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Water ways - the city liveability challenge

18 February 2013

Words: Lynne Blundell

Around the globe, city dwellers and planners are rethinking the way we capture, store and manage urban water. A new Australian centre, with more than A$100 million and a spectrum of expertise on tap, is ready to lead the way.

By the middle of this century, the number of people living in urban areas will reach 6.3 billion. United Nations modelling tells us that the world’s rural populace will shrink during this period, while the centres of concrete and steel grow to accommodate more than 70 per cent of the world’s population and apply increasing human pressure on the planet.

Water plays a central role in this mass agglomeration. We need it to keep us alive, but it also threatens our safety in the form of cataclysmic events such as the ‘Frankenstorm’ that struck and inundated New York in 2012. Too much or too little water: both can be deadly for the metropolitan citizen.

Experts such as Monash University’s Professor Tony Wong, a civil engineer and leader in water-sensitive urban design, are focusing on solutions that radically change the way cities value, use and manage water.

“Not only is the global community running out of water, but the pollution of water is also increasing, and the growing urban footprint and density mean the liveability of our cities is becoming increasingly vulnerable to climatic events and extremes,” Professor Wong says.

He is the chief executive of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, an interdisciplinary organisation with three research hubs in Australia and one in Singapore. Funded with a start-up sum of A$30 million from the Australian Government and a further A$90 million from industry, universities and state and local governments, the centre is delving into projects in Australian capital cities as well as Singapore, the Netherlands, Austria and Denmark.

Its aim, says Professor Wong, is to create a knowledge base for managing water resources into the future. It is organised around four research themes – society, water-sensitive urbanism, future technologies and adoption pathways – and draws on expertise in sociology, ecology, economics, biophysical sciences, engineering and technologies. All are integrated through urban planning and design.

“Technology alone is not going to deliver the outcomes we need,” Professor Wong says.

Consider his vision of water-sensitive cities 50 years from now. They will have completely transformed their water use: recycling wastewater; harvesting rainwater; creating green corridors for water cleansing and food cultivation; and restoring natural waterways to encourage biodiversity and deal more effectively with floods.

Most people are familiar with ‘green corridors’ – strips of undeveloped land that provide breathing space in sprawling cities – but Professor Wong also speaks of ‘blue corridors’, or natural waterways.

The two should be managed together to better protect communities, he says, not only to provide greening and water cleansing but also to form flood pathways.

“Our cities’ parks will be points to which stormwater is directed through green corridors. These in turn will be linked to the natural waterways, the blue corridors.”

The cooperative research centre grew out of the Monash-based Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, established in early 2010 by Professor Wong and colleagues Professor Ana Deletic, who specialises in novel green technology to manage urban stormwater, and Professor Rebekah Brown, who leads the centre’s research in humanities, economics and social sciences.

All three researchers have considerable international experience in their fields.

Professor Wong was named Civil Engineer of the Year in 2010 by Engineers Australia, and has won numerous awards for international projects. In 2012, Professor Deletic became the first woman to receive a prestigious Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation for her achievements in physical science. Professor Brown, originally a civil engineer who went on to PhD studies in social sciences, is known around the world for pioneering a socio-technical approach in urban water studies.

Professor Brown says that a vital part of imagining a water-sensitive city is its physical difference from any city we know today. “The infrastructure is different and the way we think about water changes,” she says, adding that it will not happen without changes to the regulatory and legislative framework that govern how water is treated, delivered and used.

“This will require behavioural change; valuing water not as a commodity but as a resource that is fundamental to community wellbeing and liveability.”

Water-sensitive urban design relies on a diversity of water sources, Professor Deletic says. “We need to develop technologies to enable enhanced water harvesting, including recycling of wastewater and desalination. We must not put all our eggs in one basket, because we don’t know exactly what will happen in the future.”

Professor Deletic heads the Melbourne research hub, working to foster a research culture based on sharing information and insights across discipline and project boundaries.

“The collaboration with our research partners in Australia and overseas will be critical to our success,” she says. “In Australia we’ve had 14 years of drought, while Denmark and the Netherlands have expertise in flooding. Singapore does a lot of water recycling and has some very advanced systems for this.”

The centre will also create connections for projects with industry and communities – state agencies, local governments, water authorities and universities – to help incorporate sustainable water-management strategies into urban design and land development.

In a boost not only for the environment but also for the economy, Professor Wong estimates the research will guide more than A$100 billion in water investments and A$550 billion in private sector urban investments in Australia over the next 15 years.

As published works start emerging from this network of collaborations, it will not be unusual to read work touching on water engineering, urban planning, commercial and property law, urban ecology, climate science, social and institutional science and organisational behaviour, not to mention change management, the water economy, risk assessment, social marketing and community health.

New urban landscape

The water-sensitive city of tomorrow will need to combine a mix of centralised and local water management, Professor Brown says.

Wastewater will no longer be waste, but a resource, valued as a source of nutrients, energy generation and non-drinking water. “We will have to let go of traditional ways of delivering water services,” she says.

“We are used to large centralised infrastructure, which is virtually invisible. Ever since the industrial revolution we have created dams, sent water from these dams to the cities, dirtied it and then pumped it into our waterways.”

Despite its considerable adverse environmental impact, this system has fundamentally improved public health and made water affordable. But the world has changed and the services can no longer be delivered this way.

“Instead of being solely reliant on pumping water in, we need to harvest urban storm water and stop it running off to pollute our rivers, and we need to reuse our wastewater,” Professor Brown says.

“Just as we have two or three types of garbage bins, we might have different types of taps – one for drinking and another for non-drinking purposes such as flushing toilets or watering gardens.

“We will also have different types of open spaces and nature strips. This green infrastructure will be used to capture, treat and clean water. They will create a microclimate that will reduce the heat effect in cities and maybe even provide areas for urban food production to supplement our food supply. It is about closing the loop.”

She says that bringing science to the public and empowering people to participate in developing local solutions is fundamental to the centre’s success. One of her program’s projects includes ways to increase the ‘water literacy’ of local communities.

“On the eastern seaboard of Australia we’ve seen societal change in water use in response to education about drought,” Professor Brown says.

A surge of social change will be needed for the researchers to see the hoped-for transformed urban landscape by the time funding ends in 2021.

“Household water consumption has been significantly reduced with a higher community awareness and action on water conservation,” Professor Brown says.

“We need to capture that and take it much further. It is about asking people to care about something they have not had to think about in the past.”

Watch the videos: CRC for Water Sensitive Cities and Professor Ana Deletic - Victoria Prize for Science & Innovation 2012