Urban sustainability: Australian cities leading the world ... for now

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In a rapidly urbanising world, cities are causing a changing climate — but they may also be a major part of the solution as well, writes Dr Jeroen van der Heijden.

Cities hold a significant potential to make a rapid change toward reduced resource consumption and waste production, greenhouse gasses included. Yet, an ongoing reliance on traditional building codes will however not result in the change needed. Innovative governance tools hold more potential.

My new book highlights that Australian cities may lead the world in the type and content of such tools — but this leading role is easily lost.

Cities as problem

Cities are where we consume most of our finite resources and where we produce most of our waste.

To give some numbers, up to 40% of all energy is used in cities, close to 45% of all raw materials are used to develop and maintain cities, close to 40% of all waste is produced in cities, as well as close to 35% of all global greenhouse gasses. This resource consumption and waste production causes significant environmental stress and adds to a changing climate.

Cities are also the locations where we begin to see that increased risks resulting from a changing climate, extreme weather events included, will strike hardest.

Currently more than half of the world population lives in cities and it is expected that by 2050 close to 70% of all people do. Cities are also the centres, or even motors, of our economy. If a disaster hits a city, it likely has detrimental effects, as the floods that plagued Queensland in 2010 and 2011, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, and Hurricane Sandy that hit New York in 2012, have all shown.

Cities as solution

A wide range of technological solutions is now available to help reducing cities resource consumption and waste production, such as local renewable energy solutions and improved building designs.

Over the last decade also, much social know-how has developed about how citizens can use their cities more efficiently, for instance by switching off their appliances when not in use (as opposed to using the default stand-by mode), which could save 10% of a household’s energy consumption and more than double that number for office users.

Such technology is now cost-effective to implement. Behavioural change often does not cost anything — except some effort. The gain of such technology and change is momentous: together cities could reduce global carbon emissions by 15%, which would significantly contribute to keep the earth’s future temperature in check. 

Yet still, we do not see a wide uptake of either. Why is this?

Personal and market barriers

On an individual level, it could be argued that people are creatures of habit.

Whilst it is easy to switch off the computer screen when we go out for lunch, or make a bicycle trip to the convenience store instead of a car trip, we simply do not do it because that would go against our routine.

If only our energy suppliers would tell us how easy it is to change behaviour and how much that would safe on our energy bill... but of course, they have little incentive for doing so.

Such routine behaviour translates to the city level where property developers and property owners are fairly conservative and risk-averse. As a result, they are unlikely to use the latest insights on what is possible in terms of highly efficient building design and operation.

The development sector further misses an economy of scale that could help a rapid transition towards more energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions: most buildings and infrastructure are a one-off project, not only including a unique design but also a unique project team that has never worked together before.

On top of this, the construction sector faces what has become known as the vicious circle of blame.

Consumers tend to blame builders for not constructing sustainable buildings, which means they cannot buy or rent these. Builders blame property developers for not commissioning such projects. Developers blame banks for not providing funds for such projects. Banks, for their part, complain consumers do not demand sustainable buildings.

Governance barriers

Governments appear in an ideal position to inform individual citizens about how they can change their behaviour, as well as participate in the construction sector to ensure that highly efficient infrastructures and buildings are developed.

But as always, there is a but...

Governments mainly use planning regulation and building codes to make a transition to cities that are more resource and environmental sustainable and more resilient to climate risks than our current. This is a fairly archaic approach to achieve the highly sustainable and resilient cities we need so badly.

It often takes many years to make changes to planning regulation and building codes. As a result, such changes do not reflect the latest state of technology and insights in how best to design buildings, infrastructures and cities.

Also, planning regulation and building codes often only address new city developments, but not – or much less so – the existing part of cities. Bearing in mind that cities renew and expand by, at best, 2% per year, the majority of cities will therefore not see much change as a result of amended regulation and codes.

Governance solutions

Around the globe city governments, firms and citizens have begun to act to this latter problem. They have introduced a wide range of innovative governance tools that seek to stimulate a transition towards urban sustainability and resilience, but without the force of regulation and codes.

I have studied over 50 of such innovative tools around the globe and found that Australian cities have been particularly active in this area.

For instance, the City of Melbourne collaborates with financial institutions and its local property owners in the 1200 Buildings program, which seeks to overcome the problem that property owners cannot obtain funds to retrofit their buildings.

The city of Sydney collaborates with its major property owners in the Better Buildings Partnership, seeking to support them in improving the resource use of their buildings. The city of Sydney was also deeply involved in the founding of CitySwitch Green Office, a now national and highly successful program that supports office tenants in reducing their resource consumption.

Australian cities as international examples

What struck me when writing the book is how active Australian cities are in developing and implementing innovative governance tools. In my opinion they are absolutely world-leaders.

But not only can cities around the world – and cities in Australia, of course – learn from the many Australian examples that I discuss, I feel that the major lesson from the Australian examples is how active the various cities are in connecting these innovative governance tools.

For instance, Sydney and Melbourne work actively to bring together the participants in CitySwitch with those in 1200 Buildings and the Better Building Partnership, respectively. Together, these participants can seek solutions that reach beyond the goals of the individual innovative governance tool. In other words, by bringing together their participants, the whole of these innovative governance tools is larger than the sum of its parts.

The ongoing cutting of budgets by the Abbott Government, particularly in the area of renewable energy and environmental sustainability, may see an early end to the world-leading role of Australian cities in such innovative governance tools for urban sustainability and resilience.

That being said, Prime Minister Tony Abbott recent change of position on climate change is a hopeful sign. The time seems ripe for Australian cities to put more pressure on the PM to acknowledge their achievements and to support them in developing more innovative tools.

Dr Jeroen van der Heijden is a senior research fellow with the Australian National University and an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam. has studied governance for urban sustainability and resilience for close to a decade now. He has recently brought together many insights from his work in the book 'Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience' (Edward Elgar Publishers) The introduction to the book is freely available. Read more by Dr van der Heijden on his website jeroenvanderheijden.net.

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