Our legacy of liveable cities won’t last without a visionary response to growth



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Historic investments in green open space along the Yarra created a legacy of liveability in Melbourne.
Ispas Vlad/Shutterstock

Chris Chesterfield, Monash University

Australia’s major cities are growing more rapidly than ever before, gaining three million residents in a decade. Concerns about the risks to their long-term liveability and health are growing too. Is the consistent placing of Australian cities at the top of most liveable city rankings a reason for complacency?

The fastest-growing city, Melbourne, is experiencing unprecedented growth and yet has topped The Economist Intelligence Unit global liveability ranking for seven years running. However, much like Australia’s remarkable record of 26 years of continuous economic growth, many of the policy and institutional reforms that delivered this liveability legacy occurred decades ago.




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Australia is now undergoing its third great wave of population growth, putting pressure on infrastructure, services and the environment. During the past two waves of growth, in the late-19th and mid-20th centuries, cities implemented visionary responses. It’s largely because of these past phases of planning and investment that our cities have until now been able to sustain their liveability and a reasonably healthy natural environment.

A third wave of planning and investment in open space and green infrastructure is now needed to underpin liveability as our cities grow. The past offers important lessons about what made Melbourne, in particular, so liveable.

Can we repeat the leadership of yesterday?

In the early 19th century, European settlers ignored and displaced the Indigenous knowledge and connections with country. What grew in their place were initially little more than shambolic frontier towns.

In the Port Phillip colony, the gold rush, the subsequent population and property booms and the lack of city services led to Melbourne gaining an international reputation as “Smellbourne”.

But then, over several decades, visionary plans set aside a great, green arc of parklands and tree-lined boulevards around the city grid.

Melbourne constructed one of the world’s earliest sewerage systems. The forested headwaters of the Yarra River were reserved for water supply. Melbourne is today one of a handful of major cities in the world drawing its natural water supplies from closed catchments.

And so, together with profound social and cultural changes, the shambolic frontier town transformed into “Marvellous Melbourne”. Sydney and Australia’s other capital cities followed similar trajectories.




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Then came the world wars and intervening Great Depression. These were times of austerity and sacrifice. Remarkably little investment in open space and green infrastructure occurred over these decades.

The 1956 Melbourne Olympics was perhaps the event that signalled the awakening from that somewhat bleak period. It was again time for optimism and vision, with the post-war population boom well under way.

Australia’s population was booming at the time of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, with growth averaging 2.7% a year from 1945-1960 (the 2007-17 average is 1.7%).
Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå/Wikimedia

The 1954 Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme reflected this growing optimism and highlighted the potential for a network of open spaces across the rapidly expanding city. But it took time to build momentum for its implementation.

By the 1970s sprawling development had virtually doubled the metropolitan area of Melbourne. Services such as the sewerage system had not kept up. The Yarra and other waterways and Port Phillip Bay were becoming grossly polluted. There was community pressure to tackle pollution caused by industry and unsewered suburbs.

In 1971, the Victorian Environment Protection Authority, the second EPA in the world, was created to regulate industry. State and federal governments made a huge investment in sewering the suburbs.

The city’s planners revived the earlier vision for Melbourne’s open space network, along with the idea of green wedges and development corridors. Greater prosperity and community expectation secured the investment needed to deliver it.

Historic decisions to protect the Yarra River have had lasting benefits for Melbourne.
Dorothy Chiron/Shutterstock

The 1971 metropolitan plan identified open-space corridors for waterways including the Yarra. Land began to be acquired to build this green network and the trail systems that connect it. Victoria became known as the “Garden State” in the 1970s.

This period stands out as the city’s second great wave of visionary planning and investment. It created the wonderful legacy of a world-class network of open space, much of it around waterways and Port Phillip Bay.

Where to today?

Sustaining or improving urban liveability is a massive challenge. It calls for a new vision and a commitment by governments to deliver it over many decades. Do we have policies and institutions capable of doing this?

Rather than “shaping” our cities, many state institutions are dominated by cost and efficiency goals that drive a “city servicing” mindset.

Melbourne, for instance, is in danger of exhausting the legacy of the last “city shaping” phase of visionary planning and investment. This all but ended in the 1980s.

