83 ideas for a water sensitive city - reflections and comments

This is a series of blogs to reflect on what we need to create better cities, and specifically ones that are smarter with water and better for people. In 2009 I went on a study tour to learn more about 'water sensitive cities'.  As a group we wrote a report titled 'Good ideas for a water sensitive city'.  We came up with these based on visiting 14 cities across Europe and Singapore.

#1 - "Create or join a learning alliance"

 This particular idea stemmed from a trip to Rotterdam. Today, in hindsight, I think this idea is still very relevant, and has been a key to another movement in the climate network discipline known as C40. I think the key is really that each city isn't facing a unique problem - and by collaborating across a city network you are more likely to tackle these sort of wicked problems.  Probably true moreso today than a decade ago!

I would like to acknowledge Leonie Duncan for her contribution and passion for this idea. 

For further info see the whole report at this link:

What's the target?

Are you about to write an environmental strategy? A key question for any company, development or local government is: “What is your strategy trying to achieve?” Will it result in less energy consumed, less net emissions, and less water consumed?

Targets essentially drive you in one of two directions: to reduce overall use, or meet a relative target.

The relative option usually takes the form of a target expressed as a function of per capita, or per employee, or per site, or to achieve a relative ranking.

The absolute target is designed to limit a set amount of water or energy, or a cap on the amount of emissions / pollution.

I’ll give you two key examples of where organisations have set relative targets:

1.       Melbourne has a Target 155 to encourage residents to save water. at home.

2.       The Australian federal government wants to reduce emissions per capita. 


The problem is that Melbourne’s overall water use has increased, and Australia’s overall emissions have increased (see as the last two red dots on the chart show).

Josh Frydenberg ( ) stated on radio (11th January 2018) that “June quarter figures showed emissions went down by 0.6 per cent, and that emissions on a per capita and GDP basis were at "their lowest in 28 years".”  True, but the atmosphere doesn’t factor in how many people or how much GDP a nation has, it’s just a net budget.

For the water related Target 155, Melbourne Water’s 2016/17 annual report states “Melburnians used an average of 1170 million litres of water per day during the year, which was 7 per cent more than the last five-year average”. It is below its peak in the nineties, but is now consistently trending up despite a mostly successful Target 155 campaign.  

People and organisations often set targets using the ‘relative’ option as it makes sense, and it is easy to explain how you are ‘doing your fair share’. 

But unfortunately the environment itself doesn’t really deal with relative or per capita changes. Net change matters.  Tonnes of green house gases, megalitres of water, tonnes of waste.  It doesn’t matter where it comes from, it matters what the cumulative impact is.

It’s a bit harder, but I’d advocate that your strategy uses absolute targets.

The trials and tribulations of being an Early Adopter

New technologies need to be trialled and tested in order for them to be improved and optimised . With water sensitive urban design (WSUD), it is no different. Being an Early Adopter means you a play an invaluable role in this process. It also means encountering unexpected issues, as the new technologies are refined and mature. 

Site tour of Inkerman Oasis, St Kilda. 

Site tour of Inkerman Oasis, St Kilda. 

In November 2017, we returned with 10 other interested architects, water engineers and energy assessors to the Inkerman Oasis site in St Kilda, 15 years after its completion. The award winning site received much acclaim for its innovative water recycling features, raising the bar for what could be achieved at the multi-residential scale. It included greywater recycling, with a four part treatment process (aeration tank, membrane bioreactor tank, chlorination, and UV disinfection). Stormwater was also harvested off the roofs, with primary treatment through a gross pollutant trap then biological filtration through 400m2 of on site wetlands.  


Unfortunately, we arrived to learn that all of these features were now non-operational. All of the WSUD infrastructure had been switched off and is now bypassed.

It was disheartening to see such a substantial investment in IWM infrastructure be entirely discarded, but in order to avoid this happening continually, we need to examine the why. Where did it go wrong? Why did the costs outweigh the savings? How can we do it better? 

