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Greening up the Australian Capital Territory

Professor Barbara Norman leading the Australian Climate Change charge

By Bronwyn Watson

While today over 55 percent of the world’s population live in cities, by 2050 that number is expected to surge, according to the United Nations, so that nearly 70 per cent of people will live in urban areas.

This rapid urbanisation certainly brings enormous challenges and one of those challenges is climate change. According to the World Bank, by 2030 climate change and disasters may cost cities worldwide $314 billion each year and push 77 million more urban residents into poverty.

However, with much of that urban growth still to take place, there is a chance to provide transformational change and a collaborative framework to build green and resilient cities and communities.

As part of a global push by planners to act on climate change, leading edge research is currently underway at the University of Canberra in partnership with the ACT government. The research, titled Climate wise outcomes for urban planning in the Australian Capital Territory, is due to be completed by October this year.

The lead researcher is Professor Barbara Norman, chair and Professor of Urban Planning, in the Faculty of Arts and Design at UC. She says the aim of the research project is to develop a more sustainable city and to provide recommendations of how best to integrate climate change action into the ACT planning system. Moreover, it is also hoped this research project can place Canberra as a leading-edge example to share internationally.

After many years working in this area, Norman is well qualified to find solutions and implement strategies to make cities more sustainable. She is, for instance, co-chair of a new global network based at UN Habitat Nairobi, called Planners for Climate Action (P4CA) From 2011 until last year, she was the chair of the ACT Climate Change Council that advises the Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability. She is also currently writing a global book with Routledge titled Urban Planning for Climate Change, which builds on her last book, Sustainable Pathways for Cities and Regions. Furthermore, she is the director of Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF) at the University of Canberra. At UC, the other CURF team members working on the latest research project are Adjunct Professor, Dr Maxine Cooper, PhD candidate, Ms Josephine Mummery, and project manager, Ms Alison Foulsham.

Norman says that the ACT is “doing well at the moment” in its efforts to become more sustainable. She says Canberra has been a leader on renewable energy, such as setting a target of 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2020, which was achieved. She also mentions the introduction of light rail, which was “achieved efficiently and cost effectively, and was a fantastic example for the country”.

But, she adds, there is a long way to go in improving Canberra’s built environment, whether it be Civic, in commercial areas, in industrial areas, or in suburbia. “The project is looking at actions that can be taken within government, anything like electric cars, the walkability of the city, cycle paths, green buildings, all the actions we can take right across the board where we can both reduce emissions and also prepare the city better to adapt to future climate change impacts. With cycle paths, we have a good legacy to build on but there is still a long way to go. We need to be extending them, particularly out to the new suburbs of Canberra, and filling in the gaps and making it safer for all riders. And looking at the walkability as well. The more we can get out of cars, the more we can be doing active travel, which is cycling and walking. And we can see multiple benefits. So, it is not just climate change outcomes for the city but also very good health outcomes as well.

“But I think we can definitely green our buildings much more than we do. We need more sustainable solutions everywhere – renewable energy, recycling water, green roofs, green walls, green landscaping, all of that makes for a much healthier, more environmentally friendly building. And if we can do that with our streetscapes too. It provides shade for people during heat periods, of which we are only going to have more of because of climate change. We are going to have to live in a hotter, drier, city.”

The ACT is an excellent example of the issues facing post WW2 urban settlements, says Norman, because it is car orientated and suburban in layout and design. But, she adds, “we have enormous opportunity”. “We have a very willing community. All surveys show that more than 80 percent of the community support action on climate change in Canberra.”

There are numerous good examples of successful sustainable buildings in Canberra, Norman says, such as The Nishi precinct at New Action, the new suburb of Denman, and the ANU’s new Fenner building. “But we need more examples in the new suburbs, and we need demonstration projects that show that this can be an economically viable pathway,” she explains.

“I have encouraged the government to think about, in the future, maybe in partnership with industry, of providing examples of affordable changes that anybody could consider within their budget. We need good practical examples for people to be able to go, ‘Ah, I can do that’. It would make economic sense as it would save money and it would also be good for the environment and it would also make for a much healthier home or building to live or work. I think we need to have the demonstration projects because we need to reassure people. There is often a response that this is going to cost more, but that’s not true. You may in fact save quite a lot of money.”

The research project Climate wise outcomes for urban planning in the Australian Capital Territory is leading edge because the ACT government is looking at embedding climate change action right through the land use planning system, and, says Norman, that is unusual within Australia.

“I think it is a very positive note by the ACT government. It is probably one of the toughest areas to be tackling within a city, to be looking at all the land use decision making.

“It is tough because the easiest way for a city to develop is to do exactly what they did the day before, just rollout the same suburb, roll out the same processes, so this will involve change, and then you need to bring the people with you, and you need to demonstrate the benefits. But I think there are multiple benefits for health, well-being, and it fits very well with the new well-being indicators that the ACT government has released earlier this year. So, yes, it is tough, but I’m hoping the multiple benefits will be what people see and make it worth the change.”

Cover photo: Professor Barbara Norman conducting field research in the immediate aftermath of the bushfires on the NSW South Coast (Clyde Mountain, Eurobodalla).