The need to house more people – the Australian population is projected to increase to as much as 49.2 million by 2066 – is driving ever more urban development, much of it concentrated in our biggest cities on the east coast. This is bad news for the koala population, unless the species’ needs are considered as part of planning approvals and the creation of urban green spaces. The good news is that koalas can learn to live the “green city life” as long as they are provided with enough suitable gum trees in urban green spaces.
Indeed, our newly published research, which analysed stress levels in wild koalas according to their habitat, reveals that koalas are the most stressed in rural and rural-urban fringe zones. This appears to be due to factors such as large bushfires, heatwave events, dog attacks, vehicle collision and human-led reduction of prime eucalyptus habitats. Koalas living in urban landscapes are less stressed as long as the city includes suitable green habitats.
In other words, wild animals including the koala can adapt to co-exist with human populations. Their ability to do so depends on us giving them the space, time and freedom to make that adaptation. This means ensuring they can carry out, without undue pressures, the biological and physiological functions on which their survival depends.
We can help make the environment more suitable for wildlife species by ensuring their basic needs for food, water and shelter are met. If animals are deprived of any of these necessities, they will show signs of stress.
So by subjecting wildlife to extrinsic stressors such as habitat clearance, climate change and pollution we are making it even more difficult for these animals to manage stress in their daily lives.
Basically any unwanted change to an animal’s environment that prevents it from performing its basic life-history functions, such as foraging and social behaviour, will cause stress.
So what can be done?
The koalas are telling us it’s a major problem when urban design is not green enough. Innovative solutions are needed!
Urban planning should always incorporate the planning of green spaces that are safe for wildlife. Providing wildlife crossings is part of the solution. Another important element is educational programs to alert drivers to the need to look out for koalas.
The environmental movement is shifting away from focusing solely on raising awareness about environmental issues. Many environmental agencies and organisations now also aim to connect people with nature, and our new research suggests daily doses of urban nature may be the key to this for the majority who live in cities.
This shift in focus is starting to appear in environmental policy. For example, the UK’s recent 25-year environment plan identifies connecting people with the environment as one of its six key areas. Similarly, in Australia, the state of Victoria’s Biodiversity 2037 plan aims to connect all Victorians to nature as one of two overarching objectives.
The thinking behind such efforts is simple: connecting people to nature will motivate them to act in ways that protect and care for nature. Evidence does suggest that people who have a high nature connection are likely to display pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.
Our new study may offer some answers. A survey of Brisbane residents showed that people who experienced nature during childhood or had regular contact with nature in their home and suburb were more likely to report feeling connected with nature.
The study used a broad definition of urban nature to include all the plants and animals that live in a city. When looking to connect urban residents with local nature we need to take a broad view and look “beyond the park”. All aspects of nature in the city offer a potential opportunity for people to experience nature and develop their sense of connection to it.
The study also looked at the relationship between childhood and adult nature experiences. Results suggest that people who lack childhood experience of nature can still come to have a high sense of nature connection by experiencing nature as an adult.
There have been focused efforts on connecting children to nature, such as the Forest Schools and Nature Play programs. Equal effort should be given to promoting adult nature experiences and nature connection, particularly for people who lack such experiences.
The benefits of nature experience
We still have much to discover about how an individual’s nature connection is shaped. We need a better understanding of how people from diverse cultural and social contexts experience and connect to different types of nature. That said, we are starting to understand the important role that frequent local experiences of nature may play.
Robert Dunn and colleagues have already advocated for the importance of urban nature experiences as a way to bolster city residents’ support for conservation. They described the “pigeon paradox” whereby experiencing urban nature, which is often of low ecological value – such as interactions with non-native species – may have wider environmental benefits through people behaving in more environmentally conscious ways. They proposed that the future of conservation depended on city residents’ ability to experience urban nature.