In the case of Inkerman Oasis, it seems that an intensive maintenance regime was the crux of the problem. A four part treatment process for its greywater, means four separate systems to clean, maintain and replace parts for. Likewise, the gross pollutant traps for the stormwater management require regular cleaning. The out-of-sight nature of the infrastructure can mean that issues or maintenance requirements can be missed, causing larger problems (and costs) later. The relative cheapness of potable water compounds the issue, creating a difficult case for economically viable water infrastructure. 

The previous wetlands, now regular garden beds. 

The previous wetlands, now regular garden beds. 

Part of the currently non-operational grey water treatment system

Part of the currently non-operational grey water treatment system

WSUD assets are now mandatory in many new developments through local council clauses. What happens beyond the design phase however is independently decided. With the demands of keeping rates low and fears in regards to the unfamiliar complexity of the infrastructure, many owner's corporations elect to simply switch off part or all of the technology that the site has invested in. 

In order for WSUD to be implemented effectively in developments, beyond the design phase, the maintenance needs to be straightforward and as efficient as possible. Moves towards digitalising systems and including sensors is a positive step in this direction. Simplifying processes as much as possible, while remaining within EPA public health guidelines, is essential.

It was very interesting to visit the Inkerman Oasis site and see where this pioneering WSUD project had landed. Thanks to building manager, Jarrad Hudson, for hosting us while we were there.

Thanks also to the City of Port Phillip, Inkerman Developments, South East Water and the rest of the project team for their groundbreaking work. Despite the fact that the infrastructure is not currently operational, the work that was achieved has contributed to making it easier for future developments to incorporate WSUD features, and the journey continues.

Josie McGushin.

Water and energy nexus - video example!

We were helping a commercial client analyse their water use at the moment. In that process of inspecting every single water appliance within a 30,000 m2 building, we came across a very real example of how the water and energy nexus comes together at the end use.  See this video below for how much water is used in a cooling tower.  And this was in the morning, well before the afternoon heat peak has arrived.  

The water and energy nexus is apparent at all scales - from energy generation through to distribution of water, through to the combination of systems that use both energy and water in houses, apartments and commercial buildings.

Just think of how many buildings in our town or city have these systems pumping away on top of the building!

Why we banned emails at work

At Wave Consulting we have decided to ban emails within the company. We don’t email each other. We email clients. We are a small company, seven in total and most of us are part time, and this is a short blog about why we banned emails within the company.

This email ban is driven by three things: a desire to innovate, to be efficient and to foster a culture of sharing ideas and transparency.

We recognise emails have been around a long time; they are within the core of professional services and office life. We also know that emails and meetings can destroy productivity. How often do you return home from work and feel as though all you did is send and receive emails all day? The larger the company, the more likely you spend time on internal communication.

Don’t get me wrong, we realise the need to communicate within a small company, particularly when staff are not all full time, it is very important. However, we decided that emails are perhaps not the best way to achieve this.

Instead, we use Teams, a team based, chat environment that everyone has access to, and is included in our Office 365 licence. So, it is effectively free and uses the same login as used to access emails. No issues in working across multiple platforms. Slack is another platform that would have helped us off emails, but given there would be a charge and we would need another set of login details, we chose to go with Teams.

The Teams App is efficient and quick to use, it integrates your files, your calendar and everything you need. The platform can also hold video calls, so the team can talk to each other if they are in different locations. No worrying about dial in codes and stuff like that. Just do it. Click and go. Afterwards, the video call is saved for those that missed out on being there.

It is transparent. You no longer have to be concerned about cc’ing people on an email, or worse, realising that they weren’t copied on in the first place. It is searchable. The standard operating procedure is to share with everyone. Everyone can learn, everyone will be up to speed with proposals, industry events, milestones, projects and new ideas.

Just as we look to innovate on our water and energy projects, our new approach to communication fosters a culture of innovation in how we work with each other. It encourages everyone to work together. Each team member has the same permissions – i.e. we can establish smaller teams to work on a specific project. This novel method supports a culture of sharing our knowledge, learning from others and innovating to reduce our impact on the climate.  It is consistent with our location in a co-working office - at Creative Spaces (similar space to the larger co-working offices like Hub and WeWork).

