Sally Dominguez

By Lynne Blundell

8 March 2011 –
This was the year of the revamp for Green Cities. And the annual conference, jointly organised by the Green Building Council of Australia and the Property Council of Australia, was much better for the makeover.

With a new and improved format and a liberal sprinkling of controversy, the event, which ran from 27 February to 1 March at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, felt revitalised and more willing to tackle the big questions.

The sort of questions that loomed large this year were: what does a liveable city look like, how are our buildings and urban spaces impacting on our physical and mental wellbeing and what is being done to get the residential sector up to speed?

Bjorn Lomborg

And on the big picture questions, such as what policies will help us save our increasingly sick planet, some controversial cats were thrown among the pigeons – Danish academic and ex(?) climate sceptic Bjorn Lomborg for one, with his grand plan to get the world to stop focusing on carbon reduction, and a debate on nuclear power generation, for another.

New format ramps up interaction
The revamped format meant more interaction – between speakers and audience, between individual delegates and between everyone and technology.

Texting comments to speakers via mobile phones, tweeting, voting on issues via SMS – it was all there. And it worked. Maybe it was the success of ABC TV’s Q&A program that inspired the organisers but whatever it was, the idea of texting questions to the panel during sessions so that the audience could see them on the large screen was a good one (when the techies could get it to work).

Alongside the serious questions, funny on-screen comments lightened things up and kept the audience engaged. During a session on the economic implications of protecting the environment, quips from the audience broke up some heavy doses of economists’ jargon. The comment “here’s a question for you Lauren (Lauren Haas, manager sustainable investment Brookfield Multiplex and the only non-economist/policy adviser on the panel) because at least we can understand you” got everyone laughing. Session moderator, Property Council chief executive officer Peter Verwer, did his bit by keeping things rolling with pithy throw-away lines and dry wit.

And then there were the fishbowl sessions where a panel of speakers (the fish) sat on a raised podium, the audience arranged around them in a circle – very fishbowlish in fact. Audience members were invited to enter the “fishbowl” whenever they had something constructive to add to the discussion. It worked well, allowing the expertise of panel members and delegates to be maximised.

In the final session, Extreme Green, a panel of judges looked at some innovative inventions by some up-and-coming young designers and inventors. The session, led by ABC TV’s New Inventors judge Sally Dominguez, who brought some pizzaz to proceedings over the two days, was informative and entertaining. Once again texted questions and comments to young designers like (winner) Tim Binnion, inventor of building façade panels consisting of multiple mini wind turbines, kept things moving nicely – “Where can we get one of these?” “You’re a legend Tim…”

But new format aside, there was plenty of meaty material at this year’s conference. Here are some of the highlights:

Designing for better health
Keynote speaker Esther M Sternberg, neuroscientist and author of the book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Wellbeing, was passionate about the power of the built environment to make us sick and conversely, when well designed, to make us well.

She quoted research that showed hospitals with a patient-focused design that emphasise natural daylight, social interaction, restful views and areas for exercise had greatly improved patient welfare including:

  • 75 per cent reduction in patient falls
  • 11 per cent reduction in infection rates

“These types of hospitals costs $12 million more to build but they recoup the costs within the first year,” said Sternberg.

Design features that Sternberg recommended to improve patient outcomes in hospitals included:

  • spaces for contemplation and meditation
  • green spaces such as gardens and areas with views of the outside
  • spaces that encourage social support and social interaction
  • areas for exercise
  • activities that engage the senses such as music and art

These features increased wellbeing in patients by encouraging the body to release endorphins and dopamine, substances that reduced stress and boost the efficiency of the immune system. The mechanism of how this happened was now well understood – for example, it was possible to measure the effect on the brain of beautiful views, the image being projected to the back of the brain and then moving forward in the brain and prompting the release of endorphins.

Design that facilitated social support and interaction had a profound effect on health and wellbeing.

“We know that people with greater social support have enhanced health, fewer hospitalisations, fewer sicknesses,” said Sternberg.

In office buildings the effect of such features are much the same said Sternberg. Research conducted by Sternberg’s team had shown that six months after moving into a building with people-focused design features the occupants had healthier heartbeat variability and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than they had in their previous buildings.

“Understanding the mind-body connection is essential for good building design. As designers you have the power to improve people’s wellbeing by creating urban spaces that include features that improve both physical and mental health,” said Sternberg.

Liveable cities – what are they?
The discussion on what makes a place a good one to live in was uppermost in the fishbowl session on “Liveability – what does it really mean?”

An impressive line-up of panel speakers discussed everything from rural versus city liveability, high versus low density living, the importance of knowing your neighbours to the role of a good public transport network in a liveable city.

Rod Fehring, Chair for the Australian Housing & Urban Research Institute, said the current approach to urban living was centred around the belief that you need to have a job to participate. This attitude excluded a large percentage of the population – the aged, people with disabilities and certain ethnic groups. Getting the basics of infrastructure right so that people could engage with their community, have access to healthcare and participate economically through work or shopping was essential.

