Urban Sustainability: It’s Time To Lift Our Game


By Richard Palmer, Associate Director Sustainability
WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff 

Our cities are facing significant challenges. As they expand, our chronic underinvestment in infrastructure becomes more apparent. This is damaging our ability to sustainably address worrying levels of climate change.

This is an issue that needs to be addressed now.

For the past decade we’ve held fast to our urban sustainability mantra: incentivise the construction of higher quality buildings and the refurbishing of old buildings and we will materially address the sustainability challenges faced by our cities.

This message has been broadly accepted – green building rating tools are now fairly standard in commercial high-end property; mandatory disclosure has triggered building upgrades in CBDs up and down the country and energy-efficiency has become a regulatory consideration across both residential and commercial sectors.

But has all of this materially changed our urban development trajectory? Has it helped us to create competitive, equitable, resilient and sustainable cities that are so critical to our shared future success?Current research would suggest not. Data presented by ASBEC and Climateworks in the Low Carbon High Performance

report, demonstrates only marginal carbon emissions intensity reduction across commercial and residential sectors over the past decade (2% and 5% respectively). Though this is a single statistic, it indicates a growing malaise within the sustainability community and also suggests that our work is not supporting hoped for and much needed change.

Richard Palmer[/caption]Transforming our cities requires a net reduction in emissions (with the ultimate aim of reducing emissions to zero). Marginal improvements in emissions intensity does not cut it. Our movement has targeted the top quartile of the industry, and this trickle-down approach to sustainability is simply not enough to transform the market.

We need a sustainability agenda that identifies ways we can accelerate our progress. Here are three potential levers.

Zero-Carbon | Grid Transformation
Progressing toward zero-carbon is a core compact entered into between global, green building councils in response to the Paris Agreement of COP21.

There are fundamental reasons why buildings will struggle to attain this unaided, essentially there is a mismatch between the capacity for on-site solar generation, the energy consumption of even the most efficient buildings and the density of development demanded by a compact cities . We simply cannot resolve our challenges around in-fill development, transport connectivity, affordable housing and a high quality public realm at that level of density.

Our only hope of achieving a zero-carbon built environment is to transform our grid…and fast.

Right now there are substantial barriers to achieving a zero-carbon built environment. On-site generation is insufficient to meet demand. Selling power across site boundaries is difficult (and often impossible) under current regulation. Power Purchase Agreements don’t alleviate the infrastructure burden on tariffs (which can comprise more than 50 per cent of building owner cost). Regulatory change is slow and complex – as the recent effort to change the rules around distributed generation within the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) attests.

Yet, transitioning to zero carbon cannot wait.

Private and embedded networks present the best current opportunity to optimise some of our energy regulation challenges for decentralised renewable generation. By increasing the scale and diversity of private demand, our capacity to fully utilise embedded generation substantially increases. This in turn more broadly supports our need for flexible intermediate frameworks for generating renewable energy across our cities, distributing it over short distances and selling it across property boundaries.

If we’re serious about developing zero carbon cities, we must collectively contribute to building national consensus for a transformed urban grid.

Density, Amenity and Affordability
We need compact and affordable cities, where people have space and can afford to live close to where they work. This is imperative if we are to create competitive Australian cities. But there is a social licence battle being fought around density and the balance of private and public amenity. ‘NIMBY-ism’ is rife with vested interest holding massive sway over planning and development outcomes – either refusing development altogether or pursuing density without addressing either affordability or public amenity.

Private amenity is currently addressed through SEPP 65 and the Apartment Design Guide in NSW. However, responsibility for public amenity is managed through a fragmented local government structure. Uniquely for a rich, progressive country, housing affordability doesn’t seem to be an agenda item for anyone.

As a result, densification beyond current planning allowances is based on an ad-hoc model with hastily negotiated voluntary planning agreements and financial contributions that seldom deliver the public amenity or social infrastructure needed to support urban intensification.

There remains a huge gap in our industry in developing planning guidelines for the quantity and quality of accessible public space, private space and social infrastructure needed to support the substantial densification of parts of our cities. Coupled with requirements for affordable housing, an innovative planning framework to enable density on the basis of amenity and social infrastructure is one of our biggest unrealised opportunities.

Urban Habitat and Biodiversity
Finally, we must address the issue of urban ecology – we cannot have cities that are dead to the natural world.

The success of habitat functionality is not determined only by its size, by degree of greenness or by the presence of native planting.  High quality habitat that supports biodiversity is a result of the complex interplay between scale, level of degradation, and – perhaps most critically – connection to other high-quality habitats.

If we want to create cities that are resilient, attractive and competitive, nature and urban communities need to co-exist. We as designers and planners, need to support this by establishing green corridors across our cities and by connecting nodes of parks and gardens. We need to re-purpose the veins of our cities – our roads and transport corridors – to connect our green spaces and enable the rewilding of our urban spaces.

A final thought
The sustainable design movement has made important ground during the last decade. We have set an agenda where environmental, social and governance factors have become a fundamental part of property investment. We have enabled new low-impact products to find markets and have introduced a common language for urban sustainability. Through these initiatives, and many others, we have transformed our sustainability discourse.

But we still have a long way to go.

So let’s fight our industry battles with everything we’ve got.
The Urban Developer is proud to partner with WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff  to deliver this article to you. In doing so, we can continue to publish our free daily news, information, insights and opinion to you, our valued readers. 

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