As new evidence emerges we need to build on this thinking. It would seem that the future of our very connection to nature, our wellbeing and conservation depend on urban people’s ability to experience urban nature.
The Australian government has allocated A$50 million for the Smarter Cities and Suburbs Program to encourage projects that “improve the livability, productivity and sustainability of cities and towns across Australia”.
One project funded under the program is installation of temperature, lighting and motion sensors in buildings and bus interchanges in Woden, ACT. This will allow energy systems to be automatically adjusted in response to people’s use of these spaces, with the aim of reducing energy use and improving safety and security.
In similar ways, governments worldwide are partnering with technology firms to make cities “smarter” by retrofitting various city objects with technological features. While this might make our cities safer and potentially more user-friendly, we can’t work off a blind faith in technology which, without proper design, can break down and leave a city full of environmental waste.
It’s the second definition that aligns with the interests of multinational tech firms. IBM, Serco, Cisco, Microsoft, Philips and Google are among those active in this market. Each is working with local authorities worldwide to provide the hardware, software and technical know-how for complex, urban-scale projects.
Tech giants provide expertise for a city to become “smart” and then keep its systems running afterwards. In some cases, tech-led smart cities have risen from the ground up. Songdo, in South Korea, and Masdar, UAE, were born smart by integrating advanced technologies at the masterplanning and construction stages.
More often, though, existing cities are retrofitted with smart systems. Barcelona, for instance, has gained a reputation as one of the world’s top smart cities, after its existing buildings and infrastructure were fitted with sensors and processors to monitor and maintain infrastructure, as well as for planning future development.
The city is dotted with electric vehicle charging points and smart parking spaces. Sensors and a data-driven irrigation system monitor and manage water use. The public transport system has interactive touch screens at bus stops and USB chargers on buses.
Suppliers of smart systems claim a number of benefits for smart cities, arguing these will result in more equitable, efficient and environmentally sustainable urban centres. Other advocates claim smart cities are more “happy and resilient”. But there are also hidden costs to smart cities.
The downsides of being smart
Cyber-security and technology ethics are important topics. Smart cities represent a complex new field for governments, citizens, designers and security experts to navigate.
But this runs contrary to studies that show more information and communication technology actually leads to higher energy use. At best, smart cities may end up a zero-sum game in terms of sustainability because their “positive and negative impacts tend to cancel each other out”.
And then there’s the less-talked-about issue of e-waste, which is a huge global challenge. Adding computers to objects could create what one writer has termed a new “internet of trash” — products designed to be thrown away as soon as their batteries run down.
As cities become smart they need more and more objects — bollards, street lamps, public furniture, signboards — to integrate sensors, screens, batteries and processors. Objects in our cities are usually built with durable materials, which means they can be used for decades.
Computer processors and software systems, on the other hand, are short-lived and may need upgrading every few years. Adding technology to products that didn’t have this in the past effectively shortens their life-span and makes servicing, warranties and support contracts more complex and unreliable. One outcome could be a landscape of smart junk — public infrastructure that has stopped working, or that needs ongoing patching, maintenance and upgrades.
In Barcelona, many of the gadgets that made it one of the world’s smartest cities no longer work properly. The smart streetlights on the Passatge de Mas de Roda, which were put in place in 2011 to improve energy efficiency by detecting human movement, noise and climatic conditions, later fell into disrepair.
If smart objects aren’t designed so they can be disassembled at the end of their useful life, electronic components are likely to be left inside where they hamper recycling efforts. Some digital components contain toxic materials. Disposing of these through burning or in landfill can contaminate environments and threaten human health.
These are not insurmountable challenges. Information and communications technology, data and networks have an important place in our shared urban future. But this future will be determined by our attitudes toward these technologies. We need to make sure that instead of being short-term gimmicks to be thrown away when their novelty wears off, they are thoughtfully designed, and that they put they put the needs of citizens and environments first.
