– 10 March 2010 – Ah! As I write this, it’s such a perfect day for a Burr. A beauty of sun, clear light and, here and there, drops of silence. But Burrs will be burrs, so buckle up.

We have here a classic case of do-gooders who, in seeking to do good, actually do harm.

The local council did some works to some local streets — Buckland, Myrtle and Meagher — in Chippendale in inner-city Sydney. The aim the council and its consultants set themselves was to make these streets more attractive to citizens, safer for pedestrians and to clean up stormwater entering Sydney Harbour.

Nothing was done for the birds, insects and little critters in the ground that help to produce good soil, and strong trees and plants to sustain us; or to increase biodiversity. There are other criticisms, but let’s discuss, on this lovely sunny day, something that has an element of farce and laughter to it.

The failure to design for, understand, and get it right on, stormwater.

After $1.8 million of ratepayers’ money and some rainfalls, it’s possible to identify some design defects in some of the new works with the self-serving titles of “water-sensitive urban design” and “rain gardens”.

It’s a natural reaction to turn up the volume of our inner sceptic when folks give themselves favourable titles. Who would dare to criticise someone who, for example, is the author of a “water-sensitive urban design”? Surely such a person sits on the right hand of the gods, particularly when they bless one’s community with a “rain garden”? And that’s what we have here, according to the consultants and the council; “water-sensitive urban design” and “rain gardens”.

Still, the urge in this citizen Burr is not to fall to our knees in the presence of such works and blessings. It is, simply, to look, ask questions and ask some more.

(Now is not the time to discuss the stupidity; the rationalisations; the cost; the embodied energy; the maintenance costs, and the unusually poor thinking that has produced these things that will never be “rain gardens” – importing gravel, then later planting the gardens with the few foreign plants that will survive in gravel. The Burr will return to this thorny topic at some other time).
Yesterday I photographed a truck in Myrtle Street, roaring away, sucking up gravel that had been washed into a large concrete pit in a “rain garden”. A couple of days beforehand I photographed bags that had been placed to slow down the stormwater entering the “rain garden”.

Even the slightest rainfall erodes the “rain gardens”, washing away the gravel, which is soon replaced by some more. How much embedded energy does this take, and who pays for it?
We can merely speculate at the true impacts of these “water-sensitive” works on our lovely, but torn, mother Earth.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. www.sustainablehouse.com.au