Cities Are Landscapes Too 1

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Monday, April 25th, 2016
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Cities need effective water management and (urban) forests help clean and regulate water.

Some 70 per cent of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050, and infrastructure will have to dramatically scale up to meet these increased demands. Out of three billion people living in cities today, one billion are living under the poverty line.

By 2030, more than five billion people (60 per cent of the global population) will be living in cities and two billion of them are projected to be living below the poverty line. Every week there will be a need to build one new city for a population of one million people given the scale and speed of development. At June 2015, approximately two-thirds of Australia’s population (23,775,000) lived in the Greater Capital City areas (66.7 per cent) with one-third in regional areas. Australia’s population exceeded 24 million in early 2016.

city

Cities have become the dominant home of human living arrangements and the centre of commerce. In the age of technology, they can and must be incubators of creativity, inventions and innovations the world needs and wants, the finance and marketing plans to support them; where every nation, every community, every individual is suddenly competing with every other.

Environmentally minded city planning, including sustainable access to healthy water and food resources, is needed to prevent potential disastrous consequences to ecosystems as cities expand and as new cities are built, helping those less able to afford high quality housing and infrastructure to at least access affordable potable water and clean green spaces.

The scarcest resource in cities today is not money, but coordination.

It is necessary to create open systems that can include people’s own capacity to add value to their living conditions and opportunities. This includes the need to consider how our grey infrastructure systems (roads, rail and so on) interact with each other and what effect they have on the environment, people, communities and the health and well-being of the living and economic eco-systems.

These open systems can also make it easier for people to participate in improving their lot in life with minimal if any interactions with regulators that implement command and control planning systems.

Many cities are turning to green infrastructure, which can be defined as the combined structure, position, connectivity and types of green spaces, which together enable delivery of multiple benefits as goods and services. Green infrastructure can be a holistic, landscape level approach, as well as an option for small-scale sites. Groups such as Vision 202020 promote the need to look at the whole of a city/region in terms of green infrastructure scale.

Urban forests (afforestation) are at the heart of green infrastructure principles, making use of the absorption power of plants, trees and soil to prevent flooding, filter water, and prevent erosion. Urban forests can be established at all scales of development – backyard, suburb, region and city. Urban planners need to examine the landscape to find the best types of green interventions in the most appropriate places while ensuring the space remains fully functional for its multiple uses.

There can be a major disconnect between what the planners seek to achieve with green infrastructure programs and what planning schemes will allow them to do. When the engineering design guidelines have individual lines that run completely counter to the green infrastructure/green space objectives that are espoused at the strategy level within planning schemes, the strategic intent becomes lost and/or potentially completely ignored. This is not good planning or useful for local governments.

One local government authority in Queensland requires all urban stormwater to connect to their infrastructure when located within the urban footprint, therefore potentially increasing the cost to install stormwater infrastructure when located at a substantial distance from the development site. Such controls can push a development beyond financial feasibility. This local government authority will not allow urban rainforests to be developed, even when these urban rainforests are supported by extensive in-ground stormwater management systems and swales across the land to slow down or stop overland to the legal points of discharge. The rationale for this stance is that these systems could be removed at any time and could not be conditioned, therefore creating more intensive stormwater impacts in the future.

To achieve financial viability from a return on investment perspective, such developments are likely to require more substantive development beyond the “code assessable” development process into developments that result in public notification phases, which raises the risk profile of the development. Other local governments consider a “low density” zone as having a minimum area  requirement  of 2000 square metres. This keeps the green spaces alive but does nothing to provide more density for a fast growing population.

Just as forested landscapes are often fragmented, so are cities. Most city environments include small parks and other green spaces mingling with buildings and roads. Small-scale green infrastructure implementation can range from urban wetlands (and total water reuse implementation) for wastewater treatment, to permeable pavements, to green roofs, all of which can decrease cities’ burden on the environment while also providing benefits to people. Reduction in the heat sink effect on cities, and heat stress related issues for inhabitants are positive outcomes.

Afforestation greatly reduces annual rainwater runoff, leading to less soil erosion and less unexpected flooding, which can dramatically decrease the amount of filtering and pumping that municipal treatment facilities have to do. Given that an estimated one-third of the world’s largest cities get their water from forested protected areas, forested watersheds can save cities millions of dollars every year.

Afforestation can also be seen to decrease the amount of available water in a region, as more water is absorbed into biomass growth and soils, resulting in less water runoff into streams and rivers  and decreased water levels. On the other hand, afforestation can cause more water to be evaporated from the landscape into the atmosphere, leading to higher amounts of rainfall and more water overall.

Some studies conclude that the expansion of forests is likely to negatively affect water quantity for at least the short term, and within a relatively small spatial scale. Scale is the critical factor. Different cities, even different suburbs within a city, will respond to the practice of afforestation relative to the effect of the practice on soil quality, reduction on heat island effects, and water absorption, amongst other factors.

