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Sustainable density must use evidence and regulated design

White Gum Valley in Fremantle, Western Australia. Image by Landcorp

All regulations and building codes, new and old, should be scrutinised and discussed with gusto. This means recent debate about the NSW government’s Low Rise Medium Density Housing Code, official on 1 July 2019, is a healthy one.

But more importantly, all the evidence and data to help limit and reduce our carbon footprint as our cities grow must be considered. Sadly, the new code lacks focus on this.

Gathering this evidence has been a primary goal of the organisation I lead, the CRC for Low Carbon Living. Over the past seven years we have funded over 150 research projects, and the research and consequent outputs – guides and tools – are now available to help inform decisions to ensure our future cities are healthy, sustainable and minimise their carbon footprint.

But when it comes to our carbon footprint, it’s important to consider all aspects of human behaviour when measuring suburbs and gathering evidence – it’s not just about energy use.

A 2018 study Global warming impact of suburbanisation: The case of Sydney, a project led by CRCLCL’s Tommy Wiedmann, puts a spanner in the works for recent arguments about Sydney’s suburbs and the relationship between density and carbon footprints.

The densely populated city core has about the same footprint as outer city suburbs

The research shows that residents in the densely populated city core have a comparable footprint to residents living in the outer city suburbs. This contradicts previous studies that found densely populated inner city areas have a relatively lower carbon footprint.

Image from Global warming impact of suburbanization: The case of Sydney (Chen et al 2018)

This outcome is because the research used multiregional input output tables to model suburbs’ carbon intensities and accounted for the relationship between production and consumption.

In all, the total household per-capita carbon footprint in the Greater Sydney area was found to range from between 8 to 28 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e/cap).

Surprisingly, the suburbs with the highest carbon footprint are the wealthy areas of Potts Point and Woolloomooloo, at around 28 tonnes CO2e/cap, with North Sydney and Lavender Bay not far behind at 25 tonnes CO2e/cap.

This research clearly indicates that income and spending is linked to carbon footprint – something within our control. For example, in Western Sydney where households have below-average income levels, their carbon footprints are below 20 tonnes CO2e/cap.

Yet, when income levels rise in the not-so-far Blue Mountains, where population density is low, the carbon footprint is above 20 tonnes CO2e/cap (see figure).

It makes sense – if you earn more money you tend to consume more. This research shows that our overall human behaviour needs to be curbed to reduce our personal carbon footprint, something that individuals may tend to forget as governments make new policy and building codes.

Overall, this research highlights that as the Sydney population increases the metropolitan development plan may not be sufficient to provide a sustainable carbon emissions reduction strategy if the consumption of residents is not constrained.

It suggests that urban planners should look at policies that direct investment brought in via immigration towards a lower carbon economy and infrastructure, plus use the shared economy to change consumption behaviour.

The elephant in the room for low carbon living

As an advocate for sustainable, low carbon living, and the importance of research, I feel that the elephant in the room regarding development and our overall carbon footprint is the limited regulation on sustainable features in new building projects. The BASIX guidelines are excellent, but our research project that analysed their use shows that improvements can be made.

I believe that the key to sustainable, healthy and liveable development projects is having strict and clear regulation around what that development must include to keep its carbon footprint low.

This approach in the low to medium development arena has already been proven via Density by Design, a video series produced by CRCLCL project leader Dr Josh Byrne from Curtin University, which looks at how to meet the challenges of increasing density in our cities and suburbs to combat urban sprawl.

One of the organisation’s seventeen Living Laboratory’s, White Gum Valley in Fremantle, Western Australia, is featured in the series.

This project had the right approach from the start. The developer, Landcorp, sought to demonstrate that sustainable and innovative design can create a great place to live, and first talked to the community who had their say and became part of the project – a great first step.

The end result is a precinct that’s a green and pleasant place to live. Importantly, it has renewables to use and create energy; batteries for storing energy; smart technology and design for excellent urban water management (resulting in savings of up to 70 per cent); landscaping that complements the hot Western Australian climate and desire to save water; and finally ensuring the property aspect makes most of the seasons, ensuring cool in summer and warmth in winter.

Importantly, not only is White Gum Valley sustainable, it’s also affordable.

This project is a success because it has strong design guidelines that include water saving taps and shower heads to reduce flow, plus solar and batteries. All residents are made aware of the objectives of the project via the Comprehensive Guide for Residents. The team also worked closely with Freemantle Council, which is a strong advocate of sustainable design. Indeed, the project is an exemplar of how density by design can work.

