Making cities sustainable
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 60 winter 2005
As cities expand and populations rise, civic leaders are drafting plans aimed at making urban centres more sustainable – but are they doing enough? Jackie Randles reports on a ‘sustainable cities’ forum.
A recent Green Capital seminar in Sydney addressed the role of government in building sustainable cities, providing the NSW Minister for Infrastructure and Planning, Craig Knowles, with an opportunity to present his government's Metropolitan Strategy to environmental groups and representatives from local government and business.
Despite proclamations by the Minister that his planning framework enforced sustainable building practices and water saving initiatives, created better public transport systems and provided incentives for people to refrain from driving, some attendees felt that the Strategy did not go far enough.
Whilst the plan to extend the city's rail corridors was applauded, local government representatives pointed out that many areas of Sydney would still not be adequately served by a notoriously unreliable public transport system. There is concern about a growing car dependency, especially in the newest suburbs where most commuters drive to work on roadways that are heavily congested as there are few other options.
The recent state budget's lack of funds for any new rail lines and increased spending on roadways and tunnels was condemned for serving to promote increased car use that will produce more polluting emissions. The steep decline in Sydney's air quality is set to continue if current projections of car use come true: expected to increase by nearly a third by 2020. Carbon dioxide emissions from cars are also forecast to rise 72% during the next fifteen years.
In May, Sydney's dam levels fell below 40% for the first time, despite eighteen months of forced restrictions that cut consumption by 10%, or sixty-three billion litres. Many argue that severe water restrictions should have been in place for at least eighteen months earlier due to the drought, but of more concern is the fact that 11% of piped water is lost through leaks.
The Government's solution to Sydney's water crisis is to implement its controversial desalination proposal. The NSW Greens say that a desalination plant producing 100 million litres of fresh water a day would create more greenhouse emissions than 50,000 new cars on the road would produce each year. At a cost of $2 billion, the desalination plant planned for Sydney has been strongly criticised by environmental groups who argue that there are cheaper and more effective measures for saving water: higher prices for heavy users, permanent, low-level restrictions and the recycling of stormwater and effluent. It is said that more than 450 gigalitres of wastewater flows into the ocean each year, almost as much water as Sydneysiders consume each year.
Many argue that current expenditure on deep water storage and reservoir upgrades could be significantly reduced if better and more effective measures for saving water were enforced. While new homes must reduce water use by 40%, debate continues over whether this limit will be extended to apartments and existing homes.
In terms of social issues, the Metropolitan Strategy came under fire for having not yet appointed a Social Sustainability Commissioner to work alongside the two Commissioners appointed to oversee the environment and finance. This delay was cited by one panellist as a key reason why the Strategy has so far failed to address the acute need for low-cost housing measures in Sydney, particularly for people on low incomes who are renting.
Overall there was considerable concern from the audience and panellists alike about the lack of Federal input into urban planning in Australia's largest city. People feel that the Commonwealth has an important role to play in ensuring the development of sustainable cities and regional centres, especially through contributing more funds towards infrastructure development.
So how does a city get its sustainability act together? The Total Environment Centre and the NSW Council of Social Service prepared a joint position statement in response to the Metropolitan Strategy that can be read as a wish list for sustainable cities. Here are some of their recommendations:
- Public park and environment protection lands need to be increased with the increasing population, in both new greenfield sites and urban consolidation areas;
- Water recycling initiatives need to include existing developed areas as well as new release areas to cope with Sydney's water crisis;
- Institutions responsible for the roll out of the Strategy must embed 'sustainability’ into decision-making processes so that environmentally responsible planning does not give way to business as usual once the task is handed over to traditional agencies and new institutions;
- Environmental and social responsibility principles need to be given a status of centrality that cannot be marginalized at the implementation phase;
- Public transport needs to be upgraded and expanded, with sustainable forms of transport accessible to all socio-economic groups; and
- Affordable housing must be increased and a variety of housing types provided in each suburb to avoid socio-economic enclaves.
They also want to see the use of economic instruments to help underpin water and energy – making heavy users pay more for water and energy; the creation of more jobs in the areas where people live; and the provision of adequate human and transport services in greenfield and consolidated areas – healthcare, childcare, education and training.
It remains to be seen whether the Metropolitan Strategy will incorporate these recommendations. In the meantime, civic leaders would do well to apply such principles to expanding cities and regional centres throughout Australia to ensure sustainable growth.
The Green Capital Program is a project of the Total Environment Centre designed to advance corporate sustainability. Its next forum will address the theme of ‘greenwash’. www.tec.org.au.