Of course, there are limits to what green infrastructure can do. Like traditional infrastructure, green infrastructure is only one way to solve a problem, and may only function to its full potential under specific situations, whether that is to connect a city to water resources or to manage stormwater. New technologies, however, may provide the additional support required to manage water and water waste more effectively.

Cities must use technology to ensure safer cities, better transportation, health care, energy and water conservation, clean air, and other environmental services.

Through installing the broadband necessary for the Internet of Everything (IoE) cities, almost everything is connected to everything else, building the platform for innovation, including water management opportunities. IoE sensors could help to improve the maintenance  and lifespan of existing water related infrastructure and provide a wealth of new data to inform the design of more durable and effective products in the future.

The new broadband infrastructures coupled with Big Data analysis can serve to make city government more transparent and also encourage individuals and companies to develop innovative products and services while engaging the general public to help create “efficiencies” that save taxpayer money and “build trust in the public sector.” Given the monopolistic/duopolistic nature of water supply/waste water management/stormwater management businesses operated by local government and/or private sector entities, systems-wide management of these systems using new technologies and data analysis, while costly in terms of CAPEX, have strong OPEX cost benefits.

Combined with in-ground soil and aquifer monitoring systems that can inform infrastructure managers of soil and ecosystem disruptions (on similar lines to the new technologies used by farmers in managing soil quality and health), infrastructure asset managers can more effectively manage infrastructure and its effects on communities. These same asset managers could require developers to install, maintain and report on the data located in private in-ground stormwater management systems to assist in managing private infrastructure. Real-time data outputs and charging regimes are certainly a viable business opportunity.

Developers can be required to establish private infrastructure reporting parameters in body corporate reporting as part of a development permit. Liability indemnity for councils can also be established within the planning regime for owner/operators of private infrastructure assets. Local and state governments have these powers. They just need to be prepared to initiate their use. The real questions for planners and infrastructure asset managers are:

  • How do we value and measure these ecosystem services?
  • Should we value ecosystems for what they can do and what they can give us in the immediate future?
  • Or should ecosystems be valued for the long-term benefits they provide?

How these questions are answered will be dependent on who is asking and who is answering. The New Cities Foundation advocates IoE for cities and envisions a world where digital technology and intelligent design can be harnessed to create smart, sustainable cities with high-quality living, high-quality jobs, and more effective green infrastructure management techniques. This technology will also provide information about the condition, location and availability of green infrastructure assets, and there may be an even greater opportunity to scale new models more effectively while providing new direction to the digital revolution.

The Next Century Cities organisation also advocates for cities and stresses that there is a high level of importance in leveraging gigabit level Internet capabilities to attract new businesses (including private infrastructure asset management enterprises), to create jobs, improve health care and education, and connect residents to new opportunities.

The movement to acknowledge how vital our cities are to our health and prosperity has clearly begun. Developing individual business models is one thing, but the recent report Intelligent Assets: Unlocking the Circular Economy Potential by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation goes a step further by looking at the opportunities for the larger system. The report provides a vision for the built environment where a digital library of materials is sourced from connected buildings, which also provide information that allows predictive maintenance and effective sharing and utilisation of space and energy consumption.

A digital payment system will be a critical element in a future economy. Like today’s energy system and transport systems that are experiencing significant disruptions through new technologies and business models, smart metering of water supply, waste water discharge and stormwater outputs from private infrastructure could be used by authorities as a more effective user-pays system to water management as a replacement to the rather blunt water rates, water licensing and infrastructure charging regimes currently in use across Australia and in other jurisdictions.

There is a need to fully understand and quantify the scale of the economic value and savings made when implementing these wider systems. Ultimately, connecting these methodologies (water management, afforestation, IoE technologies) may be able to create better linkages across landscapes – both urban and rural – and potentially better outcomes for both the ecosystems and the communities that depend on the land’s environmental functions.

Urban planners, asset managers and other stakeholders need to consider the true costs and opportunities of implementing truly innovative policy positions on infrastructure delivery and charging regimes. These entities need to support the development of private water management infrastructure to reduce the load on public/ trunk infrastructure, and the greening of community initiatives that over-ride the short-term need for connectivity to infrastructure that some planning schemes prescribe.

Governments at all levels and in nations need to deliver the policy settings that allow development of new business models that take advantage of opportunities to be found through the age of broadband and connectivity (hardwire and wireless), the Internet of Everything and sensor technologies, and most importantly the ingenuity of their citizens.

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  1. Danka

    Thank you for sharing your findings and insights, really enjoyed this article and of course what we can expect, work that needs to be done now, to make this happen in the most positive way.
    I have also been very interested in the notion of living in our amazing cities and all the benefits in this shift.