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  • Cities in a Sunburnt Country: Water and the Making of Urban Australia by Margaret Cook et al.
  • James Lesh
Margaret Cook, Lionel Frost, Andrea Gaynor, Jenny Gregory, Ruth A. Morgan, Martin Shanahan, and Peter Spearritt. Cities in a Sunburnt Country: Water and the Making of Urban Australia.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

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. [End Page 175]

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...