You live in one of the sunniest countries in the world. You might want to use that solar advantage and harvest all this free energy. Knowing that solar panels are rapidly becoming cheaper and have become feasible even in less sunny places like the UK, this should be a no-brainer.
Despite this, the Australian government has taken a step backwards at a time when we should be thinking 30 years ahead.
Can we do it differently? Yes, we can! My ongoing research on sustainable urbanism makes it clear that if we use the available renewable resources in the Sydney region we do not need any fossil resource any more. We can become zero-carbon. (With Louisa King and Andy Van den Dobbelsteen, I have prepared a forthcoming paper, Towards Zero-Carbon Metropolitan Regions: The Example of
Sydney, in the journal SASBE.)
Enough solar power for every household
Abundant solar energy is available in the Sydney metropolitan area. If 25% of the houses each installed 35 square metres of solar panels, this could deliver all the energy for the city’s households.
We conservatively estimate a total yield of 195kWh/m2 of PV panel placed on roofs or other horizontal surfaces. The potential area of all Sydney council precincts suited for PV is estimated at around 385km2 – a quarter of the entire roof surface.
We calculate the potential total solar yield at 75.1TWh, which is more than current domestic household energy use (65.3TWh, according to the Jemena energy company).
If we install small wind turbines on land and larger turbines offshore we can harvest enough energy to fuel our electric vehicle fleet. Onshore wind turbines of 1-5MW generating capacity can be positioned to capture the prevailing southwest and northeast winds.
The turbines are placed on top of ridges, making use of the funnel effect to increase their output. We estimate around 840km of ridge lines in the Sydney metropolitan area can be used for wind turbines, enabling a total of 1,400 turbines. The total potential generation from onshore wind turbines is 6.13TWh.
Offshore turbines could in principle be placed everywhere, as the wind strength is enough to create an efficient yield. The turbines are larger than the ones on shore, capturing 5-7.5MW each, and can be placed up to 30km offshore. With these boundary conditions, an offshore wind park 45km long and 6km wide is possible. The total offshore potential then is 5.18TWh.
Altogether, then, we estimate the Sydney wind energy potential at 11.3TWh.
We can turn our household waste and green waste from forests, parks and public green spaces into biogas. We can then use the existing gas network to provide heating and cooling for the majority of offices.
Biomass from domestic and green waste will be processed through anaerobic fermentation in old power plants to generate biogas. Gas reserves are created, stored and delivered through the existing power plants and gas grid.
Using algae arrays to treat the waste water of new precincts, roughly a million new households as currently planned in Western Sydney, enables the production of great quantities of biofuel. Experimental test fields show yields can be high. A minimum of 20,000 litres of biodiesel per hectare of algae ponds is possible if organic wastewater is added. This quantity is realisable in Botany Bay and in western Sydney.
Shallow geothermal heat can be tapped through heat pumps and establishing closed loops in the soil. This can occur in large expanses of urban developments within the metropolitan area, which rests predominantly on deposits of Wianamatta shale in the west underlying Parramatta, Liverpool and Penrith.
Where large water surfaces are available, such as in Botany Bay or the Prospect Reservoir, heat can also be harvested from the water body.
The layers of the underlying Hawkesbury sandstone, the bedrock for much of the region, can yield deep geothermal heat. This is done by pumping water into these layers and harvesting the steam as heat, hot water or converted electricity.
The potential sources of energy from hydro generation are diverse. Tidal energy can be harvested at the entrances of Sydney Harbour Bay and Botany Bay, where tidal differences are expected to be highest.
Port Jackson, the Sydney Harbour bay and all of its estuaries have a total area of 55km2. With a tidal difference of two metres, the total maximum energy potential of a tidal plant would be 446TWh. If Sydney could harvest 20% of this, that would be more than twice the yield of solar panels on residential roofs.
If we use the tide to generate electricity, we can also create a surge barrier connecting Middle and South Head. Given the climatic changes occurring and still ahead of us, we need to plan how to protect the city from the threats of future cyclones, storm surges and flooding.