This new culture has been established for a month now and it has worked a dream. We still use email to talk to people external to the company. But Teams has been a significant milestone in improving communications and productivity within Wave.  I want to acknowledge Leigh from Day One Digital for opening our eyes to this app and this progressive approach.


Learning From Green Buildings: Success & Challenges

On Tuesday 12th of September we held our latest Green Building Tour, where we visited two interesting Melbourne buildings to see their sustainability features in action. 

Paul talking with the tour group

Paul talking with the tour group

First up was 501 Swanston Street (Melbourne) where we were hosted by the Construction Services and Facilities Manager, Paul Giuliano. Paul was a wealth of knowledge and talked us through the performance and costings of the various features and how they related to the before scenario. 

This building had achieved a 40-50% savings on their electricity and gas usage with a corresponding 15% increase in maintenance costs. This had achieved by a massive building redevelopment, with partial funding received from the Australian Environmental Upgrade Fund. The upgrades included a complete redesign of the lifts, with "regenerative braking" technology allowing them to generate their own electricity. Smart controls, including the first touch screen control panels to be introduced in the southern hemisphere, were a big part of reducing the lifts' electricity consumption, corresponding to a decrease in idle energy usage from 5 Amps to 0.5 Amps.  

Rooftop garden at 501 Swanston Street

Rooftop garden at 501 Swanston Street

Other energy saving features included solar film added to both sides of the building windows, replacement of lighting fixtures to sensor LEDs, air conditioning and heating upgrades, and replacement of plant room equipment.  

One of the key things that stood out in the building, was the amount and quality of communal space available for tenants. A well frequented wellness centre, sleeping pod, massage chair, extensive rooftop garden, commercial grade kitchen, and conference room were among the features available for tenant use. This related to 15% of total available building space being used as functional communal space.  

Robert testing out the sleeping pod

Robert testing out the sleeping pod

The other key thing to note from 501 Swanston was the value they placed on the sustainability performance of the building. Maintenance regimes were upkept and the features were able to operate at their optimum levels and deliver on the desired savings. Paul discussed how important the features were for their stable and consistent tenancies, and how the market now demanded that a building deliver on sustainability in order to remain competitive.  

After a quick coffee stop at the sustainable design award winning café, Seven Seeds Carlton, we arrived at our next stop on the tour, the City of Melbourne Bowls Club.  

At the CoM Bowls Club we were hosted by club manager, Zac Potier, who talked us through the building's performance from an end-user perspective. The clubhouse was rebuilt in 2009 and designed for environmental sustainability, with a horizontal closed-loop geothermal system for heating and cooling and an extensive sub-surface irrigation system using recycled water. In addition, the clubhouse was designed to maximise natural light and ventilation, and built with a choice of ESD valued materials such as timber, brushed and rough concrete, and external green wall.  

Interior of the CoM Clubhouse

Interior of the CoM Clubhouse

Zac discussing the green wall and landscaping

Zac discussing the green wall and landscaping

It was interesting to learn from Zac the challenges that had been experienced beyond the design phase. The features had not always been maintained to a high level, due in part to a lack of clarity in who was responsible (owners or tenants), and the expertise needed to do so. The weather station, which controls the automation of the heating and cooling systems (eg. opening and shutting louvres, activating the air conditioner), was not at the correct calibration and hence needed to be overridden manually to ensure comfort of clubgoers. The automation in general conflicted with club usage, given the frequent opening of doors, the need for quiet during presentations, and preference of customising temperature to satisfy customer desires.  

Despite these challenges, the geothermal system was still delivering on considerable energy savings. The heating and cooling it provided through the concrete floor slab was largely sufficient to keep the clubhouse at a comfortable ambient temperature, without the need for additional heating and cooling. Zac stated that as a result they once went through an entire summer without needing to use the air conditioner.  

