Build it and they will walk: the suburbs that foster good health

Jason Dowling  |  City Editor for The Age

If you design suburbs so walking to public transport, shops and parks is an easy option, people will walk – that is the simple and clear finding of long-term Australian research.

urban sprawl

Health and planning experts are urging governments to make health a feature of planning laws and city growth strategies.

Researchers monitored the amount of walking by more than 1400 people building homes in new developments in Perth. Readings were taken before moving in and about 12 months later.

The results, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, showed transport-related walking declined and recreational walking increased.

Read the full story here

Is there room for nature in our cities?

By Peter Fisher, RMIT University and D Trainham, RMIT University

Welcome to the CBD. Take a look at all the glass masonry and asphalt. The streets are canyons. Apart from a tree in the footpath, or a Peregrine Falcon way overhead, there’s little nature to be seen.

Nature is absent in these landscapes, or more correctly “hardscapes”. This runs counter to the trend to put urban people, and particularly children, back in touch with the natural world. Grass, flowers, birds, butterflies and worms are increasingly rare in a world of denser development. There’s no sense of season apart from flowers in street-side stalls.

As much as five-sixths of our CBDs are buildings: asphalt dotted with street trees. The ratio of biomass to hard mass in such environments is minute.

Trees help cool environments, while buildings increase heat absorption and reflection. This suggests cities are very poorly adapted to a projected 4-6°C global warming – a world where it may prove impractical to ever again grow large trees especially in hot pavements.

Greening the city

Cities like Kobe are returning nature to the streets. Peter Fisher

Research is revealing that, although we may have left the savanna, it’s still a part of our wiring. Hospital patients who have a view of some sort of nature recover faster and need less medication.

A recent article in Nature, “City living marks the brain”, points to a far higher incidence of mental illness in urban versus rural areas. Green exercise can act as a therapeutic intervention, which is doubly important in the hyper-dense environment envisaged by outspoken developers.

However it’s not like that everywhere. In places such as Vancouver, setbacks are mandatory for high rises and view corridors have been preserved.

Elsewhere, European and American cities have undertaken benchmark projects to soften the impact of roads. Hamburg and Madrid have roofed their inner autobahn/highway to create parklands. Portland tore down its waterfront freeway to do the same, as Seattle is currently doing.

Other North American cities inspired by Michael Hough’s evocative book “Cities and Natural Processes” have returned rivers, ravines, swamps, and parkland to their natural state. Then there’s New York City’s High-Line, a greenway for walking, running or simply sitting. San Francisco has its “parklets” and sidewalk gardens.

A Melbourne model?

In Melbourne virtually no public greenspace has been created within the grid proper since City Square in 1980, and even it has succumbed to the granite treatment and been chopped in half. Hardscape is on the rise with planning applications for more than 50,000 new apartments in 200 developments in and around the CBD.

Few have recognised the “green-shift” now underway globally and recently embraced by Perth.

New York’s High Line, a place for city-dwellers to escape to a little nature. Flickr/Ed Yourdon

It’s helpful for urban designers seeking a context to immerse themselves in the pre-white settlement setting. Proto-Melbourne would be unrecognisable: wattle in bloom, kangaroo grass, kookaburras and kingfishers along the river. Above where Queens Bridge now stands were The Falls, where clear freshwater cascaded; and to the west, amid a swamp with masses of water birds, lay a shimmering blue lagoon ringed by pigface.

Each city has its own tale of what followed. Take a look at these two images of The Falls – this one at foundation and this one in 1857 – that’s an awful lot of trashing in just 22 years.

Such squandered landscapes defy replication at their original scale but we can replicate them on a small scale. It is a matter of rethinking the user experience. Roof gardens (including food crops), green walls, plant-draped atriums, water features and borrowed scenery are ways of using interiors, walls, and ceilings.

Buildings have long been in the front line of fighting climate change through “green building” rating systems. It’s time they were enlisted to reforge our linkages with a landscape that people have all but forgotten.

The opportunities are highlighted by a design for a three sided hospital in Spain – one side is a green wall; another is solar panels in the colors of a butterfly about to go regionally extinct; and the third is a vertical farm that will feed people in the hospital. It is one example of the ways our cities can become truly green.

This article written in collaboration with Dr. Peter Fisher was done as an unpaid work and is not part of any sponsored research project. Some of the ideas expressed in this article may appear in a recently published article: Naturizing outside-in: Reconnecting buildings with the natural world through a design innovation metric in the January 2013 issue of the Singapore based journal, CITYGREEN.