By 1992, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works had been abolished. It once had responsibility for town planning, parks, waterways and floodplain management as well as water and sewerage services. It used the Metropolitan Improvement Fund (raised from city-wide property levies) to plan and deliver the city’s green infrastructure, including land acquisitions.

Where is the equivalent capability today? Our practitioners have the knowledge, skills and understanding to better plan for complex city needs, but this is not enough to shape a better future for coming generations. Without a vision and effective policies and institutions to deliver it, we risk ad hoc and wasteful decision-making and investment. The result will be poorer community well-being and less economic prosperity.




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City planning suffers growth pains of Australia’s population boom


The entrenched cost-efficiency or “city servicing” mindset is an all-too-narrow and short-term policy setting in an era of unprecedented urban population growth.

Expanding suburban fringes will lack amenity and a healthy environment, which may entrench disadvantage. Existing suburbs also need to improve quality, access and connectivity of public open space.

Green streetscapes, open space and tree cover are important for amenity. This includes countering urban heat in a warming climate. Co-ordinated investment in green infrastructure can also unlock new economic opportunities for our cities.

But, as the past has shown, little will happen without an effective city-shaping capability. Significant policy and institutional reforms, guided by a new vision, are essential to ensure a healthy environment, community well-being and the liveability and prosperity of our cities for decades to come.

The ConversationAlternatively, we may find ourselves tumbling down the ranks of world’s most liveable cities. Our best and brightest will be drawn to greener pastures while the world asks in astonishment, “How did they let that happen?”

Chris Chesterfield, Director Strategic Engagement, CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Future ‘ocean cities’ need green engineering above and below the waterline



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Artificial islands can cause huge environmental issues for coastlines.
The Forest City Project

Katherine Dafforn, UNSW; Ana Bugnot, UNSW; Eliza Heery, National University of Singapore, and Mariana Mayer-Pinto, UNSW

Population growth has seen skylines creep ever higher and entire cities rise from ocean depths. The latest “ocean city” is the Chinese-developed Forest City project. By 2045, four artificial islands in Malaysia will cover 14km² of ocean (an area larger than 10,000 Olympic swimming pools), and support 700,000 residents.

Often overlooked, however, is the damage that artificial islands can cause to vital seafloor ecosystems. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If proper planning and science are integrated, we can develop the design strategies that will help build the “blue-green” ocean cities of tomorrow.




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Colonising the ocean frontier

Ever growing numbers of human-made structures are occupying our oceans. Cities built on artificial islands in the ocean are providing a solution for urban planners trying to manage the population squeeze.

And yet, so-called “ocean sprawl” dates as far back as Ancient Egypt. Over the past few centuries, artificial islands have been built through land reclamation. Land reclamation is the process of creating new land from existing water bodies.

Atlantis, The Palm Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates is built on an entirely artificial island.
Shutterstock

The Netherlands, for instance, has been draining lakes and expanding its coastline to fight the advance of the sea since the 1500s. The Dutch actually built one of the first and largest artificial islands, which is now home to some 400,000 people. Japan’s third-busiest airport, the Kansai International Airport, was built on an artificial island in 1994. China has also been building into the oceans, reclaiming more than 13,000km² of seafloor and an estimated 65% of tidal habitat since the 1950s.

The artificial Eden Island in Mahe, Seychelles.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Using Google maps, we were able to identify more than 450 artificial islands around the world, including the famous Palm Islands of Dubai. These are often celebrated as engineering marvels, but at what cost to the marine environment?

We can’t ignore what lies beneath

Marine habitats have always been essential for human life in coastal regions. They provide food, building and crafting materials, and less-known services such as coastal protection, nutrient cycling and pollution filtration.

One of the World Map islands in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Shutterstock

The creation of artificial islands causes large changes to the seabed by permanently smothering local habitats. In many parts of the world, existing habitats provide the foundation for artificial island construction. For instance, artificial islands in the tropics are often built directly on top of coral reefs. This leads to considerable destruction of already threatened ecosystems.

Land reclamation also impacts nearby habitats that are particularly sensitive to murky waters, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. In Singapore, land reclamation is associated with coral reef decline due to sedimentation and resulting light reductions. Singapore has lost nearly 45% of the country’s intertidal reef flats and almost 40% of intertidal mudflats.