Synthetic and natural warm-weather turf at CoM Bowls Club

Synthetic and natural warm-weather turf at CoM Bowls Club

The sub-surface irrigation system had proven troublesome to some degree. A 140,000 litre underground water storage tank stores captured storm and recycled water that is then used to irrigate the green. Herbicides and pesticides used to maintain the green were transferred to the water storage, causing salination of the water and leading to damage of the green during irrigation. In order to mitigate this issue, chemical maintenance of the green had been decreased and substituted with manual methods, such as airing and combing.  

Zac's honesty of the challenges faced by the club and how they overcame them provided valuable insight. It is not simply through success that we learn, but through encountering problems and henceforth having to overcome them. A valuable part of these green building tours is to learn of the operational challenges of sustainability measures, to inform and inspire better future design. 

Stay posted for Wave's next Green Building Tour, due to take place at the end of October.

Carbon neutral water businesses

Water businesses in Victoria have been asked to develop plans to become carbon neutral by 2050.  It was a State Government directive and part of a broader response to acting on climate change.

This week the Australian Water Association put on an event “Becoming Carbon Neutral”.  We heard from the Bureau of Meteorology, SE Water and Jacobs.  Elisa de Wit from the Carbon Market Institute chaired the event.  ARUP hosted the event (and informed us how they are supporting staff with interest fee loans for solar at home).

A few things stood out for me:

  • The Bureau is very clear that the evidence and science suggests we are on a trajectory for more extreme climate change, and not on path to stay within 2 or 1.5 degrees.  This means that current (hot!) temperature extremes will not even be considered a cold year by 2100.
  • Water authorities are large energy users and responsible for large emissions.
  • Water authorities are dealing with mostly Scope 2 emissions, and there is a lot of opportunity to embrace energy efficiency and methane harvesting to reduce emissions
  • Melbourne Water’s emissions (that include desalination) will dwarf the scope of works and emissions reductions that individual water retailers take.

So, there is a lot of work to do!  We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this intersection of energy, water and climate, and hope to publish some of that work later this year.

Below are some tweets I sent during the event. 

The energy trilemma

Prof Ross Garnaut gave a lecture on the energy trilemma, a term to describe the combination of managing energy security, cost and reducing emissions.  

It was a good lecture and covered a lot of what was in the Finkel Review, the history of climate policy, current issues facing the energy industry, and the potential role of renewables and batteries going forward.

I laughed about his analogy of the Melbourne Cup and battery storage as a fast and nimble energy supplier. That is, it's being handicapped through the system of calculating energy prices as an average of 30 minutes.  Handicapping in the Melbourne Cup is good fun and makes for a closer race, in energy it reduces effectiveness of new technologies.

I tweeted a few of the lines of the speech, see below.

Sustainable schools - our recent pro bono work

Today is World Environment Day and it was good to be part of the local school's World Environment Day Expo. 

We've been working with a local school for a while, along with other parents, with a focus on working on educational and infrastructure issues.  The school has adopted the Resource Smart framework, which provides a roadmap for the school to tick off various initiatives. 

Today we convinced a local bike shop (99 Bikes) to come and show off how electric bikes work. Great insight into another sustainable transport option.  And wow they are so easy to ride up a hill :)

I think the big challenge for schools is to roll out larger projects where they can significantly alter reduce consumption of water, energy, materials, and significantly generate local water and energy for reuse on site.  And do it in a way that enables the kids to be part of the experience and monitor the impact. 

A new venture: a community power microgrid

First published at

I’m pretty excited to say that I started a new project last week.   An interesting mix of innovation, community and climate action, and technology.    

Before I say what it is, let me say why.

Everything that I do with work, and at home, is done through the lens of taking action to reduce energy, waste and water footprint.  The world is warming at an alarming rate, and I think we all have a clear responsibility to take action.  I want to think that I have done everything I can to minimise the world warming beyond two degrees. 

