Getting smarter about infrastructure delivery will mean better cities for all
Lisa McLean, Open Cities | 1 August 2018
The banking royal commission has not only put a spotlight on banking practices. In the aftermath of the commission, people want to see business overall support sustainable, public-spirited and responsible policies – not continue with business as usual.
A key area of business reform on which to now focus is the inherent unfairness of utility costs. Current utility business models are pushing up living costs, without much innovation and providing the same services (many unsustainable) they’ve had for the best half of a century.
In Australia, with all our solar resources, every single house and building should be getting free energy from the sun. With our unreliable rain patterns we should be recycling our water for greening and non-drinking. With our long distances we should be looking at local shared data and mobility networks, electrifying our fleets and mobility as a service. And extracting the huge value in waste currently completely untapped.
Technology is not stopping us, rather a lack of market reform and businesses who don’t care for change and are not listening to what people want.
Where is our thinking around prosumers? The ability to both produce and consume (prosume) our energy, water, waste, data and mobility is driving a trillion-dollar economy in Europe and genuinely putting people at the centre of products and services.
Our cities can indeed get better as they get bigger – but only if they grow with the right infrastructure and values, exploiting the potential of new technologies to become more sustainable, liveable and above all more shared.
That is why Open Cities has been formed – to lead our businesses and governments to a more liveable and responsible future by accelerating the take-up of more sustainable technologies and services.
Getting communities to embrace change
Instead of fearing growth, our communities can embrace it – if we involve them more in shaping their cities and provide more choice and amenity that does not damage the environment but enhances it.
What we do about infrastructure will be at the core of making great Australian cities. Much opposition to urban growth is actually about community worries that the infrastructure will not be in place in time – or at all – to support it and make it sustainable.
In reassuring the community they can get better city quality from growth, we also need to get away from frankly outdated and unsustainable 19th century notions of infrastructure.
The community itself is asking: why do we need so many new roads and cars when the future is about shared vehicles and more efficient utilisation of road space? Why are we using precious rainwater to flush our toilets and not recycling? Why are we still shackled to coal-fired energy when we have the best solar resources in the world and each home could generate energy, not
just consume? Why are we dumping waste in landfill rather than realising the millions of dollars in savings from reusing our waste – and improving the environment at the same time? We need some new thinking.
Challenging linear thinking and moving to a circular economy
The current thinking is too linear. It’s built around maximum production and the discarding of waste. That might have been an effective system before the Industrial Revolution, when global population was much lower, technology was still in its infancy, and the awareness of pollution was minimal. But as pressures mount on our increasingly crowded urban areas and on the environment, a new approach is needed.
The emerging notion of the “circular economy” is vital to the Australian cities discussion. The circular economy is a way of building sustainability, reusability and – crucially – the prosumer into every planning aspect of the future Australian city.
This isn’t utopian talk. The circular economy is transforming other countries. Advancements in energy, waste management, construction, transport and communication are delivering profound benefits now and the economics behind them are powerful.
Consider the possibilities:
Car-sharing is rising in popularity as a way to reduce vehicle congestion and pollution. Yet, many people still want to own cars. We need to move from a society that equates vehicle ownership with financial gain to one that understands that car sharing can also be profitable. And we need government, which has a great deal of control over space for these vehicles, to be behind this move.
Let’s champion renewable energy in a way that financially benefits every person who uses it. Currently many contractors are still building commercial structures with roofs that are too slender and not ready for a future that relies 100 per cent on renewable energy sources like solar panels. In London, however, there is an entire program that incentivises individuals and businesses to refit non-residential buildings for energy efficiency by offering affordable municipal expertise and support. Let’s promote feed-in tariffs. Why should a handful of monopolies get most of the revenue from selling extra energy back to the grid? Homeowners using solar panels could realise the same financial benefits. Germany implemented this idea on a national scale. So could we.
The simple fact here is that waste must be recycled. Similar to the system already in place in much of Europe, our urban recycling system should be set up in such a way that every citizen could easily separate waste materials by intended purpose. Any waste that can be reused should be separated – for example paper, glass, textiles or biological waste that can be reused for agriculture. Everything that isn’t biodegradable, like plastic, should be assembled separately. This should apply not just to individual households, but for businesses and producers, who should play a key role based on financial incentives to reduce the number of landfills and of discarded trash.
Creating a sustainable, circular economy also involves our digital space. It involves data and how we manage it. Increasingly there is evidence that when municipalities make government data transparent they can empower citizens to develop digital applications and tools that can greatly benefit everyone. Chicago’s Data Portal is a prime example of this. The data that the city has made public has encouraged residents to develop such applications for everything from public transportation to farmers’ markets. As we see such ideas beginning to be implemented in urban cities around the world, we must take it all a step further.
We can begin by building low-rise, medium density homes in a way that encourages long-term urban home ownership. Residents living in the same place for a long time will reduce the amount of resources needed for new construction. That means more space for greenery. Good for the environment. Good for property values. Melbourne, for example, is already working to increase greenery cover in public areas and parks to 40 per cent by 2040, and is offering financial support for individuals who want to green their properties.
Lisa McLean is chief executive of next-generation service delivery peak body Open Cities.