Peter Fisher does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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Does the Chinese emissions ‘error’ matter?

By John ED Barker, Murdoch University

Recent analyses that China’s carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions might be 1.2 gigatonnes or 20% higher than previously estimated have generated something of a feeding frenzy in the media; and not just the daily tabloids. Even The Scientific American has jumped on the bandwagon, adding a few more factoids to increase the alarm.

It is understandable that we could be alarmed by a figure of 1.2 gigatonnes; that’s a mighty big figure. It’s equivalent to the total of Japan’s annual emissions, the SMH repeated, without providing the more useful fact for its readers that it is also about three times all of Australia’s annual emissions.

It reminds me of the caption of a famous Punch cartoon, after it was announced that the postwar census of elephants in Burma suggested that many thousands were missing: “are you sure you’ve looked everywhere?”.

Three questions come quickly to mind: Is it true? If so, why? If so, so what?

First, is it true? The original Nature article is an impressively detailed analysis, which finds the discrepancy between the aggregate (national) Chinese emissions and that of the 30 provinces. According to Guan et al, energy accounting is poor in China, particularly in the myriad of small enterprises in the provinces.

Very few people would be in a position to corroborate the analysis; however, Professor Wang Yi, director of the Climate Change Research Centre of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing has immediately counter-claimed that the official figures may be overstated by 10-20%. He claims that the authors of the Nature article have not taken into account the differing calorific content of the different grades of coal used across China.

This is understandable; the energy content of coal can vary from less than 10MJ/kg for wet brown coal (lignite) to almost 40 MJ/kg for dry, clean anthracite. Australians are very familiar with this situation when Victorian coal is compared with Queensland coal. China is a mix of all of these types. So a familiar situation is emerging; dispute between experts in the light of inadequate data.

Even if the Guan analysis is correct, does it matter? It does, to the extent that if emissions abatement is attempted in China via a carbon tax, then the figures would be skewed and there would be free-riders. But this is no different to Australia, where the Gillard government is only going to tax the top 500 (or so) carbon emitters. The whole abatement business is very approximate, so a 10-20% error is not significant.

On a global scale, the “error” of 1.2 GT or 20% of China’s emissions is not as impressive as the media announcements make it out to be. China emits about 24% of the global total, so even taking the top end estimate of a 20% “error”, China would be emitting about 28% of the total; that is, another 4% of the global total. In perspective, China’s emissions are increasing at an annual rate similar to this; possibly 5-8%. So the “error” amounts to an adjustment of perhaps several years; meaning China is emitting at a rate now that we thought that they would be emitting perhaps two years hence.

So what is the fuss about? Certainly, accurate data is always desirable, but does it change anything? China is leading the world in most areas of renewable energy manufacture and is rapidly increasing its domestic use. Its energy intensity is dropping dramatically.

I suspect that the media attention paid to the Guan et al paper is partly justified; we need to get the numbers right. But it is also partly due to what I see is a persistent inclination by the media to portray China and its achievements as lacking credibility. For example; China announces its quarterly economic outcomes quicker than the ABS and each quarter our pundits disparage their data, only to find year-on-year the data is as good as ours (is the ABS disparaged for its quarterly revisions?).

But as always, as soon as the buzz-words of “gigatonnes” and “Chinese error” are splashed across the media, the caravan moves on, leaving The Conversation to try to make some sense from it all.

John Barker has no direct connection with any organisation mentioned in this article.

The Conversation

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3 reasons why Copenhagen is the world leader in urban sustainability

By Chris Turner in  Mother Nature Network

The buzz from Copenhagen is all about its new ‘superhighway’ for bikes. The real secret to its pioneering urban design, though, is that it puts people first on all its streets.

Cyclists pedal past a digital sign counting biking traffic over a bridge in downtown Copenhagen

As the New York Times reported with much praise – and unprecedented levels of RTing, if my Twitter stream is any indication – the city of Copenhagen continues to set the global pace for urban sustainability, particularly as regards two-wheeled, self-propelled transportation. But as is too often the case when the Times picks up on a story I started reporting three years ago (I’m not getting rich at this gig, so at least let me humblebrag), the paper’s coverage of Copenhagen’s bike-driven transportation revolution goes for flash and novelty over substance. Allow me to explain, in listicle fashion.