When the ecological, economic, and social value of marine habitats are considered, artificial islands and ocean sprawl seem to be indulgences that we cannot afford. The effects would be akin to the suburban sprawl of the 20th century. To avoid this cost, we need to address the complexities of the underwater world in urban planning and development.

“Blue urbanism”

In his book Blue Urbanism, Timothy Beatley calls for urban planners to consider and value ocean ecosystems. He argues that we need to recognise the psychological value of human connections to blue space, and extend green practices on land into marine environments. While some artificial island developments such as the Forest City project are touted as “eco-cities”, more could be done both to minimise impacts below the waterline and integrate underwater environments into city life.

Why not combine a “Forest City” with the principles of a “Sponge City”? While native plantings in a forest city could help to reduce air pollution, sponge cities seek to “absorb” and reuse rainwater, thus reducing pollution entering the oceans through stormwater runoff. Around artificial islands, developers could also embrace the water filtration powerhouse of the oceans: active oyster reefs.

The location of future constructions should also be carefully evaluated to ensure the preservation of important marine habitats. Artificial islands have the potential to create fragmented seascapes, but with careful spatial planning and smart designs, they could create corridors for some climate migrants or those threatened species most at risk from habitat loss.

The ConversationDesigns based on ecological principles can reduce the impacts of artificial islands on natural habitats. However, applications of “blue-green” infrastructure remain largely untested at large scales. New designs, building strategies and spatial planning that integrate seascapes and landscapes are an opportunity for both “smarter” cities and experimentation for the development of successful blue-green technologies.

Katherine Dafforn, Senior Research Associate in Marine Ecology, UNSW; Ana Bugnot, Research Associate, UNSW; Eliza Heery, Research Fellow in Marine Ecology, National University of Singapore, and Mariana Mayer-Pinto, Senior Research Associate in marine ecology, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How tree bonds can help preserve the urban forest



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City trees don’t just look after themselves.

Joe Hurley, RMIT University; Dave Kendal, University of Tasmania; Judy Bush, University of Melbourne, and Stephen Rowley, RMIT University

Great cities need trees to be great places, but urban changes put pressure on the existing trees as cities develop. As a result, our rapidly growing cities are losing trees at a worrying rate. So how can we grow our cities and save our city trees?

Tree bonds have recently been proposed by Stonnington City Council as a way to stop trees being destroyed in Melbourne’s affluent southeastern suburbs.

Tree bonds are a common mechanism for protecting trees on public land, but have so far had limited use on private land. A tree bond requires a land developer to deposit a certain amount of money with the local authority during development. If the identified tree or trees are not present and healthy after the development, the funds are forfeited.

The size of the bond can be established based on estimated tree replacement costs, and/or set at a level that is likely to achieve compliance (likely to be thousands or tens of thousands of dollars).

Why are trees important in cities?

The concept of an “urban forest” includes all the trees and plants in cities. This includes tree-lined city streets as well as parks, waterways and private gardens. The urban forest contributes substantially to the quality of life of all urban dwellers, both human and non-human, and is increasingly used to adapt cities to climate change.




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Trees cool the streets, filter the air and stormwater, and create a sense of place and character. They provide food and shelter for insects, birds and animals.

There is growing research evidence for the physical, mental and social health benefits of urban trees and green spaces. Many local councils such as Brimbank and Melbourne are investing substantially in tree planting to increase these benefits.

However, despite new tree planting on public land, tree canopy on private land is declining.

What can we do to protect trees?

There are a range of existing policy and land use planning measures focused on landscaping requirements for new development. Recently, the Victorian government introduced minimum mandatory garden area requirements. Some Melbourne councils, including Brimbank and Moreland, have also included planning scheme requirements for tree planting for multi-dwelling developments.

Other mechanisms for protecting urban trees on private land include heritage and environmental overlays within local planning schemes, and listings of significant trees and heritage trees.

However, penalties, monitoring and enforcement of tree protection bylaws have not kept pace with the pressures of urban change.

If penalties are insignificant relative to development profits, developers can easily absorb the costs. If monitoring is weak and removal has a good chance of going undetected, tree protection is more likely to be ignored. And if enforcement is weak, or there is a history of successful appeal or defeat of enforcement, many trees may be at risk of removal.