So the story of this new project started at my home.  I’m in the process of putting in a solar and battery array at home.  We are transitioning off natural gas for heating, hot water and cooking.  Yes gas is cheap (now) and easy, but it’s still a fossil fuel.  I want our house to be run purely off electric appliances (the most efficient ones possible of course), and then source that electricity from our solar and battery system.  

But the exciting project is not about my place, but about a local microgrid. So rather than just introducing renewable energy at one house, I thought we could do more than that.  What if we had our own local microgrid that shared the use of solar and battery usage along the street?  It could be more efficient (ie less exporting and importing of electricity), cost less, reduce our footprint, and show that there are new ways of doing things.  It would also contribute to our sense of place and community.  We’d be doing something together. 

So last week I started a campaign along the street to see who was interested.  After door knocking half of the street I have about 85% interest.  People, with and without solar panels now, think this is worth looking at and taking further.   People seemed to be attracted to the concept of buying energy off their neighbours, and doing something as a whole community to transition towards a zero emissions future.

I’m talking about a microgrid that enables a whole series of houses to share the energy they produce.  We have a few different models in the way that could happen, and all of them have regulatory and technical (and financial) issues.  But the point is that until we try it out, we can’t figure out how we’ll solve those issues and what consumers are willing to change or accept when it comes to new electricity models.  And I’m not talking about disconnecting from the grid completely. 

I’m looking at a how we can make this work for people that already have solar, that don’t have solar, that are interested in battery storage, that rent, that own, and that use a lot or a little electricity.   I estimate that collectively this collection of houses spends over $100,000 a year on electricity usage and connections.  But interestingly is the potential for more investment, particularly in more solar panels on roofs.

Now I know some in the energy industry will balk at the prospect of a street (surrounded by the grid) doing something like this.  But I believe the transition of the electricity system is something that must happen within the established areas of the city, as well as the greenfield sites, apartment blocks, the remote communities and the introduction of new large scale renewable projects.  I want to show that it is something that the millions of Australians, that live cities and within the existing areas of the grid, can be part of. 

So we are going to push ahead, and hopefully show that with a strong people and consumer interest, it is possible. 

If you have any ideas or potential contributions then I’d love to hear them. Get in touch.



Top 5 ways to get more out of consultants

First published at

I’ve worked with or as a consultant for over 10 years.  There are many that have worked far longer, but here are my top five ways of improving the relationship between a consultant and a client. 

The answer isn't asking them to pedal harder!  Look forward to hearing your tips.

Thanks, Rob.

1. It’s a social contract.

Firstly to get more, you need to give a little.  This might seem counter-intuitive, but you need to stop thinking of this job as a written contract, and approach it as a social contract. 

When you engage a consultant, you are actually buying time.  And just like you, they have a family, play sport on weekends or at night, dream of their next holiday, probably have an obsession with a show like Game of Thrones, might have a sick relative and will always appreciate, like you, a good night’s sleep. 

So basically this boils down to treating people like people.  Just because you are shelling out some money, doesn’t mean you can buy their weekends or every night of the week in the lead up to a deadline. 

Contracts work best when everyone realises that they are on the same boat.  Would you demand this or a colleague sitting next to you?  Of your partner? 

Everyone has to do a bit extra, and also keep to the script (or deliver on what you said you’d do), but just treat people like people and you’d be amazed at how must better the relationship, and therefore the product, can be.

2. Good and available data

Good data, readily available, makes a huge difference.  You will save massive amounts of times and angst if you have data ready to go.  Ideally you’d do a thorough data review before issuing the brief, and definitely before signing a contract.  Understanding, and then sharing, the data you have enables you to get more out of a consultant.  There is limited skill in reformatting, merging, copying, quality controlling data, and that is where you can save money by doing it within the business, and enabling a consultant to analyse and think about what the data means. 

And good data also includes good metadata (just don’t ask George Brandis what it is!).  The data about the data.  Who collected it?  Who manages it now?  How old is it?  Will it be updated?  What spatial and temporal scale is it at?  What do the codes mean in each of the columns?

Know your data, and be very clear with what data you have and don’t have, and things will move a lot quicker.

