31 August 2011 – They’re in our lives every day. Whether it’s the helicoptered observer, his staticky radio voice saying they’re “at a stand still”, or “blocked”, or “a free run’, or “avoid at all costs”. Whether it’s the weather person warning they’re “slippery” or “going to be dangerous”, there they are.
They’re the big room outside we all share.
They’re arteries that carry us and all that’s the life blood of our cities. We use them to get our food, to work and to get around.
But our streets can be so much more. They can feed us, cool us and bring us art, beauty, silence and healthier, more generous lives.
It’s in the streets at my place that I’ve chosen hope.
I’m growing my food there. I’m using them to find silence, conversation, art and exercise. Gardening there gives me surprise, such as when I met a chef from one of Sydney’s famous restaurants, Tetsuyas, who also gardens there to harvest for some dishes. And I get jolts of disappointment, bitterly fresh each time, when a fruit tree has been stolen or smashed by a vandal.
To watch a stranger pause and take a photograph of a sign we’ve made or a fruit tree we’ve planted; to overhear people saying, “Look at all these plants. Where did they come from? ”; to see life growing in these streets and in the people who walk there gives me more life, too.
These, too, are the experiences of thousands of us in other suburbs around Australia where streets are being claimed and cared for by we citizens who own them; councils only hold them on trust for us, the beneficiaries. (1)
My streets – our shared room – are giving me hope for a better city, a richer and more open, courageous society of friends, neighbours and strangers.
May I invite you to choose hope in the streets where you live?
Last year Sydney City Council commissioned me to put my ideas for sustainable streets into a plan to trial and demonstrate projects that might sustain the suburb where I live and work, Chippendale.
Before explaining my ideas and designs for making streets sustainable, let me share some facts that have influenced me.
The evidence, as I see it, says that no matter how sustainable our buildings may be they can’t be sustainable without sustainable streets. Without sustainable streets we can’t have a sustainable suburb or city.
Roads take over 24 per cent of our city land. Some suburbs give over 30 per cent of their land to roads.
Black tarred roads absorb and store the sun’s heat and re-radiate it day and night making the adjoining buildings hotter. In summer roads heat our cities over 4 to 6 degrees hotter than they need be. (2)
Road heat stresses birds, plants and trees, not just us. It stunts their growth and shading and cooling capacity. Road heat forces us to spend money and resources to use air con and insulation to cool our buildings.
Road generated heat causes over a thousand premature human deaths in Australia each year. (3 Vic Coroner’s report)
It’s the facts and solutions for cooling our cities, cutting energy use, growing food and social “glue” which are being implemented in cities from New York to Seoul which encourage me to place so much hope in our streets.
Resurfacing New York’s roadways with asphalt containing a white aggregate to change the roads from black to pale, taking into account an estimated $59 million, can save energy consumers $57.2 million annually, a payback of just over one year. (4)
By doubling the number of street trees New York city temperatures can be reduced by 7 degrees centigrade. Planting the street trees would cost an estimated $625 million, with annual savings of $98.4 million, for a payback period of just over six years. (5 See Kerr and Yao, quoted in Rosenthal, Crauderueff and Carter.)
Of the three options to cool the city and reduce the peak demand for electricity during heat waves (urban forestry, living roofs, and light surfaces) the increased planting of street trees produced the greatest cooling potential per unit area and the greatest overall benefits, while the use of light surfaces was found to offer the greatest overall cooling potential, because “64 per cent of New York City’s surface area could be lightened, whereas only 17 per cent of the city’s surface area could be planted with new street trees” (6)
Electricity demand reductions were estimated as 74.29 mega watts from planting street trees in 50 per cent of available space citywide; and 200.99 mw through 50 per cent implementation of light surfaces throughout New York City (Ibid). (7)
And here is a key fact contributing to the ideas in the plan I’ve given the council: the growing, transportation and waste of food is the second highest cause of carbon pollution in Australia after coal fired power stations. (8)
Food in the house causes 28 per cent of its greenhouse pollution.
But direct household greenhouse pollution from lighting, heating and cooling only causes 20 per cent, (9)
Transport (not including emissions from food storage or preparation, or transport to get food) only causes 10 per cent. (10)
Did you know that 50 per cent of a household’s water use is contained in the food its inhabitants consume, compared to 11 per cent directly used in the house and garden?
