different climates and are geographically distant. But Cities in a Sunburnt Country has relevance for readers in both nations. The ways in which First Peoples’ knowledge and histories are integrated across the volume makes it a benchmark contemporary urban history volume. Both nations share similar historical trajectories in the ways that authorities have attempted to manage and control water. The book thus complements Michèle Dagenais’s Montreal, City of Water: An Environmental History (2017) and Mariana Valverde’s The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885–1925 (2008). For global urban history, Cities in a Sunburnt Country also speaks to, for example, The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination (2014) by Matthew Gandy. Within the Studies in Environment and History series published by Cambridge University Press, Cities in a Sunburnt Country has companion volumes in Thomas Dunlap’s Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (1999) and Alfred W. Crosby’s The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (1986). All this scholarship indicates an international trend towards urban water histories. Cities in a Sunburnt Country is a significant contribution to Australian and global urban history. 

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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