3. Sign off

9 times out of 10, a project has milestones and tasks.  What is critical is for all parties, is to agree when each milestone has been met.  Consultants, like all of us really, like to get work done in a particular timeframe, and then move on to the next stage.  They don’t like going back.  So to get more out of them, be very clear (and frequently), that you are happy for the agreed tasks to be signed off, and to move on to the next stage.  

This will also help everyone be clear as to what sign off actually means.  Is it minutes from a meeting, a map, a dataset, a report, a memo, etc?  Either way you will get more from a consultant when you are clear on what needs to get done before it is done.  Don’t assume anything.

4. What exactly is the question?

This may sound a bit simple, but it’s amazing how often I find that the key issue, question or problem someone has, only becomes evident ¾ through a project.  So if your job and your company really needs help, then get a consultant to focus on the big question as soon as possible.  Everything else is just a nice to do. 

If you want more out of a consultant, don’t let them get distracted.  It’s not going to be deliberate, but if the original brief has a lot of tasks to get done (that don’t really help answer the question), then consultants will inevitably follow the script.  Whereas if you want more out of them, then get them to focus on the critical question.

5. Time is everything

Consultants can finish jobs quickly if things are planned out well in advance.  It’s in your interests to have a consultant finish a job quickly because you need all the time you can get to work on implementing new ideas, engaging others within the organisation, developing policy, and acting on the recommendations.  So every meeting you need to schedule, and every review of the consultant’s work, should be planned well ahead.  If you put them in the diary, then you’ll find consultants will stick to the plan and also be most likely to focus on the key question.   

What will help a lot is asking the consultant for their schedule, and also sharing your schedule.  Knowing that you need to do a team update every Monday or a Board paper next month is very useful and will again focus the consultant in getting the work done.


SA power blackout - the Goldilocks problem

First published at

1.7 million people in South Australia were without any power last night: While I'm no electrical engineer or network engineer, here is a very simplistic version of what happened and why. 

A national electrical grid like ours is a bit like Goldilocks. It likes to have just the right amount of electricity flowing through it. Not too much, not too little.   And that ‘right’ amount keeps changing of course, every minute. 

Yesterday afternoon it got too much (in a matter is seconds some transmission lines went down in a tornado, so the supply suddenly exceeded the demand) so a safety mechanism kicked in and shut it down. When you are sending all that power down the line (and from various renewable and non renewable sources - it actually doesn't matter where those electrons come from) and then there isn't a use for it - well we have a problem. 

Within a few minutes the demand for power last night went from 1624 MW to 26MW as the Australian Energy Market Operator determined (or most likely it automatically happened) that it needed to shut off a large section of the grid in that state. 

Fast forward six months and it's 44 degrees with a million air conditioners on. If (or when) the grid doesn't have enough power in that region- it will again shut down. 

If it didn’t shut down yesterday, then electricity flowing through the transmissions lines doesn’t just disappear, and things will blow up (ok I'm being dramatic but the system and electricity doesn't like changes to loads and frequency).  See for some good analysis and commentary on the issue.

What's the answer? Well it isn't an easy fix. More decentralised networks that can connect into the grid when needed would help. And less demand for electricity through efficiency measures helps too. And maybe a greater appreciation that extreme events will happen and we can’t build a system that is 100% reliable!

Do water authorities need a social licence?

First published by Alluvium at

A social licence is a priceless asset. It’s an unwritten contract with society that says (in my opinion) you’ll operate with more than the shareholder's interest - you'll operate also with the community and perhaps even an intergenerational interest at heart.

In May 2014, a large blockade began in the northern rivers of New South Wales to object to the exploration of coal seam gas. After many months the NSW Government referred the approval process that Metgasco had undertaken to ICAC and requested more detail on the community consultation. It was suggested that Metgasco failed to gain a social licence for this work, and had failed to “undertake genuine and effective consultation with the community”. This issue of having a social licence matters simply because it is an unwritten condition to design and construct massive infrastructure projects in line with what the community want. And if you don’t know what people want, you might find out later and it could be costly. 

