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Byron Shire
August 20, 2022

Imagining a new City of Lismore

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What is the post-flood future of Lismore? Photos David Lowe

The City of Lismore is my home town. It was an exceptional place to grow up, nestled within a picturesque valley at the confluence of two rivers; it was proud, sporting, cultural and busy. 

The surrounding rural landscapes and coastal areas became world renowned for their environmental richness and beauty and acknowledged as Bundjalung Country of our First Nations people.

But Lismore is now in crisis. This sprawling town of pubs and clubs, monuments and institutions, with an established and dignified town block of four main streets, of thriving industry and commerce is broken. The unprecedented flooding of 2022 has wreaked so much devastation that, coupled with the foreboding predictions of similar or worse future scenarios owing to the compounding effects of global climate change, Lismore is now faced with an existential dilemma.

Lismore post-flood 2022. Phot David Lowe

Recognising the past and looking to the future

Options for the City of Lismore are limited. A major new study now underway, led by the National Recovery and Resilience Agency and the CSIRO, aims to examine ways to mitigate the impact of these disasters. 

The town of Lismore was surveyed, planned and proclaimed in the Government Gazette on 1 May 1856 on a former cattle station named Lismore by William and Jane Wilson. Tellingly these pastoral operations, later owned by the Girards, were abandoned in part owing to recurring devastating floods. ‘Lismore’ has managed the impacts of flooding since its origins, including raising dwellings and buildings, flood-proofing construction, utilising pumps and levees, however the scale and intensity of impacts are increasing. The record-breaking February flooding followed by a second major flood through the town within weeks has left the town despondent.

Brave souls are returning, businesses that can be viable have reset, but there remains a huge invisible question mark hanging in the air around the flags of heart logos flying defiantly from the rooftops.

Lismore as a town has to reset for now, repair, renovate and soldier on – but a new vision must arise from the ruins that can offer Lismore future security. Lismore is physically and mentally in a state of depression, there is nothing healthy in business-as-usual without an endgame that resolves the maddening cycle of flood devastation. Serious consideration must be given to relocating our town, the CBD, the industrial sector, services etc out of the floods’ way. 

This is a regional issue, it is a State issue and it is a national issue. Climate change threatens numerous settlements on Australia’s coastal plains and floodplains. Lismore is now an immediate test case. 

Ballina remains particularly vulnerable; the region needs to design now for future inundation scenarios that will render current settlements uninhabitable. 

We must take up the initiative and develop new settlements utilising all the principles to enable the best of placemaking, transport and communications infrastructure, environmentally sustainable design, regenerative practice, employment and circular economy through rural to knowledge industries.

Official cleanups of Richmond River High School in North Lismore post-floods PIC: FB


Is it possible to relocate a city the size of Lismore? How do you move a community and its heritage? 

Moving residences up to the hillsides is the easy part, moving large scale retail, industrial and civic buildings is a different matter, not to mention the heritage buildings that give depth and character to the city and its community. 

The economic costs will be substantial but the benefits could be incalculable, particularly compared to the execrable saga of diminishing returns with a business-as-usual approach. Government must address futureproofing urban Australia; our finite resources of minerals and fossil fuels should be utilised to fund this resilience before it’s too late in both cases.

Relocation options, criteria, program and economy need to be examined. Here is an opportunity to realise an urban/town/city design model that will encompass all the advances of our proven knowledge-base for successful town planning providing mobility, services, economy, self-sufficiency and quality of life in harmony with our natural environment and lifestyle.

Flooding in Lismore, showing NORPA and Bruxner Highway, 31 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

A future of opportunity

A positive, lively, safe and desirable future will attract investment and secure a future for Lismore. 

The old town of Lismore also represents an opportunity, the floodplains could be regenerated for agriculture, where possible, the township could be a sport, entertainment, cultural and recreation destination, farmers’ markets and any outdoor activities that allow flood compatibility would be possible. Landscape renewal and regeneration could feature the heritage monuments that must remain.

Central to any schema should be a transport system that provides quick and easy access between old and new, reducing car dependence, improving mobility, access to services, and reducing emissions. Infrastructure in general will have to be reconsidered and renewed. Energy, water, waste, communications, transport – these are all opportunities to consider best practice and innovative solutions.

A new built environment presents a myriad of options, challenges and opportunities. Enormous costs are to be expected, but small in the scheme of things is the vision and the masterplan. New development could be incremental to minimise risk and enable early return on investment.

