The future of Port Kembla

An historical and geographical interdisciplinary project

Professor Chris Gibson, and Drs Chantel Carr and Andrew Warren (UOW) are working on an historical – geographical project to investigate the past, present and future significance of Australian industrial landscapes. It focuses on a crucial trading zone and one of the nation's most significant industrial precincts, Port Kembla.

The interdisciplinary project, “Continuity and change in the Australian industrial landscape” (an ARC funded discovery project), is a study of the changes in Port Kembla and its surrounding region since 1980, to better understand the transformation of the industrial landscape, its implications for Australian port cities and the people who work in them.

Port Kembla in NSW is one of the largest industrial complexes in Australia, hosting high volume import hubs for vehicles and bulk grains, and is regarded as NSW’s 2nd largest container port (after Port Botany). But amid competing land use pressures and macroeconomic transformations, the future of urban industrial space is increasingly under threat. This research project will enable industrial enterprises, strategic planners and researchers to make better-informed decisions that leverage existing strengths of legacy industrial localities and their surrounding communities.

The research project will begin with the timely archiving of recent (from 1980) industrial, worker and migrant histories, investigating how lives have been transformed in contemporary industrial landscapes.

To understand how Port Kembla has changed over the last 30 years the team will use time series data from the ABS, but they will also be looking beyond the numbers to people’s lived experiences of change. A key part of the project will be oral history interviews with workers and residents in the area which will be integrated with a spatial audit using GIS and other visual technologies, to build a picture of how the suburb has transformed spatially and materially over that time.

This new knowledge will contribute to more resilient and better integrated industrial port regions and economies, and build an evidence base for future strategic thinking around industrial port infrastructure.

“The commodities we’ll be investigating in this project are cars, grain, cement, steel and coal, each of which have followed distinctive industrial trajectories since the 1980’s. We’ve seen the slowing down of steel production in our area but also some incredible growth in grain and vehicle imports for example,” says Dr Chantel Carr (pictured below) a chief investigator on the project.

The multidisciplinary team has experience across economic and cultural geography, labour and social history, industrial and migrant heritage, urban and environmental planning and architecture. The researchers hope to develop an interdisciplinary research methodology that integrates qualitative, historical and spatial analysis to produce innovative multimedia digital content.

“One of the key outcomes of this project is to produce engaging 3D visualisations of the evolution of port infrastructure and surrounding industrial precincts over time and space,” says human geographer and a CI of the project Prof. Chris Gibson.

These visualisations and the stories of local residents and workers will be shared on a website designed specifically for the project, so that local communities, government and industry stakeholders, industrial heritage enthusiasts and other researchers will be able to ‘see’ how the built environment has evolved over time, and how lives have changed in Port Kembla as a result.

“We’re very excited about working with our international partner investigator Professor Steven High on this outcome. As one of the founders of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University in Canada, Steven brings his extensive experience in coproducing digital stories with communities,” says Prof. Chris Gibson.

Port Kembla has been identified as a NSW Port of Growth, and the fact that it sits next to Australia’s biggest industrial complex makes it a very significant site looking into the future. Governments at all levels have recognised a need for longer term, cross-sectoral strategic planning for developing resilient critical infrastructure such as ports. This project will contribute to this goal by understanding how those aspirations might fit with the needs of local communities.

“Port Kembla is deeply intertwined with global commodity flows, yet when we hear about it in this national context, it is easy to forget that it’s also a place where people go about their everyday lives. This work will bring together both the global and the local, using some exciting and inclusive research methodologies, to help inform infrastructure planning and policy around one of Australia’s most significant assets,” says Dr Carr.

The 3-year ARC project involves Professor Lucy Taksa (Macquarie University) and Professor Steven High (Concordia University, Canada), bringing their expertise in education, heritage and oral history research for digital projects.