Living Infrastructure Report Card 1

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Monday, April 25th, 2016
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From the formation of an industry alliance and a biodiversity sensitive urban design protocol, to promises of increased greenery and infrastructure for a new age, the last nine months have seen quite a bit of activity around our industry.

But even with all this change, I’m wondering, what is really going to drive change and create opportunities?

Here I offer my ratings of four major developments for living infrastructure in Australia today, highlighting which ones I feel are going to make a real difference.

RMIT Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design protocol

Grade: A+

RMIT University released its Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD) protocol late last year. Based on five key principles, RMIT hopes the protocol will help developers create urban spaces that support biodiversity, protect the environment and provide health benefits to inhabitants.

The six steps of the BSUD protocol are:

  • Identifying and mapping native species and ecosystems in the development area
  • Defining ecological objectives (such as maintaining or improving the viability of threatened species)
  • Defining development objectives (such as population and dwelling targets)
  • Identifying actions to achieve objectives by considering the five principles of BSUD
  • Quantifying the development’s contribution to biodiversity (this step is optional)
  • Identifying the BSUD actions that best meet ecological objectives (Step 2), while also accommodating development objectives (Step 3) for the area

RMIT says the protocol can be implemented at almost any scale, by anyone from individual homeowners to building developers, local and regional authorities.

Education and suggested protocol are positive things – when we demystify the process, the goal becomes achievable for everyone – but they won’t go the distance without leadership. So how do we get the ball rolling?

In an article by associate professor Sarah Bekessy from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, she said biodiversity should be an essential component of urban planning regulation:

“The problem is that the current approach in development is to offset the nature values that are lost – but you can’t offset nature the same way you can offset a carbon molecule – you can’t recreate an ecosystem in its entirety,” Bekessy noted.

To kick-start the widespread adoption and roll-out of BSUD in cities across Australia, we need a combination of government-driven incentives and/or regulation and industry-led adoption through the endorsement of and inclusion in voluntary green schemes like Green Star, the Living Building Challenge and the WELL Building Standard.

After all, BSUD is about more than protecting the birds and the bees (though of course this is important); the associated urban greening also provides a range of tangible benefits to people, communities and cities including cooling urban areas, air and water purification, health benefits and increased workplace productivity.

With the right government and industry leadership, BSUD can end the longstanding ‘disconnect’ between the built environment and the natural one. What a beautiful world that would be.

Federal plan to increase urban tree canopies

Grade: B

In an address to the Sydney Business Chamber on January 19, Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt revealed the Government’s plan to increase urban tree canopies in Australian cities.

Citing urban heat islands as a major risk to health and liveability in our cities, Hunt outlined the Federal Government’s intention to work with cities to increase overall tree coverage, decade by decade, until 2050.

“We will also look at building rooftops with green cover which improve both amenity and, as Singapore has shown, can improve value and quality of life as well as operational efficiency,” he said.

Beyond urban tree canopies, Hunt also noted there was further opportunity to improve urban water systems, manage storm water, address ocean outfall and improve energy efficiency in cities.

While he didn’t give an official Government commitment to address these issues, it is refreshing to see a minister acknowledging the work needed to be done.

“We have an opportunity to make Australia’s cities strong and resilient and able to withstand economic changes, as well as changes in our climate, lifestyles, technologies and social fabric over time,” he said.

The urban canopy plan requires intergovernmental collaboration – city, state and federal governments – and unfortunately there are already rumblings of discontent in NSW and QLD.

I hope we see all levels of government working together to make this happen and that enough foresight is applied so the living infrastructure (not just trees) we establish will be viable and climate-appropriate for 2050 and beyond.

AILA Living Cities Alliance

Grade: B+

The Living Cities Workshop took place in Canberra on February 10. Organised by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) and Engineers Australia, the event heralded the formation of the Living Cities Alliance.

The Alliance is a formal commitment from industry leaders across the urban planning, infrastructure, utilities and building sectors to collaborate, providing a consultative framework to inform government policy development, as well as goal-setting recommendations to make our cities greener and more liveable.

Some 50 key groups and organisations were represented at the event, with delegates from the Australian Institute of Architects, ASBEC, CSIRO Land and Water, Horticulture Innovation Australia, the Green Building Council of Australia and the CRC for Low Carbon Living.

The group met with representatives from the major political parties and for their part, the pollies seemed open to industry consultation though federal Minister for Major Projects Territories and Loca Government Paul Fletcher did note the coffers have their limits.

“…there are limits to the Commonwealth’s funding capacity,” he said. “One of the fairest ways to fund new infrastructure investment is for the beneficiaries of that infrastructure to contribute to the cost.

“Value capture is increasingly used internationally to ensure that projects go ahead, residents receive the benefits, but some of the cost is offset though the uplift in value to beneficiaries.”

The Alliance will submit five key policy priorities for government consideration in the lead-up to the release of the Cities Policy Forum Position Paper and Summit later this month. Delegates at the Living Cities Workshop helped draft the report to Hunt with key recommendations outlining the health, economic and environmental benefits living infrastructure initiatives could bring to Australia’s urban centres. Some of the opportunities identified included:

  • A national green streets pilot program to support economic, social and environmental development in urban and suburban centres
  • Accelerating green roof installation using incentives like the creation and trading of storm water retention credits
  • Piloting creative financing mechanisms for precinct-scale green infrastructure investment like the Green Benefit Districts launched in the City of San Francisco
  • A national ‘grey to green’ retrofit investment fund to help leverage private sector investment for enhancing green spaces in our urban centres

The establishment of the Living Cities Alliance (and its coming policy priorities submission) represents a great opportunity for industry and government collaboration. With meaningful government leadership, Australia’s cities could be transformed into connected, liveable and environmentally sustainable places that are celebrated the world over.

I’m eager to see what the Government’s Cities Policy Forum Position Paper has in store.

Australian Infrastructure Plan and Priorities List

Grade: F

Independent statutory body Infrastructure Australia released the Australian Infrastructure Plan and Priorities List in February this year. The documents outline the challenges and plans for a stretched Australian infrastructure system.

The executive summary states that we are “facing new and emerging environmental challenges, with greater risks of extreme weather. The impacts of climate change are going to become more apparent and the need for emission reductions will persist.

“Adapting to these changes means we have to rethink our economic infrastructure to deliver networks and services which strengthen our role in the global economy, enhance the liveability and productivity of our cities and regions, and supports a transition to a more sustainable and resilient economy.”

The report goes on to note that “Infrastructure decisions should anticipate the long-term implications of decisions for our economy, society and environment, and provide solutions that meet our needs today without compromising our future. Our infrastructure should promote and incentivise behaviours that are in our best interests over the long term.”

Despite noting the potential of infrastructure to deliver broad social and environmental benefits, living infrastructure and green spaces have been largely overlooked in both the plan and priorities list. In fact, none of the 90-plus infrastructure projects directly reference living infrastructure. Of all the projects outlined only one (flood mitigation in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley) is classified as a resilience project.

Unfortunately, as a reform document, the plan does little to address the sustainability and environmental issues we face now, let alone outline mitigation and resilience strategies for the future. When environmental benefit or sustainability is mentioned, it is more often than not a throw-away line without any elaboration or clear intent.

All in all, the Australian Infrastructure Plan is disappointing from a living infrastructure standpoint. It is neither ambitious nor forward-thinking in this regard and pays mere lip service to the ideas of environmental leadership and innovation.

On the upside, we have an engaged and knowledgeable industry with the opportunity to lead the way. Let’s show them how it’s done.

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  1. Barry B.

    Further disappointment from Infrastructure Australia.