Through White Gum Valley we have gathered a plethora of information for government planners and architects to access so that sustainable homes, precincts and cities can be created. Now is the time for decision makers to use this information broadly and wisely.

Low and medium density developments will be part of the future, but if designed sustainably, using the evidence that’s been painstakingly gathered for this purpose, the outcome will be a positive one for all concerned.

Professor Deo Prasad AO is CEO of the CRC for Low Carbon Living a national research and innovation hub that seeks to enable a globally competitive low carbon built environment sector.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. Spinifex may be inconvenient or annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient in a hostile environment and essential to nurturing biodiversity and holding the topsoil together. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words.  For a more detailed brief and style guide please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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Comments

6 Responses to “Sustainable density must use evidence and regulated design”

  • Tim Renouf says:

    Thank you Jan for your well structured and powerful comments, which hit the high water mark of conveying a message. To pause and reflect.
    I very much like the word ‘rewilding’,and for a greener and more pleasant land.

    But Australia is not England.

    We are enduring a close to record breaking nationwide drought and water storages are falling everywhere.

    I wish the Fifth Estate could open discussion on a tired old but necessary subject: divert some of the rivers disgorging vast water loads into northern seas, into the upper reaches of the Murray catchment as well as central Australia.

    With water, comes the real possibility of humans wanting to shift inland away from the coast, to find a new world, far cleaner and quieter than most urban environments.

    And thank you Graeme, for the well structured and precision accuracy of the faults with residential energy efficiency regulations. They truly are a disaster and the public aren’t told the truth. The regulations and related insulation standards are not ‘evidence-based’, plain and simple.

    And the public are deliberately locked out of participation in policy formulation. Only big organisations have the door to government, a phenomenon so prevalent across nearly every policy. Recall the Home Insulation Program 2019-2010, and stop and think who briefed the federal government for the formulation.
    What do I mean? Did the best performing insulation materials get oxygen for government consideration – no it didn’t happen. Commercial interests dictated government policy.

    Small business and consumers are totally ignored in government policy formulation, as identified in the April 2018 ‘Technical Governance Review’ into Standards Australia, a Review left unreported in the media, which merely reinforces the feeling that its best to keep the public ignorant whenever possible. Standards Australia have not adopted the key recommendations for greater public participation in formulation of standards.

    And now, an illustration of a energy efficiency fightback can be found by viewing http://www.afica.org.au.
    Aluminium Foil Insulation Council of Australia Inc. (Feb 2019).
    I am it’s President, and Graeme who commented here, is it’s Secretary.

    The battle is extremely tough, because buildings need to tested in real time, and insulation materials not 4 hour laboratory tested, which then are superimposed into computer modelling programs. The new insulation standard in the NCC 2019 permits optional high temperature assessment.

    With 40deg hitting Europe right now, and Australia bracing for 45-50deg more commonplace in capital cities in coming decades, the public need every weapon at their disposal for climate adaptation strategies, to survive increasing frequency of heat, and likely power rationing episodes.

    Numerous reports have accumulated calling for reflective insulations in all roofs of houses in Australia.
    The belief that fitting R5 and R6 batts in a hot Australian roof is your salvation has to be challenged. Its like saying, if your car breaks down in the outback, and you are given two choices to survive 48degC – five woollen blankets or a single layer of foil – what do you choose? Its obvious. Even a 12 year old would know that. So why shove blankets in your roof space?

    Its all part of finding a greener and more pleasant land, and creating cooler environments, and reducing the dependence on mechanical refrigerative cooling.

    • Tina Perinotto says:

      Thanks Tim and Graeme for once again bringing to our attention the insulation issue, something which you’ve done abundantly and frequently over the years. I think we get it now. New comments on new topics are always welcome.

  • Matthew says:

    Yes, rich people spend more and have high carbon footprints and they live in the middle of town.
    But the author tries to make it sound as if density per se is the culprit.
    But for the vast majority of Australians, transport is the most problematic area of carbon intensity, given we’ve built car-dependent sprawl for the last 70 years. No amount of ‘green and pleasant’ sprawl is going to solve the problem that Australia has among the highest per capita energy use in transport. As long as we build houses far from services and at absurdly low densities we are going to make the problem worse.
    Take the data for transport energy use and you’ll see that those living in the periphery have vastly higher carbon footprints per capita. And that’s problematic, because tranport is proving the hardest sector to decarbonise even in those countries around the world (like the UK) that have rapidly decarbonised their electricity generation sectors.

