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Water sensitive urban design - progress or plateau?

First published by Alluvium at http://www.alluvium.com.au/Blog/December-2013-(1)/Growing-pains.aspx

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.