Let’s now ask - do water authorities need a social licence? Water authorities operate within the laws of the respective jurisdictions, and provide fundamental services to the community in terms of clean drinking water, disposal and treatment of wastewater and support for a range of environmental values. But is that enough? 

The question is relevant for two reasons:

  • We need to be clear on what sort of standards our utilities are currently meeting and therefore, what new entrants to the water market must also met.
  • Water authorities are now being asked to deliver more than pure water services; they are being asked to contribute to liveability. If you operate outside of your legislated operations, you’ll need a social licence.

I can think of the following reasons for water authorities to explicitly gain a social licence:

  • As was pointed out above, it might be a necessary condition to delivering large infrastructure projects – e.g. the North South pipeline ($750 million).
  • As a contributor to liveability in a city, water authorities need to be known as more than just efficient suppliers of goods and services.
  • The rapid adoption of desalination as a water supply source didn’t factor in a mostly negative social response, and as a result the motives of water authorities more recently have been under question.
  • If we expect the likes of Woolworths, Coke, Nestle and Metgasco to gain a social license, why shouldn’t a water authority?
  • In a world of 24 hour media and social media storms, gaining some sort of social licence might be seen as an insurance policy.

And on the flip side, the case for not needing a social licence:

  • It may result in overinvestment – ultimately paid for by consumers.
  • Public utilities should always have a public interest at heart. Therefore they shouldn’t need to go further than they already are.
  • Water authorities might be best served on doing what they do best, and leave the social stuff to politicians and environment groups.

It’s an interesting proposition that the feel good education days, the stalls at shopping centre, the little segments on talk-back radio, and the showerhead give-aways are actually necessary and part of delivering billions of dollars of infrastructure.

Bay sediments: a window into the soul of a city

First published by Alluvium at

Tim Flannery’s article “Bay of Action” in The Monthly describes his experience growing up on the Port Phillip Bay and his disappointment on the current health of the bay. Sydney is described as a shining example of how a city has improved its management of coastal and harbour zones.

I would disagree that Sydney has improved due to the reasons stated. In the 1990s Sydney built offshore sewer outfalls and a massive amount of nutrients are now mixing with ocean currents. However, it’s not affecting the beaches. Sydney Harbour has a very different ‘flushing’ regime compared to Port Phillip Bay. 

But I do wonder if Tim Flannery is on to something here. There is strong public support for healthy beaches in Sydney – evident by Sydney Water planning to use clean beaches as a key pillar for establishing a Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) program across the catchment and embed it within the organisation. Effectively, there is already a social licence in Sydney to do works that link to cleaner beaches.

Are bay sediments a window to a city’s soul? Where will this journey to create a clean and healthy Port Phillip Bay go next and how long will it take us to get there? 

Liveability - how important are waterways in a city?

First published by Alluvium at

The last ten years has seen rapid change in the urban water industry, in particular the way stormwater and urban streams are managed. It used to be about environmental values. That’s exactly how the Port Phillip Bay Environmental Study (CSIRO, 1996) was presented and adopted by Melbourne Water and the State Government. It was purely about protecting an environmental asset (with an appreciation that the bay has a wider social value nonetheless).

But major external and macro changes have changed the argument, or perhaps given us a new argument, about the need to create healthy waterways and cities. The main drivers now include climate change (and how to deal with it), the global financial crisis, ongoing discussion about how best to plan for growth in a city and how to foster communities (mmm, Docklands anyone?). Obama referenced these macro issues in his recent speech calling for action on climate change. 

My three top reasons for change are:

1. There’s an economic return in using and managing water locally. We now appreciate that we pay much more for water and environmental service than we traditionally acknowledged. Every park, every drain, every bin, every water tank, every new development and every roof is part of the water system. These things could all broadly be considered part of the water and city water network but are not usually costed and included in the delivery of water systems. We now also appreciate that there is a large cost in transporting water long distances, and disposing of large volumes of water every time it rains in the city. So there is now a strong economic case for doing things differently. 