Thus, it seems to me, to be sustainable a road must do two key things.
It must cool a city and the buildings about it, not heat them up. Such a road cuts energy use for air con. (11)
And it must grow local, healthy food, exercise and civilizing conversations.
The plan to make Chippendale’s streets sustainable is simple – to do these things by 2020: to change the hardware of Chippendale’s streets, buildings and greenscapes.
An example of one way the plan will bring some quiet to our streets is the way it offers to get rid of large, noisy garbage trucks after a few years of the plan being implemented.
Over 40 per cent of what goes into these monsters is food waste from cafes and houses.
We’ve already been trialling this solution, and other communities are copying it. (12)
For the last two years around 50 households and some 100 people have put about 30 tonnes a year of food waste into compost bins in our streets.
We carry the food waste on foot to 10 large compost bins dotted around the streets. We use the resulting soil to nourish our road gardens.
The plan intends that in about the first years of operation more composting will take more food waste (about 300 tonnes a year) so that the size and cost of the garbage truck in Chippendale will be roughly halved.
If we grow food where we live – remember, that’s over a quarter of our city land area – we also save huge amounts of water and energy and air pollution.
Here’s one example of how the plan re-imagines our streets.
I’m proposing we trial self-irrigating pop up median strips on local, not too busy roads.
So enthusiastically has this idea been embraced that in the first city block where the trial is proposed every house has got up a petition asking the council to make the plan and build the pop up median strip as soon as possible.
And one of Australia’s leading sustainability experts, Professor Peter Newman, would like to trial them in Perth and Freemantle this year as part of his biophilic cities projects.
Imagine “popping up” a median strip along a city block in one day. If they don’t work we can unpack them in a day.
Imagine, too, the strip as both water storage pots and pots for trees. Imagine trees high enough to clear the high garbage truck. Imagine, too, that when it rains the water from the adjoining buildings is carried by gravity to irrigate the trees.
Finally, imagine the speed limit in these local streets was 15 kilometres. The road would at the same time be trialled to be used as a shared zone, a place where the car must give way to the pedestrian and cyclist.
At the end of the day what would that street have?
Some edible, food producing trees and plants. A place to store, use and put to good use the rainwater that previously ran away, wasted to the harbours and waterways.
Shade to keep the sun off the black road and thereby cool the street and reduce the heat it previously radiated to warm up the adjoining buildings and led to houses and businesses turning on their air conditioners.
When it rains, sculptures would spout water into the pots for all to see and savour. Native stingless bee hives in the median strip would pollinate the edible plants. Small birds would find food and their numbers could flourish again.
Beauty, diversity and hope could return to our streets. Even silence and contemplation, the stuff of real sustainability.
It’s worth a go, don’t you think?
To see a copy of the Plan, go here:
To email Mayor Clover Moore with your support for the Plan, go here:
(1) Example – one of hundreds: https://www.flickr.com/photos/francisstgarden/
(4) Rosenthal, Crauderueff and Carter – https://csud.ei.columbia.edu/sitefiles/file/SSBx_UHI_Mit_Can_Improve_NYC_Enviro% B1%5D.pdf
(5) Urban Heat Island Mitigation Can Improve New York City’s Environment: research on the impacts of mitigation strategies on the urban environment pp 24, 25 ; Slosberg et al., 2006).
(6) See (5)
(7) See (5)
(9) Lenzen M. The influence of lifestyles on environmental pressure. University of Sydney, printed in Australian Bureau of Statistics 2002, Year Book Australia, Cat. No. 1301.0, Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2002.
(10) Australian Conservation Foundation. Consuming Australia – main findings. Sydney: Australian Conservation Foundation, 2007. Available from www.acfonline.org. au/uploads/res_Atlas_Main_Findings.pdf.
(11) Coutts A.M, et al. The urban heat island in Melbourne: drivers, spatial and temporal variability, and the vital role of stormwater. Melbourne: Monash University, 2009. Available from www.arts.monash.edu.au/ ges/staff/jberinger/pubs/stormwater2009.pdf.
(12) Example: https://localcomposting.wordpress.com/
Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach and author (of Sustainable House now in its second edition) who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He 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. See www.sustainablehouse.com.au