Herewith, the three key reasons why Copenhagen is the global model for sustainable urban transport, in ascending order of importance:

1. Bicycle Superhighway!
This, of course, is the piece of the puzzle the Times chose to focus on, because no headline writer in the history of journalism has ever passed up an opportunity to use the term superhighway. As the Times reports, the city of Copenhagen has launched the first of 26 planned suburban commuter arteries built exclusively for bicycles: long, well-paved, carefully maintained bike paths to link its suburbs with the inner city, up to 14 miles long and requiring the cooperation of 21 separate municipal governments.

These are the numbers the Times reports. Remarkably, the story makes no mention of the extraordinary figure for cycling’s modal share in Copenhagen, so I will: fully 37 percent of Copenhagen residents — and 55 percent of downtown dwellers — use bikes as their primary mode of transportation. Which points to another key Copenhagen innovation .

Read the  full story here

We must use our space wisely as part of new planning protocols

melbourne Liveable Cityby Matthew Guy in an article for the Herald Sun

PLANNING the growth of a city that is home to 4.5 million people is not easy.

Melbourne is one of the world’s most liveable cities, but it hasn’t achieved this by chance and won’t stay there under the current planning regime.

That’s why the Victorian Coalition Government has embarked on a total reform of our planning system to put a much greater focus on liveability than ever before.

“The view that every tram line should be lined by seven-storey apartments is one that might suit a city of 400,000 people in Switzerland, but it’s not as feasible in Australia.”

Despite a tough economic climate, Melbourne’s population is still growing strongly. Each year upwards of 60,000 more people call our city home, placing great pressure on how Melbourne is planned and ensuring that government planning blueprints are focused on the longer term, not just the next few years.

Good planning requires a multi-faceted approach to managing growth but, first and foremost, we have to recognise that our city is not all the same.

Our suburb’s character greatly differs from Bayside to the Dandenong Ranges; from Eltham to Carlton and Werribee to Pascoe Vale.

Melbourne’s greatest asset is clearly that our city has so much diversity within it and it is these differences in neighbourhoods that have made Melbourne so liveable and desirable to call home.

Our planning system is governed by planning zones that determine what building can go where.

There are commercial, industrial, farming and residential zones, which are now being reformed and modernised.

Read more

Council adopts forest management plan

Lisa and Darren

Cnr Lisa Bradley and Cnr Darren Power

Media Release | Published June 26

A plan guiding the future protection of one of Logan’s largest conservation areas has been adopted at today’s Ordinary Council Meeting.

The Cornubia Forest Management Plan 2011-2021, which has been shaped by the local community, will play a key role in protecting the 196 hectares of valued bushland over the next ten years.

Health, Environment and Sustainability Committee Chairperson, Councillor Lisa Bradley (Division 1), said following two rounds of community consultation the plan had now been formally adopted.

“Council initially invited interested residents to attend an open day last July in an effort to gain the community’s thoughts and feedback in the shaping of an effective plan from the outset,” she said.

“Following the open day, Council developed a draft management plan for the forest which was released to the community for feedback late last year, as part of the second phase of consultation.

“In total, the draft plan received 63 submissions, the majority of which included wholly positive comments supporting the development of the management plan. Most of the concerns raised by the community were addressed by the plan itself or were able to be included in it.

“It is hoped this particular management plan will be used as a template for others in the future.”

Division 10 Councillor, Darren Power, who was instrumental in the acquisition of additional land parcels and who also played a role in protecting the land from further housing developments, said he was pleased to see a management plan aimed at protecting and maintaining the valuable natural resource was now in place.

“The comments and feedback from the community has played an important role in the development of this plan,” he said.

“In the future, Cornubia Forest will be protected under a Koala Nature Refuge Agreement with the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. Council’s management plan sets out a number of key actions for Cornubia Forest which will essentially protect its key values against current and future threats.

“The plan plays a vital role in addressing issues such as managing bushfire risk, weeds and pest animals while also maintaining and enhancing the area’s ecological assets.”

A copy of the Cornubia Forest Management Plan will soon be available on Council’s website.

Insurers reject proposals for mandatory flood cover

THE nation’s largest insurers have unanimously rejected proposals for mandatory flood cover and supported calls for a new government inquiry into disaster mitigation to find better ways to protect against natural catastrophes… more