2. The social benefits of green infrastructure. There is a growing body of knowledge that open and green spaces provide substantial mental health benefits. We also know that a street tree could be worth $8,000 in terms of shading, cooling, improving soil and improving air quality. We know that waterway corridors are highly valued and seen as essential areas to escape urban living. We know that when people are asked for photos of their favourite place, they often include water. This is in line with other urban planning movements like ‘walkable streets’ and ‘complete streets’. 

3. Communities demand it. In an era of big data and social media, there are now more expectations from the community in having a say and demanding action. There is a body of evidence that the community is willing to pay, but are also keen to ensure a return on investment. Any discussion about liveability or planning (more so high density developments) quickly turns into a conversation about the quality of urban environments and the need for greenery and places for people to connect with each other. In short, communities demand places that include water, good quality open parks and healthy waterways. 

There’s a good case to preserve and improve waterways for their own sake, but in order to develop a stronger case, the economic, social and community benefits are ones I’d use in a conversation with a councillor or a treasury official.

Water sensitive urban design - progress or plateau?

First published by Alluvium at

I attended the 8th International Water Sensitive Urban Design 2013 conference held on the Gold Coast a couple of weeks ago. I have been to a few of these now and it was interesting to observe how water sensitive urban design (WSUD), which I define as distributed stormwater quality assets, is evolving.

My summary is that it is experiencing ‘growing pains’. The initial waves of innovation and early adopter initiatives have been and gone. The constant background noise on why bother with WSUD, is it sustainable, how much does it cost and how will we maintain it continues to be a buzz of discontent across the industry. There are not many examples of WSUD becoming the norm; they remain the exception. Just drive around any city and count how many roads have and don’t have WSUD.

In Melbourne, there is approximately:
• Over 1000 km2 of impervious area
• 450 gigalitres of stormwater generated on average every year that flows to Port Phillip or Westernport Bay (Office of Living Victoria)
• 15,000 tonnes of Nitrogen flowing to the bay (CSIRO)
• And 77,000 more people every year moving into the city (ABS).

The need for WSUD is huge. The need to manage water efficiently, build new houses, retrofit old ones, build new suburbs, shops and employment centres in a way that improves the quality of life for those that live there but also maintains some ecological value of waterways and surrounding environment, has never been greater. In South East Queensland there is forecast to be 754,000 new dwellings built over 25 years, or over 20 km2 of new urban development every year (South East Queensland Regional Plan). Again, WSUD must be embedded in every part of that 20 km2. 

But I’m not sure where the next step change or up-scaling of the industry is coming from, after this latest three day conference. While new projects and research were discussed, particularly around stormwater harvesting and urban waterway/ecological issues, we seem to be having the same conversations as we did five years ago. 

I hope this is about growing pains. There are some regulations across the country that drive better environmental outcomes, but they aren’t widespread, or don’t apply to all types of development. My assessment is that the industry has plateaued, or perhaps even is in decline. I would argue a movement towards stormwater ‘offset’ programs is not a leap forward but a leap sideways (and some I know would argue it is a decline). 

One enlightening moment for me was hearing about the journey that New York City is currently going on. Bram Gunther, Chief of Forestry in their Horticulture & Natural Resources Group, outlined the range of initiatives they are doing: 1 million new trees, wetland reclamation, matching tree planting with published health data, permeable paving and buffering against super storms. The key was that they had a mountain of data and evidence for all of these issues. And now they have a $2.4 billion budget!

To create the next step of change in Australia, the industry needs to get politically savvy. We need to position this type of work at the heart of improving the quality of life for people in cities, that is 90% of Australia’s population, and soon to be 70% of the world’s population. We need to position it so that it means something to a home owner / renter, to the industrial park developer, and to the citywide urban planners. And it has to be delivered to the political leaders. It has got to be a positive message, a dream, and an aspiration. There is limited value convincing engineers, planners or ecologists. They don’t make the big decisions, politicians do. Then the policy, regulation and more importantly the benefits will flow. Just like New York.