Even when it is successfully pursued, after-the-fact planning enforcement action is a particularly unsatisfactory recourse for tree removal. Replacement trees may take decades to match the quality of mature trees that were removed. What is needed, then, are mechanisms that prevent tree removal in the first place.

Increasing use of tree bonds

The advantage of tree bonds is that they place the onus of proof of retention on developers, rather than the onus of proof of removal on local councils. If a tree is removed, the mechanism is already in place to monitor (the developer needs to demonstrate the tree is still there) and penalise (the financial penalty is already with the enforcing body).




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However, tree bonds still do not guarantee tree protection. Some mechanisms used to impose tree bonds may be vulnerable to challenge. For example, historically in Victoria, the planning appeals body VCAT has struck out conditions imposing tree bonds, arguing that punitive planning enforcement measures should be used where trees are removed.

Even where bonds can be imposed and enforced, developers may still be able to demonstrate that trees are unsafe or causing infrastructure damage, and thus need to be removed. In these circumstances, it is often hard to prove otherwise once the tree has been removed.

Nurturing an urban forest

Ultimately, if a landowner is hostile to a tree on their land, that tree’s health and survival can be imperilled, whether through illegal removal, neglect, or applications for removal based on health and safety grounds. It is therefore important that building layout and design realistically allow space for trees to flourish and be valued by landowners.

The urban forest needs protecting and enhancing. This calls for a range of policy mechanisms that work together to retain mature trees, maintain adequate spacing around them, and encourage residents to value and protect the trees around their homes.

The ConversationTree bonds provide an attractive solution for local governments in the absence of a strong land use policy framework for protecting trees.

Joe Hurley, Senior Lecturer, Sustainability and Urban Planning, RMIT University; Dave Kendal, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management, University of Tasmania; Judy Bush, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, University of Melbourne, and Stephen Rowley, Lecturer in Urban Planning, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

IPCC cities conference tackles gaps between science and climate action on the ground



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The IPCC’s first cities conference revealed the challenges in bridging the gaps between scientific knowledge and policy practice, and between cities in developed and developing nations.
Cities IPCC/Twitter

Jago Dodson, RMIT University

Some 600 climate scientists, urban researchers, policymakers and practitioners attended the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first ever conference on cities last week. Hosted in Edmonton, Canada, it was organised as a forum to share knowledge and advice in support of the sixth IPCC Assessment Report (AR6) due in 2021.

The significance of a UN-organised global scientific conference on climate change and cities should not be underestimated. Urbanisation has been a United Nations concern since 1963. Policy attention strengthened in the 1970s when the UN Habitat agency was established. This focus was redoubled in the mid-2000s when it was reported that more than half of the global population was now urban.

Climate change has been a topic of UN action since 1988, with policy attention intensifying in the late 1990s and mid-2010s. Appreciation has since grown that with 55% of the world’s people now living in cities, this is where where efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change must be focused.




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A collision of science, practice and politics

By venturing onto urban terrain the IPCC faces some interesting scientific questions. To a large degree biological or physical systems can be studied as objective phenomena that behave according to discoverable and predictable patterns. Carbon dioxide objectively traps solar radiation leading to climatic warming; biological species die at temperatures above their tolerance.

By contrast cities are riven with historical, social, economic, cultural and political dynamics. The theoretical and conceptual frames that scientists apply to cities are subject to many biases.

We certainly can calculate the emissions a city produces and chart the likely impacts on it from a changing climate. But the reasons why a city came to emit so much and how it responds to the need to reduce emissions and adapt to impacts are highly contingent. Objective validation and verification are difficult. Identifying causality and forward pathways is very difficult.

There is also a vast divide between the physical and social science of cities and the policymakers and practitioners who shape urban development. Research shows that most urban professionals simply do not read urban science. Instead they draw on practice knowledge acquired from peer practitioners via an array of non-scientific channels and networks.

These difficulties were observable at the IPCC cities conference. It was scientific in purpose but a subtle politics was at play. Rather than being convened by a scientific body, the conference was co-ordinated as an instrument of the world’s national polities and the IPCC, organised by a mix of UN organisations and NGO networks, and sponsored by a local, provincial and national government.