  • Graeme Doreian says:

    I have viewed the various links and sub links in your article and say all the computer modelling programs used in Australia for building energy efficiency are basically owned by the Government, and although flawed are given funding to keep them ”alive” when everyone knows that occupant behaviour is their undoing.

    The Government have been briefed on a solution to truly address building energy efficiency, including Recommendations 6 – 11, 2010 Senate Inquiry Home Insulation Program, completely ignored by Governments of Australia.

    The only way to sort out building energy efficiency in Australia for Australian building methodologies and climate conditions is to have a new team, an independent research team,

    Start with the basics. The facilities are in Australia and can be accessed very quickly,

    Real time, controlled testing, where climatic conditions, and if necessary artificial human contributions, can be replicated with combinations of house constructions and insulating materials.
    Set the truth free.

  • jan says:

    Somewhere in an urban planning discussion and regulation, we have to find room and empathy for non-human aspects of the city’s design – inherited just 230 years ago from original stewards of the ancient island continent. In a planning system in which Nothing is protected in reality, we must offer help to some Local Government Areas trying to implement ecological perspectives.

    What are these perspectives, you say? Non anthropocentricity in planning: to allow the future city to inherit just some of the rich and diverse fauna and flora the first inhabitants of this land left us – before they disappear for good in a purely socio-economic planning system. The somewhat archaic planning zoning system has E-zones but they are weak.

    What did original inhabitants leave us that needs strong zoning for protection from concrete footprints that fall into mainstream “sustainable density” categories? Rare original vegetation urban forests, yes still clinging on in Australian cities. 230 years ago new arrivals logged those forests for timber, but those areas are now re-zoned for development. Having been re-zoned first for development (the old notion of environment being terra nullius or empty land) concrete has replaced rare remnants – last habitats of unique wildlife inherited. What has not been concreted is not protected from cumulative environmental impacts like powerful recreational pressures on politicians.

    These city forest remnants should be joined up with regional remnants and reinvigorated as wildlife corridors for ground bound wildlife, almost also gone in public native forests across the country – to be inherited by future generations. But no the regional remains of forests are being given by governments to mates, for logging quotas that cannot be supplied by contracts signed (and now mates are being given the same Native Forests for “renewable energy” to burn as biomass).

    City forest remnants are even more rare but pressured. Urban conversation should respect the Australian national identity and keep then out of shallow “posh/nimby/leafy” class comparisons. That this natural capital value has not been articulated in the recent planning dialogue is an indicator of how far urbane anthropocentricity has removed us from our animal needs and wants! Where is the evidence is the cry?

    Sustainability means little, if recent reports don’t inform our discussions on how strongly the planning system should protect such urban forest wildlife habitat areas. Yet accusations of ‘posh/nimby/leafy’ are levelled and then protected areas (PAs) are not articulated in any defence.
    1. This Is A Crisis: Facing Up To The Age Of Environmental Breakdown.” https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/age-of-environmental-breakdown
    References:
    2.IPBES Global Assessment Launch Report attachedhttps://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment
    3. Rapid transition called for in RBA speech https://www.rba.gov.au/speeches/2019/sp-dg-2019-03-12.html

    Forget that these forests (city and regional) are a survival mechanism for all species – protecting soil, holding water and purifying the air. Forget that soils and seedbank rapidly being mined and replaced with concrete in cities and country are not protected by the planning system. Forget that this vegetation which we mostly won’t see anywhere else, is habitat for wildlife found nowhere else in the world but remains unrecognized and current legislation fails to regulate its removal.

    In fact neither built nor natural heritage is really protected – in the long run – from development – be it urban or regional mining, or urban or regional logging. Why? because in anthropocentric lives we don’t value these things and an ecological crisis exists. And mental and physical health in our cities continues to suffer.

    Wildlife survival and provision of habitat, is a key indicator of human physical and mental health security. It needs inserting into discussion, protection and land set aside for its creation with rewilding. It needs articulating in depth to make our cities “green and pleasant”.

  • DON OWERS says:

    Good grief what is with these people. Growth is not sustainable, not for a city, a country or the world. There are no positives, unless you happen to be a developer- and even then one who hasn’t been involved in shody building practices.

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