Geoff Lawler

By Tina Perinotto

20 December 2012 — City of Melbourne’s Geoff Lawler is one of those public servants who inspire confidence. He talks deliberately and precisely. He sets out the big picture view, the vision, and the strategies to get there. And it’s all measured and calm.

In a way it has to be. Lawler is director city planning and infrastructure with Australia’s second largest city. His job means Lawler is on the front line of dealing with climate change in a city where the existing weather extremes will only get worse. It will be hotter, drier and, paradoxically, there will be more violent downpours.

It’s Lawler’s job to implement the long term strategies that will hopefully protect is citizens – private and corporate alike –from the worst impacts.

He needs not just technical skills but the people skills to work with critical partners, business and the community. And convince them of the need for change.

Consider the tree canopy, something very dear to Melburnians’ hearts, as Lawler explains. The canopy needs to be doubled to help cool the place, because  many of the trees will die from heat stress or disease unleashed by the changes.

But not only does the city need to select replacement tree root stock, but at the same time it needs to navigate a huge level of public engagement by so many tree-lovers in the municipality.

So where do you start to protect a city like this?

Well, you have a plan, he says. More to the point, several plans. And they are all long term – 10 years or more.

There is an alternative energy strategy, a water strategy and one each for waste, transport and an urban forest.

Some of these have interesting approaches and you can detect an emerging theme. For instance Melbourne seems to have developed a predilection for small interventions rather than big statements. In water management as well as energy. So no big trigeneration grid systems as Sydney has on the cards. And in water there are no plans for big new dams or reconfiguring the landscape. Instead the theme is low scale, less risky projects that don’t look out of place and won’t break the bank if they don’t work.

Another thing that is crucial in protecting the city is to get the state government on side. And it is. That really helps.

“One of the reasons Melbourne works well is it’s had a long history of strategic planning. It goes back to the early 70s – setting an agenda for the City of Melbourne,” Lawler explained during an interview at his Town Hall offices in Swanston Street.

In fact it was Rupert Hamer, as Minister for Local Government, who insisted on the plans, before he became premier in 1972, Lawler says.

The thinking was that Melbourne was the powerhouse of the state, and that as such it was crucial that it had a plan.

This has taken the form of 10-year strategies that “in almost every case had state and council ownership”.

“That’s a very important underpinning as to why things at least appear to work cohesively.”

It’s a contrast to Sydney, where long term Lord Mayor Clover Moore seems to have been besieged by an almost hostile current state Coalition government and prior to this by an unstable and failing Labor government.

As one observer put it, despite the city’s “clear vision across a range of key service areas – energy, planning, cultural, amenities [it’s determination to deliver on these areas] has often been in the face of staunch opposition from the state government, vested interests and the media. We saw this with bike paths, light rail, liquor licensing, Barangaroo, trigeneration and even in minor developments like Rushcutters Bay Park and Fitzroy Gardens”.

Yes, there seems to have been a recent rapprochement between the state and city governments on plans for a tram but overall it’s not been a cosy story.

Lawler won’t be drawn on comparisons with his northern neighbour but says successive state governments have kept up the interest in the central city because they see it is in the interests of Victoria to do so.

And right from the start there was an understanding that a good strategy needed to heed environmental outcomes.

“If you track back to all those strategic documents there are elements of environmentalism but it’s not until the 1990s that climate change starts to show up.” In 1997 the documents were clear: the MCC needed to care about climate change.

“This was at the time when Melbourne was still recovering from the recession of the early 90s and trying to engage itself into the international dialogues, and global warming was emerging as a key factor in economic development. It was one of the top five things discussed at Davos (economic forum).”

These were issues that were important if Melbourne wanted to be “a city that mattered”, Lawler says.

Key policies developed included: toward net zero net emissions by 2020, water conservation, and now the increasingly important strategy of adaptation.

“Those three strategies will continue for a decade or more.”

Darling Street water management


“If you look at the water one, it starts almost with a climate change adaptation strategy in its own right,” Lawler says.

