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Dr Paola Leardini discusses sustainable urban growth

UQ Architecture's Dr Paola Leardini

Thursday June 23, 2016

Population projections for growth in major Australian capital cities are aligned with the global urban trend that will lead more than two-thirds of the world’s population to live within urban environments by 2050. A vision of feasible routes to sustainable and liveable high-density cities still, however, appears blurred and likely distorted through the lens of a Neoliberal approach to economic development.

Australia’s easy access to natural resources has indeed justified delays in the uptake of sustainable development strategies, gaining the country 150th place in the climate and energy category of the 2016 Environmental Performance Index. This is a warning about the need to contextualise the national growth within the global threat of land and resource scarcity.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, buildings use about 40 per cent of global energy, 25 per cent of global water, 40 per cent of global resources, and emit approximately 1/3 of greenhouse gases. Thus, any future infrastructure investment in support of urban growth must promote the efficiency and resilience of cities to unpredictable and extreme events.

Given their current building stock and their projected growth, Australian cities have the potential to drive the shift towards low-carbon development – once the country’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement eventually translates into tangible planning actions. The outcomes of the 2050 Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project, coordinated by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, show that Australia could successfully transition towards a carbon-neutral economy using technologies that are already available or in development, while maintaining similar rates of growth to the last five years.

An even greater leap forward is achievable through smart technology, which has become a major player in the implementation of decarbonized urbanism initiatives, together with high performance buildings and renewables. The smart data grid offers real-time monitoring and feedback mechanisms that allow the optimization of urban systems, and increase their resilience. Efficiency – of energy, resources, space and infrastructures – seems to be the key word of the smart city approach.

Precedents set by cities that are at the forefront of building ‘smarter’, such as the 2015 Copenhagen Climate Plan, the Aspern Smart City Research in Vienna, the Yokohama Smart City Project, or Barcelona’s Urban Platform, just to mention a few, prove that environmental, social and economic opportunities yielded by sustainable urban growth are substantial, while upfront costs, which are often a barrier to adoption, are only a fraction of those associated to current inaction. The growth of Australian cities provides the chance to promote national development while improving living standards. This requires a shift from individual to public interest through policies that raise the bar in terms of building performance, clean energy and the low carbon economy. Ultimately, greening smart cities is not a choice, but the way forward.

This article was published in the 2016 Ingenuity Magazine the Univeristy of Queensland, Engineering and Technology publication.