Fewer than two-thirds of delegates were scientists; the remaining 40 per cent were policy officials and practitioners. The problem of connecting scientific and practice knowledge was often on display.

Many cities have accepted the clear scientific evidence on climate change and accompanying global targets. These cities are striving at the local scale to cut emissions and adapt to changing climate patterns. For many, their main need is for knowledge of practical policies and programs, rather than more evidence of climate change impacts or mitigation technologies.

Often these cities are racing far ahead of slow and certain science. They are sharing practical experience of mitigation and adaptation strategies via self-organising peer-city networks. Finding ways to link inventive but unsystematic practice knowledge with the formal peer-reviewed processes of orthodox science will be a critical task for climate change scientists and policymakers.




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Policymakers are also grappling with how to implement global agreements within complex international arrangements. There face myriad tiers of national, regional, city and local governance, involving a plethora of discrete public, private and civic actors.

For this group, their priorities at the IPCC cities conference concerned policy processes and institutional design, political commitment and implementation instruments. Their needs are for policy, institutional and political science as much as for further scientific detail on climate change.

What did these encounters reveal?

The conference generated many fascinating insights. One major theme was the question of informality.

Many cities beyond the developed world are weakly governed. Multiple dimensions of urban life, including housing and infrastructure, are organised via informal institutions. Achieving effective action in these circumstances is a considerable policy problem.

A related problem is the gross geographical imbalance in scientific effort and focus on urban climate questions. Most research focuses on the cities of the developed West. And most of those are comparatively well resourced to respond to climate change.

In contrast, the cities of the developing world lack a systematic data and research base to enable effective and timely climate action. Yet these are the cities where many of the most severe climate impacts will be felt. Resolving this inequity is a fundamental international scientific challenge, as is growing the capacity to build a better evidence base.

Another question the IPCC needs to navigate is the boundary between science and politics in urban climate policy. During conference plenaries, the moderator — a former city mayor — excluded questions about specific political representatives’ stances on climate change according to apolitical IPCC rules. Yet questions about the effects on cities of neoliberalism were deemed permissible.

Urban scientists will require an especially nuanced framing of their research agenda if they are to address the very material politics of urban climate policy via theoretical abstraction alone.




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The conference also provided some memorable highlights. William Rees, the originator of ecological footprint theory, lambasted delegates for not adequately appreciating the absolute material limits to resource exploitation. And the youth delegates received a standing ovation as the cohort who will be grappling with urban climate effects long after their older peers have departed.

William Rees explains the origins of the ecological footprint.

An agenda for urban climate action

The conference released a research agenda. This outlines the urgent need for inclusive and socially transformative action on climate change, improved evidence and information to support climate responses, and new funding and finance mechanisms to make this possible. It’s a very high-level guide for climate and urban scientists seeking to better understand climate change impacts on cities.

The conference appears to have met the IPCC’s needs to compile and review a large volume of scientific and practice insight for its assessment reporting. Whether it will have a wider effect on climate policy and action in cities remains unclear.

The ConversationThe participating scientists and practitioners certainly shared a general commitment to advancing the urban climate agenda. But it remains uncertain whether methodical scientific processes will be timely enough to meet the accelerating and expanding demands of urgent urban climate action.

Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Building a ‘second nature’ into our cities: wildness, art and biophilic design



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The plantings of New York’s High Line Park were inspired by plants that had naturally colonised the disused railway viaduct.
Beyond my Ken/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Jordan Lacey, RMIT University

Biophilic design is beginning to boom. Witness its recent incorporation into the Melbourne Metro project and Sydney’s award-winning One Central Park, Chippendale. Given the increasing popularity of this urban design technique, it’s time to take a closer look at the meaning of nature and its introduction into our cities.




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Biophilia

Nature is good for our mental well-being, numerous scientific studies tell us. This flood of research begins in 1984 with E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, in which he hypothesises a gene that necessities our love of life and life-like processes. However, a genetic basis for biophilia has not been identified, and the value of a genetic argument for our attraction to nature has been questioned.

More recently, theorists have broadened the definition of biophilia to encompass the benefits of human-nature interaction. And it seems governments and industry are listening. Cities everywhere are embracing the change.