Perhaps a simple and familiar solution would be best; a string of villages along a linear transport spine that would offer small-scale land release to enable land swaps, diversity, and interdependence together with schema requiring large-scale developer engagement. 

Floodwater surges over the levee at Browns Creek Pumping Station, Lismore, 30 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

Time for vision

Nevertheless any proposal should be focused on attracting new business investment and development that will benefit from locating into a highly desirable part of Australia with a diverse, educated and cultural community.

Lismore needs a vision now, relocation will take time. Humanity has moved with the tide for eons, not to do so is certain death. Land acquisition will be required, the challenges are huge but the conversation has to begin. There is a kernel of truth in Lismore’s current dilemma, not to acknowledge this could be the ultimate folly.

♦ Paul Jones is an architect based in Byron Bay.

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  1. I agree that creative and pragmatic visioning is vital. I think any visioning process needs to be community-led and community-owned. And it needs to include grieving processes. We could have government and business engagement but not community engagement because the community is already engaged. We are the ones who have saved ourselves and will continue to do so. We just need to find common ground and shared understandings between us, through genuine, sturdily structured conversations and proven processes, so that we can be the hardy survivors we are and let go of any ‘victim’ tendencies.

  2. I grew up in Christchurch NZ and am a frequent visitor. Perhaps the renewal that city has faced post the destructive earthquakes of 2010/2011 would offer some examples.

  3. Lismore’s Climate Change! Being debriefed on grief…I am imagining a ‘new city’
    because home & away people deserve the care & respect of our citizens before
    & now. I speak of Bundjung country’s First Nation where there is strength, love &
    respect within all its people. Due to the floods’ fury relocation of land is nothing
    but a must. There are many advanced visions coupled with relocating town –
    CBD – & land swaps. Delicate diversity challenges all of us. I believe we will all
    win through soon enough.

  4. Yes,I love that you said what needed to be said….
    I have the same vision for the town and I think it could be really beautiful and revolutionary…would love to get one of those 3d,cyber space design programs happening to see how it would look…and the funny thing is…Redesigning Lismore is completely affordable…because yr actually taking away alot of it and filling the rest in with trees…gardens,actualisation of the dream for many.
    Anyway,as far as the actually living accom…houses…relocation to higher ground,by liberating 100 acres of cow land would be a good start…but done the new way…with the most up to date technology we have…I don’t mean just panels,but human technology…the cherry on top of our civilisation…dream it up people!..time to bring in the talking stick meetings me thinks, so everyone can contribute,let’s not get steam rolled by out of date big business.. if not you…when …love you lismore!!

  5. Paul Jones ! What have the predominantly greens
    Local government / lismore shire council !! done
    Over the past two decades to mitigate the
    Future possibility of devastating floods
    Overwhelming the CBD ? Answer the question ..

  6. I was in Lismore today and noticed it is surrounded by hills and is commonly regarded as the wok, has anyone looked into building a dam wall on the south western side and converting it into a fresh water lake.
    Maybe it could take the place of the Dunoon dam, help with future water supplies during droughts and become the northern rivers hydro electric supply.

  7. Where you say;” Perhaps a simple and familiar solution would be best; a string of villages along a linear transport spine that would offer small-scale land release to enable land swaps, diversity, and interdependence together with schema requiring large-scale developer engagement. ”
    Indeed we have 130km, what we need to do is upgrade the “train” concept, repurpose the steel to a pole and rails design for high speed light weight suspended electric passenger pods along and above the rail corridor linking up said villages, would make your design low footprint modern

    • Ooo, suspended pods i like that! I remember waiting for our school bus on a quiet country road as kids and favouriteday-dream imagining that instead of the bus, the occasional little pod/cable-car came drifting along under the telephone lines 🙂 🙂

  8. I wish the government & relative parties would put the land & infrastructure in the hands of the indigenous population, let’s face it they managed to live before we came along!
    Talk about not enough women in politics,well there’s no indigenous people either.
    When is this country going to give the underdog a say along with the big wigs, that don’t have too many solutions & far too slow to act.
    Look at Kakadu & national Parks in the northern territory,managed by well, mostly by the indigenous ranges & they don’t get raging Fire or flooding there?
    And they get the rainy season/ drought/temperature s that reach 38-40degree, they don’t seem to struggle with weather extremes.
    We need some good old fashioned informative advice,if we are going to make it.!
    And don’t let me go on about our councils!