“It begins the discussion that the city itself is a catchment.

“This correlates with the climate change adaptation strategy that rainfall will be less but that there will be paradoxically more intensive storms.”

This has resulted in a system of storm water recovery mechanisms that use ponds and more sophisticated underwater capture mechanisms “where you can slow the water down, capture it, clean it and re-use it”.

For all intents and purposes these look like natural ponds, such as the Royal Park Wetlands, Lawler says.

This uses natural reeds to clean the water and then the water is used to water the park.

At East Melbourne, in Darling Street, a more sophisticated underground water capture system has been trialled.

There are more such strategic interventions on the way. And for good reason. “They’re more likely to work here, and be less disruptive rather than tear everything up [for a big project] with the risk that you mightn’t get it right,” Lawler says.

But it’s not exactly a new concept. The Fitzroy Gardens were designed to take advantage of the storm water run-off when they were first designed, Lawler points out.

Fishermans Bend

Alternative energy

On the energy issue, Melbourne is not planning to follow Sydney down the route of district tri-generation except in a very small way that might connect the Town Hall, say, with a few neighbouring facilities or buildings.

But in new urban redevelopment zones in areas such as the massive Fisherman’s Bend almost adjoining the CBD, and in “bits of Southbank and bits of Docklands” an alternative energy district energy system may be the most logical solution.

It’s quite possible, says Lawler, that the “sub-district level the grid will not be able to accommodate the sort of urban intensity that might be coming, so that presents an opportunity to look at different forms of power and we’re now working with number of state agencies to plan for these urban renewal areas”.

One idea is the possibility of embedded power generation, “and do that rather than rather than spend the money on the expansion of the existing  grid”.

What type of energy?

“The most obvious one is gas fired but there is potential for geothermal.”

This latter is not a bad resource, Lawler agrees. There is the initial cost of the plant but after that, “it’s free”.

But “anything that involves a turbine – it could wind or it could be gas – you have to deal with the fault levels in the sub-stations. Across the inner Melbourne are is not consistent”.

To find the ideal location for such embedded generation, there is also an energy mapping program under way.

“We doing a couple of research projects at the moment. We have an arrangement with CSIRO and with three adjoining municipalities to produce an energy map to look across the whole grid and all its various sub-grids and figure out where there is capacity for inserting localised generation.”

The thing is, says Lawer, “if you’re dealing with an area where there is full capacity then someone has to pay to increase the capacity. So we’re finding where there is capacity and matching that with development potential is the exercise here”.

At the Town Hall, there could be a small trigeneration system.

“The model we’re trying to pursue here is to not throw a great big lasso around people and try to corral them in but find a key customer who will take on an alternative energy source and gradually connect out from there.

“We’re hoping to attract more who want come in and try this approach – someone who can come in and infiltrate the city, rather than flop on top of it.”

Transport and demographics
“Melbourne has had extraordinary growth for the last 13 years,” Lawler says.
In 1999 the daily population for the city, which is 37.5 square kilometres, was 500,000 people. Now it is 800,000 people.
“Since 2006 public commuting has skyrocketed.
“Before 2006 about 370,000 people were traditional commuters. Before that commuting was 50 per cent private car and 50 per cent the rest. And now since 2006 travel by tram, rail and bus has grown to 70 per cent and the biggest mode share of commuting, from an extremely small base, is cycling.”
This year council voted for more money than ever for improving cycling.
Melbourne now has 100,000 people living in the city, up from 32,000 in 1994. Of this 41 per cent are university or tertiary students and 45 are students of all sorts. It’s a demographic that overall is “incredibly young”.

Energy Efficiency

On the energy front, the concept is zero net emissions by 2020 and Lawler says it’s “frankly a theoretical exercise in what might be necessary to make the municipality carbon neutral”.

First line of attack would be office buildings. They contribute 50 per cent of emissions. Transport was a relatively small contributor – only 15-20 per cent.