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Biophobia

I’ve spoken to numerous city dwellers over the years who tell me they find nature unsettling, if not terrifying. It’s mainly the isolation and silence they find overwhelming, particularly if they have spent their life in densely populated cities such as New York or Hong Kong. This sensation is captured by the term biophobia, a fear of nature.

While biophilia theorists acknowledge biophobia, it is rare to find this reflected in the work of biophilic designers whose work risks downplaying the complex ways in which we experience nature. After all, the feel-good message of biophilia is an easy sell. But if we can both love and fear nature we should ask ourselves: what is the source of these powerful emotional responses? And is the introduction of biota and abiota the only way we can elicit such experiences?

Art and nature

The philosopher Henri Lefebvre called the city a “second nature”. Given that every aspect of our cities, including ourselves, originated in what we refer to as nature this makes perfect sense. More obscurely, Lefebvre writes that in the creation of second nature we should produce “urban space, both as a product and as a work, in the sense in which art created works”.

To understand this we must consider the question: how does art make works? We might say that every artwork is unique in its making – no two artworks (assuming we don’t consider reproductions to be artworks) are the same. Similarly, nature’s creations are distinct: no two snowflakes are the same, every dawn is different etc.

In the creation of a second nature, Lefebvre challenges us to produce cities just as art produces work, so that our built environment might be as diverse as nature. Therefore, the production of a second nature is as much the responsibility of art as it is of design and architecture. If we are to create urban spaces rich in creative expression, then we should embrace this insight as much as possible.

There is scope for art in the expression of wildness.
pxhere.com

A challenge to the creation of a second nature is to contend with the rules, regulations and controls of city bureaucracies that struggle to make room for creativity. Under these conditions, nature as introduced by biophilic designers is more likely to be applied as a functional agent, manicured and arranged, utilised for the production of more efficient workers and stress-free urban dwellers. But is it the purpose of nature to service such functional needs?




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Celebrating wildness

Wildness – a derivative of wilderness – is a term familiar to biophilia theorists. For instance, Timothy Beatley talks about the wildness of nature bursting through the cracks of the urban. New York’s High Line self-seeded landscape is a rare celebration of such growth, usually considered unkempt areas of the urban. Even Wilson, an epitome of scientific reductionism and mechanistic thought, speaks of a “spirit” interwoven between nature and ourselves, which must be preserved.

So, what is this spirit, this wildness we crave when we speak of nature? I would speculate that this wildness, or spirit, celebrated by biophilic theorists is the very same experience that sometimes terrifies our city dweller. It is the uncontrollable force of nature – always striving to exist, enabling it to appear everywhere and stirring our senses into states of wonder and awe.

In the creation of second nature, we should acknowledge that art has an equally powerful role to play in producing wildness. For instance, well-executed public art can be a source of wonder, imagination, contemplation and transformation. These are all experiences valued by biophilic practitioners.

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London integrates elements of public art and nature.
Groume/flickr, CC BY-SA



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Towards second nature

We should encourage the growth of biophilic design in our cities. But if the nature we desire is, in fact, its expression as untamed wildness, then we should turn to art as much as we do to the elements of the natural world when designing and building our cities. Emerging infrastructure projects should consider the role of artists in directing human experience towards an urban wildness, which celebrates the creativity of nature.

The ConversationLet’s build cities that celebrate the wild, not just efficiency and productivity.

Jordan Lacey, Research Fellow, Architecture & Design, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fixing cities’ water crises could send our climate targets down the gurgler



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Water treatment plants can’t afford not to think about electricity too.
CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Peter Fisher, RMIT University

Two cities on opposing continents, Santiago
and Cape Town, have been brought to their knees by events at opposing ends of the climate spectrum: flood and drought.

The taps ran dry for Santiago’s 5 million inhabitants in early 2017, due to contamination of supplies by a massive rainfall event. And now Cape Town is heading towards “day zero” on May 11, after which residents will have to collect their drinking water from distribution points.




Read more:
Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?


It’s probably little comfort that Santiago and Cape Town aren’t alone. Many other cities around the world are grappling with impending water crises, including in Australia, where Perth and Melbourne both risk running short.

In many of these places governments have tried to hedge their bets by turning to increasingly expensive and energy-ravenous ways to ensure supply, such as desalination plants and bulk water transfers. These two elements have come together in Victoria with the pumping of desalinated water 150km from a treatment plant at Wonthaggi, on the coast, to the Cardinia Reservoir, which is 167m above sea level.

