If every building in Australia was the greenest it could be our cities would still be vastly unsustainable.

The answer to the question, “How do we make our cities sustainable?” usually depends on who you ask.

The answers, however, come down to the same thing, and like so many cracked records they’re stuck in a groove of repeated errors.

Architects, look mysteriously into the distance and blah on about “passive design, site constraints and opportunities, energy and water efficiency . . . ”

Engineers, on the same turntable, focus on building materials. To their great credit, some are now reviewing how materials are sourced, assembled and are seeking more energy efficient building systems – modular construction and such.  But, typically, if they’re being really bold they may put in, say, a rain tank so small it’s cosmetic surgery for unjustifiable cost.

Planners start haemorrhaging red tape: “The council requires . . . . “.

Citizens, dedicated to fashion, too will tuck some insulation in their house, or solar panels on their roof, and perhaps a rain tank or two.


A third of what’s causing human climate change is ignored by all that fashion.

Earth sees what she sees. The sun sees what she sees. The soil suffers what it suffers.

The recent rating of Australian cities by the Australian Conservation Foundation is really saying to the building, design and planning professions:  “You’re wrong”.

Nature doesn’t do fashion.

The biggest things stopping us sustaining our culture and our cities is food, buying stuff, travelling around.

Of these, the biggest thing that’s missing from the design, engineering and planning debate is food.

Until we use food sustainably in our cities all the water efficient shower heads, naturally lit rooms and so on are just so much fashionable activity. So much archispeak, so many awards, so many engineering “feats” are just the emperor’s clothes that distract us from the  truth.

Take where I live, Chippendale.

It’s hugely unsustainable.

Three times more rainwater falls and is wasted as stormwater than water imported hundreds of kilometres from far off rivers.

But the water in the suburb’s food?

Aahh, now we’re talking.

Compare the water used in showers, buildings with the water used in our mouths.

Over 30 times the amount of water that is imported is in our food.  The water embodied in our food exceeds the water we import as mains water.

Is this environmental truth at the top of the planning of our cities?

Is there an architect, engineers, planner, council or red tape maker you’ve met recently who has food integrated in their design?

If so, buy that person a glass of wine and sit them down in a pleasant place to say “thank you”.  Yes, there’ll be three glasses of water in each glass of wine but we need to toast people who are driven by facts not fashion –  people marching up and down on the spot, mistaking activity for action.

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

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