I have written here about the potential benefits of artificially creating a Sydney Barrier Reef. The reef, 30km at most out at sea, would provide Sydney with protection from storms.
At openings along the reef, wave power generators can be placed. Like tidal power, wave power can be calculated: mass displacement times gravity. If around 10km of the Sydney shoreline had wave power vessels, the maximum energy potential would be 3.2TWh.
In the mouths of the estuaries of Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, freshwater meets saltwater. These places have a large potential to generate “blue energy” through reverse osmosis membrane technology.
To combine protective structures with tidal generating power, an open closure barrier is proposed for the mouth of Sydney Harbour. The large central gates need to be able to accommodate the entrance of large cruise ships and to close in times of a storm surge. At the same time, a tidal plant system operates at the sides of the barrier.
All these potential energy sources are integrated into our Master Plan for a Zero-Carbon Sydney. Each has led to design propositions that together can create a zero-carbon city.
The research shows there is enough, more than enough, potential reliable renewable energy to supply every household and industry in the region. What is needed is an awareness that Australia could be a global frontrunner in innovative energy policy, instead of a laggard.
Why is it easier to imagine an ecocity – full of lush green spaces and buildings, footpaths and bike lanes, outdoor goat yoga and dog parks – than a just city where everyone belongs? Why is it difficult to imagine a city where there are no great disparities of income or of access to convivial life because these have been equitably distributed?
Part of what’s required here is to connect the currents of imagination shaping the ecological future of cities with other conversations that are more focused on the future of employment and industry and the possibilities for greater equity. Thinking these disparate ideas together will take some work. Fortunately, it’s well under way in cities around Australia and the world.
The Centre For Future Work and the Australia Institute organised a summit last month at Parliament House to consider the future of manufacturing in Australia. Much of the day was spent exploring how targeted government procurement practices can help rebuild a sector that could play a vital role in building ecocities alongside new employment opportunities.
Co-operative ways to build community wealth
Non-profit institutions and the private sector can play a similar role. The Evergreen Cooperative Initiative in Cleveland, closing in on its tenth year, used the demand for services from hospitals and universities to start worker co-operatives.
These meet the need for green laundry services, food and energy while creating ownership opportunities for low-income residents. Guaranteed downstream markets increase business viability. This ensures easier access to start-up capital.
In each instance the guiding principle is that worker co-operatives are tied to place by the people who work in and own them. They distribute profits in ways that benefit worker-owners, other local businesses and the broader community.
In Australia, Earthworker Coo-perative has tirelessly pursued a similar initiative. It aims to connect Australian manufacturing capacity, eco-friendly technologies, unions and the environmental movement as a basis for starting worker co-operatives ready to meet the demand for green technology.
In September, a second New Economy Conference, open to the public, will consider what sort of legal and social changes are needed to support efforts like Earthworker.
More ambitiously, even the emergent disruptive technologies that are enabling the “gig economy” can be repurposed for co-operation and community wealth creation.
While new platform technologies concentrate wealth in companies like Uber and Airbnb, these could just as easily function on a co-operative basis, sustaining communities in the process. Such ideas are being actively considered in Melbourne and in Sydney at last year’s Vivid festival.
These efforts to encourage social procurement, build co-operatives and develop new forms of sharing work readily combine with the ecocity agenda. In themselves they are not sufficient to ensure that ecocities are also equitable cities. As Labor senator Kim Carr pointed out in last month’s summit, what ideas like this do is fully open the question of what an economy is for.
In Australia, this question is an eminently urban one. Continuing to ask this question, and keeping the answer open, is one way of ensuring that ecocities are not merely oases for the wealthy.
You can read other articles in the series here. The Ecocity World Summit is being hosted by the University of Melbourne, Western Sydney University, the Victorian government and the City of Melbourne in Melbourne from July 12-14.