Bats and biospheres

In the community of Noosa, people live and work next to a group of grey-headed flying foxes. When we visited their nesting site on Wednesday, the huge bats were hanging like weird fruits from several trees, some sleeping with their wings tucked around them, some flying around. Seeing them reminded me of Austin, and the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge.

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Grey headed flying foxes roosting. Photo credit: David Kleinert

After learning more about Noosa, however, the contrast between it and Austin became clear. Noosa is a UNESCO-designated biosphere, where people live in an environmentally conscious way, and conduct scientific research on ways of living sustainably, in harmony with nature.

The city council oversees the community of Noosa, leading with what appears on the surface as an iron fist. They consistently shoot down proposals—here a resort, there a multi-story hotel, here a chicken farm. Rejected developers, like revenge-driven jilted suitors, sue the council for another chance at their multi-million dollar dreams.

The council wins around 90% of the cases.

“Or at least the important ones,” said council member Ben McMullen, who showed us around the council chambers, and took us to a scenic overlook of the green expanse that is the Noosa biosphere.

The restrictions to build in Noosa are stringent: buildings can’t be above three stories, and there is a population cap limiting the number of developments on the land.

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A view of the most heavily settled region of the Noosa biosphere.

Given the status of the Noosa community as a biosphere, these restrictions are well warranted.

The city planning policies lie in stark contrast to those in the US. Even in Austin, with its reputation for being a “green” city, huge, electricity-guzzling apartment complexes sprout like mushrooms, and the roads become increasingly clogged with cars of new residents as the city grows at a rate of almost 3 percent a year. It would be hard to imagine Austin, or really any Texas city, with a building height limit or population cap.

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A map of UNESCO biosphere locations in Asia and Australia. Photo credit: UNESCO

I enjoyed learning about Noosa, and the concept of a biosphere. I always knew they existed, but I had never fully grasped what they were. They seem to straddle the line between the excessive urban development of cities, and the strictly regulated wilderness of state and national parks. It’s interesting to think about a place where people balance these two values—human use and preservation of nature.

In a perfect world, every place could operate like these biospheres, where people live sustainably and learn from their experience.

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