August 2013

Top three drivers for healthy waterways and liveable cities

2.08.2013 - Posted by Rob Catchlove
The last ten years has seen rapid change in the urban water industry, in particular the way stormwater and urban streams are managed. It used to be about environmental values. That’s exactly how the Port Phillip Bay Environmental Study (CSIRO, 1996) was presented and adopted by Melbourne Water and the State Government. It was purely about protecting an environmental asset (with an appreciation that the bay has a wider social value nonetheless).

But major external and macro changes have changed the argument, or perhaps given us a new argument, about the need to create healthy waterways and cities. The main drivers now include climate change (and how to deal with it), the global financial crisis, ongoing discussion about how best to plan for growth in a city and how to foster communities (mmm, Docklands anyone?). Obama referenced these macro issues in his recent speech calling for action on climate change. 

Vegetable gardens at Fed Square - picture by Rob Catchlove

My three top reasons for change are:

1. There’s an economic return in using and managing water locally. We now appreciate that we pay much more for water and environmental service than we traditionally acknowledged. Every park, every drain, every bin, every water tank, every new development and every roof is part of the water system. These things could all broadly be considered part of the water and city water network but are not usually costed and included in the delivery of water systems. We now also appreciate that there is a large cost in transporting water long distances, and disposing of large volumes of water every time it rains in the city. So there is now a strong economic case for doing things differently.

2. The social benefits of green infrastructure. There is a growing body of knowledge that open and green spaces provide substantial mental health benefits. We also know that a street tree could be worth $8,000 in terms of shading, cooling, improving soil and improving air quality. We know that waterway corridors are highly valued and seen as essential areas to escape urban living. We know that when people are asked for photos of their favourite place, they often include water. This is in line with other urban planning movements like ‘walkable streets’ and ‘complete streets’.

3. Communities demand it. In an era of big data and social media, there are now more expectations from the community in having a say and demanding action. There is a body of evidence that the community is willing to pay, but are also keen to ensure a return on investment. Any discussion about liveability or planning (more so high density developments) quickly turns into a conversation about the quality of urban environments and the need for greenery and places for people to connect with each other. In short, communities demand places that include water, good quality open parks and healthy waterways.

There’s a good case to preserve and improve waterways for their own sake, but in order to develop a stronger case, the economic, social and community benefits are ones I’d use in a conversation with a councillor or a treasury official.