01.10.2020Smart City: Melbourne’s environmental infrastructure imperative

One of the great imperatives of the twenty-first century will be the greening of cities. An abundance of trees, plants, wetlands and waterways will be essential to help keep cities cool, maintain liveability and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Thanks to strategic planning decisions made decades ago, Melbourne has a rich legacy of green belts and urban parks. With approximately 19% of the metropolitan area devoted[1] to green spaces, Melbourne has held the aspiration of being Australia’s greenest city.

However, as the city’s population climbs towards nine million by mid-century, Melbourne’s environmental infrastructure and sustainability credentials will be tested. Expansion of commercial and residential development to the city’s fringes, combined with construction of larger houses on smaller greenfield lots and in established urban areas, will strain our natural environment.

Three major, interlinked issues should drive Melbourne’s environmental infrastructure agenda: Climate change, health and investment.

Climate change

Images of devastation and destruction brought about by the recent national bushfire crisis have, for most Australians, underlined the importance of reducing carbon emissions and safeguarding our natural environment.

Climate change poses a significant risk for Australia. The country’s two most recent summers have been the hottest on record and the continent is heating more quickly than the global average – expecting to rise 4 degrees Celsius by 2100[2]. With heatwaves to become hotter and more frequent, Melbourne must adapt to climate change, as well as play its role in mitigating its worst effects.

Ensuring there is enough environmental infrastructure across the whole metropolitan area is crucial. More public green spaces, the greening of rooftops and the planting of more trees and plants along thoroughfares and in backyards will help keep the city cool. On a sunny day, a single healthy tree can have the cooling power of more than ten air-conditioning units[3].

Further greening of Greater Melbourne will also offer refuge for rapidly vanishing biodiversity. Human activity is mainly responsible for destroying natural habitats and polluting waterways. As many species increasingly find that they have nowhere to go, ensuring Greater Melbourne and Victoria offers them refuge will be essential.

Health

It has long been known that exercise improves an individual’s physical and mental well-being. However, different environments can play a role in influencing and shaping peoples’ attitude to exercise.

Evidence suggests that exercise feels easier when undertaken in the natural environment[4]. In one study, participants walked faster outdoors compared to indoors when permitted to self-select walking speed[4]. In another study, individuals living in a greener environment had a 40 per cent lower chance of being overweight and were three times more likely to be physically active[6].

Green space can also provide respite for over-stimulated minds. Exploring the link between childhood exposure to green space and psychiatric disorders in later life, researchers in Denmark found that citizens who grew up with the least green space nearby had a 55 per cent increase in risk of developing psychiatric disorders in later years, including anxiety and depression[7].

Since mobility restrictions were imposed in response to COVID-19, community interest in exercise has increased and remains at a higher level than before the lockdown[8]. For many individuals, exercise has been a source of entertainment and escape. The re-discovery of opportunities offered by outdoor activity and greater recognition in the value of local green spaces could be a legacy of this period.

These findings are illuminating for city planners. Significant investment in environmental infrastructure across the metropolitan region could incentivise more people to exercise, as well as act as an early intervention tool to reduce mental health problems.

Investment attraction

Investing in environmental infrastructure could make Melbourne a more attractive city for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows.

The idea of greening a city to help attract business investment is not new. In 1967, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, announced a plan to transform the city-state into ‘a beautiful garden city’. Part of Lee’s reasoning was that greening Singapore would visibly demonstrate to foreign dignitaries and investors that the city-state was well-organised and efficient. The plan worked – Singapore has been a magnet for FDI since and continues to explore ways to become one of the greenest cities on earth.

More recently, researchers analysed 85 Chinese cities over a seven-year period, exploring the correlation between the reduction of air and water pollution and FDI inflows. Their results were telling. A city like Shanghai could attract an additional $1 billion in FDI annually by improving its air quality, while a city like Beijing could increase FDI inflows by $750 million annually by improving waste-water treatment[9].

Traditionally important factors encouraging FDI will remain, including a skilful workforce, an attractive tax regime and connectivity. However, as the impacts of climate change become more acute, pressure on firms to invest in green, sustainable cities will likely increase.

Possible solutions

Fortunately, local planners and authorities are aware of this mounting challenge. The Victorian Legislative Assembly Environment and Planning Committee recently launched its Inquiry into Environmental Infrastructure for Growing Populations, which will assess the current and future arrangements to secure environmental infrastructure for a growing population.

As part of the Committee’s submission, we articulated why a comprehensive transport plan for Melbourne, which considered land-use and economic development, could guide consideration for ensuring that adequate environmental infrastructure is available for a growing population.

The development and implantation of a plan, which considers urban development and settlement patterns, would help safeguard existing green assets. Furthermore, it could incorporate ambitious policy initiatives to ensure the whole populace has access to green space and active transport, including:

  • adding more green spaces, including the creation of green building roofs and walls, as well as pocket parks, in dense environments.
  • targeted government investment, with under-resourced Councils receiving additional support to greenify their suburbs.
  • incentives that encourage the greening of new building developments.
  • creating green corridoes connected to existing green infrastructure that are suitable for active transport.

Melbourne has some beautiful green credentials. However, as the metropolis continues to grow, the onus is on all of us – policymakers, urban planners, developers, and individuals – to continue to weave nature throughout.

Endnotes

[1] https://www.natureaustralia.org.au/what-we-do/our-insights/perspectives/living-melbourne-greenprinting-a-metropolis/, accessed 24 September 2020.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/mar/02/summer-of-2019-20-second-hottest-australian-summer-on-record, accessed 25 September 2020.

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921344911001303, accessed 24 September 2020.

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3710158/, accessed 28 September 2020.

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3710158/, accessed 28 September 2020.

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3710158/, accessed 28 September 2020.

[7] https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/116/11/5188.full.pdf, accessed 25 September 2020.

[8] https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2020/06/30/bjsports-2020-102575, accessed 29 September 2020.

[9] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/03/does-it-pay-for-cities-to-be-green/, accessed 24 September 2020.

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