by Christopher Allan, Journalist, Council magazine

Australia’s major cities, national symbols of population growth and centralised employment, have been shaken by the COVID-19 crisis. State shutdowns and the spectre of new outbreaks have pushed us further into private worlds. As policy makers at all levels of government respond to the dual challenges of the pandemic and economic recession, getting serious about sustainable practices is critical to ensure Australia’s cities don’t fall behind an evolving global standard. Here, we consider opportunities for sustainability and innovation in cities across green infrastructure and transport, and find that environmental outcomes often go hand in hand with long-term benefits for productivity and wellbeing.

As the national COVID response unfolds, Australian cities possess opportunities to more actively engage in sustainable practices that allow us to stay resilient and productive in the face of future challenges.

Despite cities only occupying three per cent of the Earth’s surface, the World Bank estimates that 80 per cent of global GDP is produced in urban areas, and national figures from the Grattan Institute suggest that 50 per cent of new jobs generated in the past decade were in the centres of Sydney and Melbourne.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated immense change in how we use our cities, as shown by the diffusion of the inner-city workplace into suburban working-from home arrangements.

“We have seen changing work patterns, a pause on Net Overseas Migration, and a 200 per cent increase in people moving from capital areas to regional areas,” says CEO of Infrastructure Australia, Romilly Madew.

To absorb future challenges to our health, our environment and our economy, Australia can’t afford to fall behind the global pace when it comes to building cities that are sustainable, resilient, and liveable.

Paint the town green: sustainability in urban green infrastructure

Urban green infrastructure is an exciting opportunity for policy makers and city planners to achieve real sustainability objectives while also meeting social and health outcomes.

The CSIRO defines urban green infrastructure as city vegetation that provides social, economic, and environmental benefits to our cities, like providing clean air and water, and cooling inner city temperatures.

Green infrastructure includes “urban parks and reserves, wetlands and stream corridors, street trees and roadside verges, gardens and vegetable patches, bikeways and pedestrian trails, wall and rooftop gardens, orchards and farms, cemeteries and derelict land,” says the CSIRO.

In 2018, the CSIRO brought together urban researchers and practitioners to release a national research agenda for green infrastructure in Australia’s cities, covering topics such as perceptions and acceptance of green infrastructure and opportunities for greater biodiversity.

“While ‘grey’ infrastructure has traditionally been the main focus of urban development and management activities,‘green’ infrastructure is increasingly considered a vital asset for liveable, sustainable and resilient cities.”

Urban greening: heat management and beyond

Green infrastructure has long been studied for its role in managing the urban heat island effect, where temperatures in an urban area are much higher than the surrounding rural areas, due to significant insulation of urban heat sources.

Minimising the urban heat island effect in Australia’s cities is critically important: earlier this year, research published in Nature Climate Change predicted that the world’s cities could rise by 4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.

Australia can learn valuable lessons from other global cities about the role of green infrastructure, alongside many other planning strategies, to deliver better management of the heat of our cities.

Indeed, the Cooling Singapore project has found that the temperature of built-up urban areas in Singapore can be up to 7 degrees higher than the surrounding land, which has guided excellent responses in both vegetation coverage and innovative building design.

Closer to home, the City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy has committed to increasing canopy cover from 22 per cent to 44 per cent by the year 2040, while also delivering targeted green infrastructure plans for key precincts of the city.

Local government initiatives for urban forestry couldn’t come at a better time, as more and more research considers the positive psychological implications of green space, felt first-hand by so many during the pandemic.

But while many Australian local government areas have developed their own visions for adopting green infrastructure policies, the national distribution of green infrastructure is still shaped by socio-economic factors and attitudes.

In fact, leading international research has considered how socio-economic inequities seep into access to green infrastructure, finding that urban forestry is often treated more as an amenity than an essential component in a balanced city ecosystem.

A 2019 article in Urban Forestry and Urban Greening importantly pointed to the differences between distributional equity, the fair distribution of urban forests, and recognitional equity, the capacity for urban communities to be represented and heard in decision-making about urban forests.

Towards sustainable infrastructure: leadership and transport

In April 2021, Infrastructure Australia released their Sustainability Principles, a roadmap to steer sustainability policy reform agenda while also raising the bar for infrastructure project assessment and prioritisation.

Significantly, the Sustainability Principles set clear expectations of how sustainability is to be considered and assessed across all of Infrastructure Australia’s advice and publications, which include the Infrastructure Priority List, the Infrastructure Australia Assessment Framework and the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan.

“Infrastructure needs to consider sustainability due to the scale of investments, the long life of assets and the potential impact projects can have on communities,” Infrastructure Australia CEO, Romilly Madew, said.

“This has only been amplified in an age of increasing uncertainty, resource scarcity, disruption, climate change and extreme weather events.”

From the perspective of policy makers, the Sustainability Principles can be seen as a shift in best-practice government procurement practice, with major government partnerships now required to move beyond benefit-cost ratio (BCR) analysis and instead express project value across economic, environmental, and social outcomes.

Infrastructure Australia’s high valuing of environmental outcomes in the infrastructure procurement process will ideally spark further shifts in industry practice, such as the inclusion of climate risk assessment in the planning phase of projects rather than the delivery phase.

Sustainability in transport infrastructure

Conversations about sustainable practices in transport infrastructure are more important than ever, as COVID recovery infrastructure funding at the federal level continues to be led by road and rail projects.

Existing challenges for sustainable transport infrastructure includes the delivery of competitive public transport options to service ever-growing suburban populations, as well as ensuring that major infrastructure builds across roads and rail are conducted with maximum feasible use of recycled and low-carbon materials.

However, the COVID crisis has also brought new attitudes about the role of transport in cities. In Victoria, the concept of a 20-minute neighbourhood has garnered attention for showing how health and environmental outcomes come together when urban communities have adequate infrastructure to live locally.

The social, economic, and environmental challenge of city congestion also constitutes an opportunity for sustainable practice to shine through.

While competitive public transport alternatives to cars is an obvious starting point for sustainable outcomes on congestion, smart technology could also play an integral role in shaping how we move around future cities.

Marion Terrill, Transport and Cities Program Director at the Grattan Institute, has lauded the technology of real-time communication in vehicles for reducing congestion.

Speaking at this year’s Critical Infrastructure Summit, Terrill raised the possibility that a small congestion fee could be fairly enforced via real-time communication, with the impact that “people who can be flexible take their trip at a different time of day.”

Sustainable practices across levels of governance

The task of building sustainable cities that can absorb future global challenges is theoretically simple yet practically complex. A gold-standard definition of sustainability is not tricky for policy makers to agree on: environmental, economic, social and governance outcomes are balanced to meet both present and future needs of populations.

The greater challenge lies in how all levels of governance integrate and work with the private sector to address differing sustainability needs of regions, suburbs, business districts, local government areas, and communities.

In March 2021, Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, announced a national City Partnership campaign that would address some of the challenges for integrating different levels of governance in city development.

The City Partnerships proposal builds upon the City Deal program first launched by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 and involves pooling funding from all levels of government with private investment to address local community needs.

An arms race in funding for city policies at the level of federal politics would only serve to benefit our cities if all future developments balance environmental, social, and economic outcomes when meeting the global challenges of tomorrow.

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