But while providing clean water is a non-negotiable necessity, these strategies also risk delivering a blowout in greenhouse emissions.

Water pressure

Climate change puts many new pressures on water quality. Besides the effects of floods and droughts, temperature increases can boost evaporation and promote the growth of toxic algae, while catchments can be contaminated by bushfires.

Canberra experienced a situation similar to Santiago in 2003, when a bushfire burned through 98% of the Cotter catchment, and then heavy rain a few months later washed huge amounts of contamination into the Bendora Dam. The ACT government had to commission a A$40 million membrane bioreactor treatment plant to restore water quality.

At the height of the Millennium Drought, household water savings and restrictions lowered volumes in sewers (by up to 40% in Brisbane, for example). The resulting increase in salt concentrations put extra pressure on wastewater treatment and reclamation..

The energy needed to pump, treat, distribute and heat water – and then to convey, pump, reclaim or discharge it as effluent, and to move biosolids – is often overlooked. Many blueprints for zero-carbon cities underplay or neglect entirely the carbon footprint of water supply and sewage treatment.

Some analyses only consider the energy footprint of domestic water heating, rather than the water sector as a whole – which is rather like trying to calculate the carbon footprint of the livestock industry by only looking at cooking.

Yet the growing challenge of delivering a reliable and safe water supply means that energy use is growing. The United States, for example, experienced a 39% increase in electricity usage for drinking water supply and treatment, and a 74% increase for wastewater treatment over the period 1996-2013, in spite of improvements in energy efficiency.

As climate change puts yet more pressure on water infrastructure, responses such as desalination plants and long-distance piping threaten to add even more to this energy burden. The water industry will increasingly be both a contributor to and a casualty of climate change.

How much energy individual utilities are actually using, either in Australia or worldwide, will vary widely according to the source of supply – such as rivers, groundwater or mountain dams – and whether gravity feeds are possible for freshwater and sewage (Melbourne shapes up well here, for example, whereas the Gold Coast doesn’t), as well as factors such as the level of treatment, and whether or not measures such as desalination or bulk transfers are in place.

All of this increases the water sector’s reliance on the electricity sector, which as we know has a pressing need to reduce its greenhouse emissions.

Desalination plants: great for providing water, not so great for saving electricity.
Moondyne/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

One option would be for water facilities to take themselves at least partly “off-grid”, by installing large amounts of solar panels, onsite wind turbines, or Tesla-style batteries (a few plants also harness biogas). Treatment plants are not exactly bereft of flat surfaces – such as roofs, grounds or even ponds – an opportunity seized upon by South Australian Water.

But this is a large undertaking, and the alternative – waiting for the grid itself to become largely based on renewables – will take a long time.

A 2012 study found large variations in pump efficiency between water facilities in different local authorities across Australia. Clearly there is untapped scope for collaboration and knowledge-sharing in our water sector, as is done in Spain and Germany, where water utilities have integrated with municipal waste services, and in the United States, where the water and power sectors have gone into partnership in many places.

The developing world

Climate change and population growth are seriously affecting cities in middle-band and developing countries, and the overall outlook is grim. Many places, such as Mexico City, already have serious water contamination problems. Indeed, in developing nations these problems are worsened by existing water quality issues. Only one-third of wastewater is treated to secondary standard in Asia, less than half of that in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a minute amount in Africa.

The transfer of know-how to these places is critical to reaching clean energy transitions. Nations making the energy transition – especially China, the world’s largest greenhouse emitter – need to take just as much care to ensure they avoid a carbon blowout as they transition to clean water too.

Just as in the electricity sector, carbon pricing can potentially provide a valuable incentive for utilities to improve their environmental performance. If utilities were monitored on the amount of electricity used per kilolitre of water processed, and then rewarded (or penalised) accordingly, it would encourage the entire sector to up its game, from water supply all the way through to sewage treatment.




Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry


Water is a must for city-dwellers – a fact that Cape Town’s officials are now nervously contemplating. It would be helpful for the industry to participate in the strategic planning and land-use debates that affect its energy budgets, and for its emissions (and emissions reductions) to be measured accurately.

