Australian cities face unprecedented challenges. They’re continuing to grow but display the symptoms of chronic underinvestment in mass transit infrastructure. They operate under fragmented governance and are among the least affordable in the world. In the face of terrifying climate change acceleration in 2016, they continue an upward trajectory of carbon emissions. The urban sustainability movement has never been as important to our future prosperity as it is right now.
The narrative for urban sustainability has reinforced a compelling message for the past decade: 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 narrative has been applied broadly and successfully – green building rating tools are now fairly standard in the higher end of commercial property, mandatory disclosure has triggered building upgrades in CBDs across the country and energy efficiency is a regulatory consideration in both residential and commercial sectors.
But has it materially changed the trajectory of urban development to enable the competitive, equitable, resilient and sustainable cities that are so critical to our shared future?
The research presented by ASBEC and Climateworks in the Low Carbon High Performance report – showing only marginal carbon emissions intensity reductions across commercial and residential sectors over the past decade (2% and 5% respectively) – would suggest not. It is only one indicator, but it points to a growing malaise within the sustainability community that our efforts are not bringing about the change we hope for and need. Our efforts do not appear to be of a scale or speed to meaningfully shift our cities to be the places we need.
Transforming our cities requires net reduction in emissions (ultimately to zero). Marginal improvements in emissions intensity do not cut the mustard. Our movement has targeted the top quartile of the industry, and this trickle-down approach to sustainability has not worked to transform the market across the board.
We need a sustainability discourse that seeks levers to accelerate our progress. This piece discusses three emerging opportunities to reframe the urban sustainability narrative: how we transition to a clean urban grid, an amenity-based approach to affordable density and a metropolitan approach to enhancing our urban biodiversity.
Zero-Carbon | Grid Transformation
Progressing toward zero-carbon is a core compact between global green building councils in response to the Paris Agreement of COP21.
There are fundamental reasons why buildings cannot achieve this on their own terms – through efficiency and on-site generation. At current business as usual consumption, the ratio of solar generation footprint to building area is approximately 1:1. Even with deep cuts in efficiency (60-70%) – those same cuts we have failed to achieve universally in a decade of trying – the ratio only improves to about 3:1. We simply cannot resolve our challenges for in-fill development, transport connectivity, affordable housing and a high quality public realm at that level of density.
Our only hope to achieve 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 the current regulations. Power Purchase Agreements don’t alleviate the infrastructure burden on tariffs (which can make up more than half the costs for building owners). Regulatory change is slow and complex – as the recent efforts for rule changes for distributed generation with the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) attest. Transitioning to zero carbon is urgent.
Private and embedded networks present the best current opportunity to by-pass some of the challenges of current energy regulation. By increasing the scale and diversity of demand on the private side of the meter, the ability for embedded generation to be fully utilised is substantially increased. And broadly our cities need flexible intermediate frameworks for generating renewable energy, distributing it over short distances and selling it across property boundaries.
If we’re serious about zero carbon cities, this is a current and urgent need. It demands our collective effort – lobbyist, advocates, designers, engineers, planners – to the building of a national consensus for a transformed urban grid.
Density, Amenity and Affordability
We need to have a compact connected city. People need to live close to where they work. People need to be able to afford a home. These two issues – proximity and affordability – are imperatives for a competitive city that demand greater density. But there is a social licence battle to be fought about our requisite density and the balance of private and public amenity. NIMBYism is rife and vested interests hold massive sway over planning and development outcomes – either refusing development altogether or pursuing density without addressing either public amenity or affordability.
At present, private amenity is addressed through SEPP 65 and the Apartment Design Guide in NSW. However, responsibility for public amenity is held by a fragmented local government structure. Uniquely for a rich, progressive country, housing affordability doesn’t seem to be held by anyone.
Asa result densification beyond current planning allowances is an ad hoc affair of hastily negotiated voluntary planning agreements and financial contributions that seldom deliver the public amenity or social infrastructure needed to support the 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.
We need to fight the NIMBYs, fight FOR urban amenity (our parks, our trees, our sunny squares) and we need to make a case for high quality, affordable, compact development.
Urban Habitat and Biodiversity
Finally, we must address urban ecology – we cannot afford to have a city dead to the natural world.
Habitat functionality is not just a function of it being big. Or green. Or even native. But rather it’s a complex arrangement of size, level of degradation, and perhaps most critically – connection to other high quality habitat.
If we’re serious about creating cities that are resilient, attractive and competitive, we need to enable coexistence with the life systems that underpin our human existence. We ignore them at our peril. This means establishing green corridors across our cities, connecting nodes of parks and gardens. It means re-purposing the veins of our cities – our roads and transport corridors – and rewilding our urban spaces.
The sustainable design movement has won important ground this last decade. We have made consideration of environment, social and governance factors a fundamental part of property investment. We have enabled new low-impact products to find and consolidate a market. We have introduced a common language for urban sustainability. These initiatives, and many others, have transformed the discourse on sustainability in the property industry.
But let’s not pretend the wellness of bankers and lawyers, the rental premiums and returns in commercial property or the latest air conditioning system or fancy façade are material to the big environmental challenges of our day.
We need a zero carbon grid.
We need a substantial injection of affordable, amenable housing.
We need enabled biodiversity and amenity to supports living city.
Our industry must get its hands dirty with the (AEMC). We must engage with the planning profession and the Greater Sydney Commission on housing, density and the public domain. We must build capacity in supporting urban ecology and highly functional, connected habitat.
Addressing these key sectors and systems within the built environment offers us real leverage in transforming our cities. So let’s get our industry fighting these battles with everything they’ve got.
*This post first appeared in an edited form in The Urban Developer: http://www.theurbandeveloper.com/urban-sustainability-its-time-to-lift-our-game/