    • I’m afraid, although you clearly mean well, what you have said is unsophisticated and simplistic. Your people really must take a good long look at the way forward. You will gain little support for such silly business now and less in future.

  9. I like your ‘string of villages’ concept, although it has many challenges it is possible and could be done over time.

    The problem you state so clearly is that the ‘heart’ of Lismore has been physically and metaphorically obliterated. The villages provide kernels of history and culture that could be carefully grown to replace it

  10. Lismore has always flooded and will again. The common sense approach from my thinking is water has to flow out quickly and easily, to much back up of water results in floods, so spend money on making ways for the water to flow without any hold ups, make rivers wider and make more places to make rivers, doing that may help save the town

  11. Climate change is a dialogue used. The floods in February and March were created by the government using chemical warfare in the sky, cloud seeding, and then held the clouds over the Northern Rivers using EMF’s and pulses, drowning everyone out and sadly innocent people died. Between the government creating the storm and then not allowing unvaccinated people help the SES to rescue or even fill a sandbag, and SES and the government have said it would all be done the same again if faced with the problem again. The Great Reset button has been hit, the new world order is here.. Jesus is the answer

  12. Yes to relocation to higher ground, but that is not the only problems we face from Global heating.
    Take a look around the world today, massive floods in western China, wild fires, drought and record heat in much of Europe and North America, India and Pakistan suffering record heat waves. Tidal waves in Hawaii, melting polar ice caps. There is not a day goes past any more without catastrophic climate events reported around the globe.
    Not only would moving Lismore out of flood but designing and building a new city that will protect against super cyclones, wild fires, record heatwaves and droughts for this is our future.
    My suggestion is building into hillsides ala Hobbit fashion would solve most of the problems of unprecedented climate disruption.

  13. I’d support that, Fred. Jacqui – yes, old fashioned has always
    worked wonders. And yes, too true, Rhys. Barrow – it’s time
    to wake up. Due to ongoing floods [re; climate change getting
    worse] Councils – one after the other, have gone near broke.

  14. There are cities of the world like New York and down those New York streets when you walk you get offered drugs by a bunch of thugs with guns. And there are other cities of the world where there are plenty of shops where you can buy warm clothing and pillows and rugs and then there is my itty bitty city of Lismore that floods with water about every few weeks. That city of mine, I don’t own it, but my heart is there in that city is named with that infamous name, the city of Lismore, a city of water draining and settled on the streets the fame is not just in the name like Washington as for in Lismore we are washing the water away most of the time.
    The shop next to mine there is a pretty young thing who sells clothing and her name is Liz, yes her name is Liz Moore and this here story of Lismore City with Liz is my home town, errr my home city. It is our home and it is a pity really but we are here to= stay. Ok, so we may groan but we are here to stay and it is here we will stay for ever as it is this city where we her have grown as well as the frogs and fish.
    This city of Lismore is but a spot on the map and it may be a raindrop or a teardrop but it is a spot that we don’t want to leave. Here lend me your sleeve I want to blow my nose for when I blow my own trumpet as this here place is a wonderful place to grow up in with webbed feet, nestled within a convoluted valley at the confluence of two rivers; where there are many proud people, sporting people and are cultural and busy, agricultural and busy. Hand me that sponge.

  15. Flooding is caused by tomuch rain to quick and not enough space to run out
    A series of wears or dams to slow down the water
    But not to hold water after the danger has passed
    We may need many of them
    Right back to the head of the rivers and creeks
    Farmers could be compensated for the Youse of there land when being used for the short time it is used
    The town can stay there with confidence

  16. Don’t fall for the climate change nonsense. Lord give us wisdom and knowledge to live freely and abundantly in this beautiful region.

    • Also the global wording of Build Back Better, Resilient/Resilience, Sustainable, etc. No thank you, we choose community, relationship and strength & courage.

    • Bang on Len!

      The levy actually restricted flow and is likely a large contributor to the record height in town.

      Think about the amount of water that would have eased itself into the entire Lismore basin taking pressure off much earlier, rather than the millions of litres being held back by the levy until, whoooosh.

      Works in small floods, but not big ones!

      Flow is the go bro!

  17. Right on, Len. And as we discuss ways & means of safe & sentimental
    living we need to remember that there is rarely any place or country
    on Planet Earth that ‘does not’ have a life threatening situation going
    down. Flood, fires, explosions, heat waves, germs, wars, gun runners
    & many more. Climate has changed humankind. Learn to accept it.
    Try fixing it.


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