In this way the water industry can become an influential participant in decarbonising our cities, rather than just a passive player.


The ConversationThis article is based on a journal article (in press) co-authored by David Smith, former water quality manager for South East Water, Melbourne.

Peter Fisher, Adjunct Professor, Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The world is watching the unfolding Cape Town water crisis with horror. On “Day Zero”, now predicted to be just ten weeks away, engineers will turn off the water supply. The South African city’s four million residents will have to queue at one of 200 water collection points.

Cape Town is the first major city to face such an extreme water crisis. There are so many unanswered questions. How will the sick or elderly people cope? How will people without a car collect their 25-litre daily ration? Pity those collecting water for a big family.




Read more:
Cape Town’s water crisis: driven by politics more than drought


The crisis is caused by a combination of factors. First of all, Cape Town has a very dry climate with annual rainfall of 515mm. Since 2015, it has been in a drought estimated to be a one-in-300-year event.

In recent years, the city’s population has grown rapidly – by 79% since 1995. Many have questioned what Cape Town has done to expand the city’s water supply to cater for the population growth and the lower rainfall.

Could this happen in Australia?

Australia’s largest cities have often struggled with drought. Water supplies may decline further due to climate change and uncertain future rainfall. With all capital cities expecting further population growth, this could cause water supply crises.




Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry


The situation in Cape Town has strong parallels with Perth in Australia. Perth is half the size of Cape Town, with two million residents, but has endured increasing water stress for nearly 50 years. From 1911 to 1974, the annual inflow to Perth’s water reservoirs averaged 338 gigalitres (GL) a year. Inflows have since shrunk by nearly 90% to just 42GL a year from 2010-2016.

To make matters worse, the Perth water storages also had to supply more people. Australia’s fourth-largest city had the fastest capital city population growth, 28.2%, from 2006-2016.

As a result, Perth became Australia’s first capital city unable to supply its residents from storage dams fed by rainfall and river flows. In 2015 the city faced a potentially disastrous situation. River inflows to Perth’s dams dwindled to 11.4GL for the year.

For its two million people, the inflows equated to only 15.6 litres per person per day! Yet in 2015/6 Perth residents consumed an average of nearly 350 litres each per day. This was the highest daily water consumption for Australia’s capitals. How was this achieved?

Tapping into desalination and groundwater

Perth has progressively sourced more and more of its supply from desalination and from groundwater extraction. This has been expensive and has been the topic of much debate. Perth is the only Australian capital to rely so heavily on desalination and groundwater for its water supply.

Volumes of water sourced for urban use in Australia’s major cities.
BOM, Water in Australia, p.52, National Water Account 2015, CC BY

Australia’s next most water-stressed capital is Adelaide. That city is supplementing its surface water storages with desalination and groundwater, as well as water “transferred” from the Murray River.

Australia’s other capital cities on the east coast have faced their own water supply crises. Their water storages dwindled to between 20% and 35% capacity in 2007. This triggered multiple actions to prevent a water crisis. Progressively tighter water restrictions were declared.

The major population centres (Brisbane/Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide) also built large desalination plants. The community reaction to the desalination plants was mixed. While some welcomed these, others question their costs and environmental impacts.

The desalination plants were expensive to build, consume vast quantities of electricity and are very expensive to run. They remain costly to maintain, even if they do not supply desalinated water. All residents pay higher water rates as a result of their existence.

Since then, rainfall in southeastern Australia has increased and water storages have refilled. The largest southeastern Australia desalination plants have been placed on “stand-by” mode. They will be switched on if and when the supply level drops.




Read more:
The role of water in Australia’s uncertain future


Investing in huge storage capacity

Many Australian cities also store very large volumes of water in very large water reservoirs. This allows them to continue to supply water through future extended periods of dry weather.

The three largest cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) have built very large dams indeed. For example, Brisbane has 2,220,150 ML storage capacity for its 2.2 million residents. That amounts to just over one million litres per resident when storages are full.

The ConversationIn comparison, Cape Town’s four million residents have a full storage capacity of 900,000 ML. That’s 225,000 litres per resident. Cape Town is constructing a number of small desalination plants while anxiously waiting for the onset of the region’s formerly regular winter rains.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.