To approach carbon neutrality it was clear that property would be a key focus, followed by renewable energy and then offsets, Lawler says.

“What we could do most about was energy efficiency. What we could do a little about was energy switching.”

The city purchased some energy from wind farms in Victoria, “but energy efficiency is where we’ve got the most clout and even that is limited”.

First step was to mandate a minimum 4 star Green Star and 4.5 star NABERS in all new office buildings.

“And that went into the planning scheme at about the same time that CH2 was built.”

CH2, completed in 2006, was the new council chambers that broke many of the barriers in green buildings and was used in the modelling of the green star system.

Lawler says this was a great example of partnering with the property industry to achieve “multiple benefits”.

Another big step in the net zero strategy was the 1200 Buildings Program, which aimed to catalyse retrofits of two thirds of the city’s buildings.

“The presumption is that we can achieve a 38 per cent improvement across the board and that this will realise 400,000 tonnes of CO2 mitigated forever.”

The introduction of mandatory disclosure of energy consumption was a huge driver for the program’s educational and informational role.

Research said that completion of the program would result in “a couple of billion dollars” of investment in the city and the work could generate 10,000 in a trickle down effect.

The city also developed Environmental Upgrade Agreements, administered by its agency, Sustainable Melbourne Fund, to help fund the projects

So far there are 54 commitments to carry out retrofits in the time frame of five years. That might not sound like a lot, Lawler agrees, but he says research has shown there are another 130 buildings where the owners are “actively engaged” in a retrofit program but for whatever reason don’t want to declare themselves publicly to be doing so.

Lawler wants to add that the initiative is not so new to the city. Sustainable Melbourne Fund which manages the EUAs is 10 years old and created by the council to stimulate sustainable products and services by way of direct investment that the council could not do itself in a direct way.

“The other reason was to demonstrate that sustainable investment was a legitimate investment opportunity. In ‘92 no one was really doing it much.”

A similar strategy of education and support is under way with high rise residential properties, considered very difficult to retrofit because of multiple ownership.

Lawler thinks rising energy prices could soon start to bite and spur interest.


The city will also look at a system of integrated waste management, Lawler says.

Waste management in Melbourne is not as “highly developed” as in other places such as Sydney, simply because Sydney has run out of landfill sites and Melbourne has them in abundance.

“Again we’re looking at model of small trial insertions.” Perhaps a bio-digester sited in a convenient location but with mechanical facilities that can tightly compact material so it does not have to be collected every day or few days.

“One of the problems with waste is waste collection and the difficulty of access for trucks in built up areas.”

Sydney’s Eastern Creek recycling facility is a great example of what’s possible with recycling, Lawler says, but it’s difficult to make such a facility economically feasible in Melbourne because of the ready availability of landfill.

“Melbourne still has a lot of holes and Sydney ran out of holes.”

Urban forest strategy

Melburnians, Lawler says, are very attached to their trees and there has been a lot of consultation on the issue of the tree canopy.

The sad thing is that many of the favourite species won’t survive the hotter temperatures.

“It’s going to be hotter and the urban forest strategy says we have to double the [tree] canopy in order to have a mitigating effect on temperature, and also for the risk of disease because of the drying effect.”

Lawler says the strategy is now about how to find suitable tree stock that will survive the heat and threat of pests and disease.


In all of the strategies, the city refers to experts in relevant spheres, the CSIRO, University of Melbourne, Burnley (horticultural) College, its peers in the C40 network of major world cities, and a team of 16 in-house researchers.

It has liaised with people from these various organisations to work out the value of cool roofs – and it’s “not just about slapping on a coat of paint; you’ve got to use reasonably thick membranes” – green roofs, which Lawler says tend to be expensive and “not necessarily suitable for every location because they carry a lot of weight” and green walls, which he says need a lot of water.

“So there is more and more information.”

With the kinds of challenges that lay ahead for Lawler and his team, it’s clear that the need for more information is one that won’t go away.