Small scale initiatives and better urban design, with more medium density housing close to amenities and public transport, are critical for Australian cities to become cost-effectively more sustainable, according to two leaders in urban sustainability.
As Melbourne gears up to host the Green Cities event on March 17-19, City of Melbourne Councillor Aaron Wood, Chair of the City’s Environment portfolio, as well as Deputy Chair of its Economic Development portfolio and Green Building Council of Australia COO, Robin Mellon, spoke separately about Australia’s challenge in finding cost-effective and economically-viable ways to make our cities more liveable and environmentally friendly.
Wood says, like other cities in Australia and around the world, Melbourne has in the past tended to opt for singular, large-scale engineering solutions when a number of smaller solutions would have delivered greater benefit at less cost.
He says a key example is water. In the past, the city’s response to rainwater and potential flooding issues revolved primarily around construction of large drainage systems beneath city streets, and pumping dirty water out into Port Phillip Bay.
Nowadays, he says the city is focusing on strategies and technologies such as trees, parks, rainwater harvest and water-sensitive urban design, which are not only less expensive and actually save money in the long run, but are also delivering additional benefits in terms of quality of life for the city’s residents.
Around 25 per cent of water used in the city’s parks and gardens, for instance, is now rainwater that has been captured and reused – a proportion the city is hoping to lift to 50 per cent in the near term. To reduce risks in the flood-prone Elizabeth Street catchment area (running from Carlton just north of the CBD down into the middle of town), the city is looking at using green roofs, large parks, permeable pavement and large stormwater harvesting units – solutions Wood says are better and less costly than ripping up a major city street to put in new drainage.
“I think the key lesson we’ve learned is that the big shiny silver bullet engineering solutions can often be very expensive and also don’t deliver all the added benefits that comes from green infrastructure,” Wood said.
“If we look at headline green infrastructure such as, trees, parks, green roofs, water sensitive urban design and green walls and facades, they can actually perform many functions. That type of infrastructure can help alleviate issues like heat stress, energy demand and cooling of buildings, promoting biodiversity and reducing overland flooding.
“So the headline lesson for us is that yes, going green costs money. But in many respects, it is actually far cheaper than the big single engineering solutions that have been used in the past.”
Meanwhile, Mellon says that with an expected population of 40 million by 2060 and three quarters of these people expected to live in cities, Australia has a major challenge in this area.
He says Australian cities must move away from a model that is ‘built for cars’ and toward an approach built around medium density housing near to major transport connections. That means better public transport, as well as safe, compact and pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods with easy access to amenities.
He adds that a focus should be placed on commuting to places of employment by means other than car, through facilities such as bicycle racks and end-of-trip facilities, dedicated space for fuel efficient hybrid or electric vehicles, limited car parking spaces, and special spaces for car share programs in buildings – features which he says GBCA rewards through its various Green Stars certifications.
Finally, Wood says Australia should move beyond thinking about sustainability as solely an environmental consideration, but also one that makes good business sense. He says cities represent a significant opportunity if we can use smart solutions to turn things around.
“I think for me, going green has to be taken away from the realm of being a green environmentalist to just wanting to have smart business and long-term thinking, innovative cities,” he said. “On that front, going green and using green infrastructure isn’t actually going to be a greater cost in the long run – it’s actually going to be a really smart way of using our resources.
“The same goes for many of our green building programs where we are looking at things like reducing energy and water use. At the end of the day, they are actually really good business solutions as much as they are about making the environment more sustainable.”