“From all the research the move away from getting the basics right is a major problem,” said Fehring. “Number one is to get transport right, then manage growth and finally return governance and control back to communities. Liveability is about emotional connection to space.”

Su Groome from Arup said it was vital decisions were made at planning level that make sustainable decisions easy to make and the cheap ones to make right from Day One. Infrastructure must encourage an investment in local communities.

“Infrastructure needs to be there to create habits – good public transport for example encourages local interaction. People meet their neighbours and get to know owners of local businesses. Otherwise they get in their cars and stop off at places that are convenient along the way rather than going to local cafes or shopping at local businesses.”

Rosemary Kirkby, head of sustainability GPT, cited her experience at NAB when she was project director for the creation of a new office space for the bank. NAB insisted its employees have maximum input into the design its new office building at Docklands. High on the agenda for NAB employees was quality of life.

“The social design was at least as important as physical design,” said Kirkby. “Six hundred people became deeply engaged in the design.”

The end result was a highly engaged workforce, with an 88 per cent engagement rating.

Robert Cummins, from Deakin University’s Australian Centre on Quality of Life, said research showed as density increased community happiness declined.

“The denser the population the less people know their neighbours. This compares with rural towns where there are higher levels of social connection and a sense of belonging and identity. People feel safer because they know the people around them.

Tim Binnion’s winning concept

“This is often missing in cities – we need to try to build this into creating communities in cities. We can do this by defining neighbourhoods and creating the things in that neighbourhood that people want.”

Audience member Christopher Reid from Hassell argued that this rural sense of community can and is being successfully created in higher density areas.

“It can work – an important factor is having mixed use in higher density areas. It is difficult to create community but it is vital that we do because higher density is fundamental to creating choices and vitality,” Reid said.

Will the sky fall in if we move to a low carbon world?
In a session on “Environment or Economy” Michael Smith, Research Fellow at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, set out to debunk the common belief that environmental protection is incompatible with economic wellbeing.

“For most of the last 40 years politicians and economists have believed that economic growth and environmental action are incompatible – that there is always a trade off.

“The prevalence of this view has meant the momentum of environmental protection has been lost whenever there is a global economic recession.”

Tim Binnion

A separation or “de-coupling” of economic performance from environmental protection would allow politicians to adopt the environmental measures needed to save the planet and encourage greater economic growth through investment in renewable technologies, argued Smith.

All around the world we are already seeing this decoupling, said Smith. In California regulations to reward energy efficiency had not damaged economic growth and  neither had a 90 per cent reduction in toxic emissions in Massachussets.

“In the 1980s China introduced the biggest energy efficiency drive ever seen and significantly reduced energy use but their GDP kept climbing. They have sophisticated modelling to predict these things but here we are held back by the outdated belief that action on the environment will damage our economy.

“We are led to believe that mining is vital to the Australian economy.

“Green productivity and growth have the potential to boost GDP and jobs while contracting the physical economy. Building and urban designers have a big role to play in this as your sector is one of the largest in the economy,” Smith said.

Residential sector is lagging behind
Residential developers got together to discuss where the sector stands with sustainable design and construction. Not very far down the track it seems.

Nicholas Wolff, chief operating officer Frasers Property, believed the green agenda had not hit the residential market yet.

“Look, style and design are the big things. Young people moving into apartments are not asking about sustainable features. They are into image – apartments with ipod docking spaces will sell. It is our obligation as developers to push the sustainable agenda and make sure it is built in.”

Joe Van Belleghem, founding director of Lend Lease Sustainability Leadership, agreed: “The market doesn’t really understand sustainable. We have a job to communicate to the public about the benefits of green buildings. We need to explain it better – it is not just about water and energy, it is holistic.”

“Real estate agents are uneducated in green. Developers need to educate. them so they push it to the consumer.”

Andrew Borger, executive director and state manager Queensland, Leighton Properties: Once we get more [green residential] buildings out there we can get better at promoting them. We’ve done 650 apartments in the last six months but we haven’t used the green message yet. We want product out there before we push the green message with agents.”

“We might be doing sustainable buildings to create a better community but investors need to see the bottom line benefits.”

Stefan Preuss, manager built environment, Sustainability Victoria: “Currently in this market sustainability doesn’t reflect in the price. Hopefully this will change.

“Sustainability Victoria promotes the value of wellbeing. The question is how can be bring that value into residential? We need new tools and new typologies of buildings.”

And the speakers said there needed to be better partnerships between government and developers.

All agreed that the benefits of sustainable medium to high density residential development went far beyond individual buildings and lower energy bills for residents. Benefits to purchasers and residents included improved wellbeing through increased natural daylight and ventilation in individual apartments and in shared areas, improved external infrastructure and community facilities and a more vital community through greater choice of facilities in mixed use developments.

Ultimately, it’s all about lifestyle, Leighton’s Andrew Borger concluded.

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