Left to right: Michael Mobbs, Waverley Mayor Sally Betts, Federal Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker, with onlookers

On elections and not and seeding good ideas

29 August 2013 –UPDTAED Did someone mention an election?

Must be the reason people are promising to slash environmental and climate programs (we’re looking at you Mr Abbott).

And it must be the reason the Coalition’s Malcolm Turnbull (and former leader), NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker, Waverley Council mayor Sally Betts and state MP Gabrielle Upton all turned out for the launch of Michael Mobbs’ eco pops concept in Bondi as part of a trial by Waverley Council.

What is an ecoPOP?

According to Waverley Council ecoPOPs are “small, free-standing and self-sustained garden beds that can be used to grow food as well as native trees and plants”.

“They provide habitats for insects and birds, recycle materials, improve air quality, and help cooling down in cities. They’re also a great place for community members to get together and learn more about sustainability and public gardening.”

According to Malcolm Turnbull and Robyn Parker they bring sustainability “out into the open” and are a “billboard for sustainability”.

Mobbs, a columnist for The Fifth Estate, has been seeding the idea across the country from Fremantle in the west, Dandenong in the south and now in the east. Maybe he could send some north to hang outside premier Campbell Newman’s house and surreptitiously seed some ideas in him that he seems unwilling to entertain.

Good work continues in Queensland

In late breaking news this week, it’s emerged that good – no, great  work continues, regardless of state politics, with the official opening of  the University of Queensland’s zero energy, carbon neutral Global Change Institute.

This wonderful building will be naturally ventilated 88 per cent of the year.

“In closed ventilation mode, air will be pre-cooled through a labyrinth before being further cooled and dehumidified by a ‘free-energy’ comfort conditioning system that uses a heat recovery sensible wheel and a desiccant thermal wheel.”

The building will generate and store its own power through a 1.2 megawatt on-site solar PV system, with excess power delivered back to the grid.

The building will generate and store its own power through a 1.2 megawatt on-site solar PV system, with excess power delivered back to the grid.

Stefan Preuss

Sustainability Victoria

In Melbourne this week Stefan Preuss, director resource efficiency for Sustainability Victoria, was happy to be putting the final touches to the announcement that $3.59 million was now available to help office buildings in the non-premium end of the market do retrofits (we’re so tempted to call this the sub-prime market, but we shouldn’t, right?).

But whatever we call this sector, it’s important.

Preuss, speaking during an interview at the Melbourne SV offices at Urban Workshop on 50 Lonsdale Street (one of the first Green Star office buildings in Australia, thanks to owner ISPT), said this second tier of the market was about 80 per cent of all office buildings.

The new program is available to fund assessments of building retrofits to find the best investment options. Amounts can vary from $20,000 in matched funding to $150,000.

Preuss said it was a good way of using the government’s role in this industry – as a conduit for information and understanding of how to find the best options. He sees it as complementary to the environmental upgrade agreements. For instance, a report funded by the program might arrive as a suggestion to use an EUA.

But one of the biggest roles SV can play is to spread information and knowledge.

The second tier commercial retrofit market is highly challenging. It’s got very diversified ownership that’s hard to get to, Preuss says.

He’s right there. Even the major city councils that send their property owners rates notices every three months struggle with how to reach and influence this market because the privacy laws prevent them using their own database.

So the information needs to spread organically, through news outlets (such as The Fifth Estate) through consultants, accountants and commercial property agents.

At the upper end of the market the retrofit industry is working fine. Preuss points to buildings such as 500 Collins Street among other major projects that have been completed.

“It’s about spending time to improve channels whether through accountants, banks or the professionals who normally get involved.”

We need to remember that according to the data from McKinsey & Co and umbrella groups such as the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, easy, quick and cheap greenhouse gas savings are available; even a tune up can yield 30 per cent energy savings, Preuss points out.

And the SV program will concentrate on these simple solutions with short-term paybacks.

Other simple work could be “de-lamping”, literally removing lamps from where they are not essential, getting the controls right and making sure sub-metering is in place.

The program can help with a plan for financial and asset lifecycle planning.

Smaller owners can muddle along until the chiller fails and then do a quick replacement, perhaps spending hundreds of thousands of dollars while a more efficient and cheaper model is available to suit their building, Preuss says.

Cities

And on the subject of cities London’s feisty mayor Boris Johnson visited Australia recently as guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

It’s worth dipping into some of his comments if only because this dreaded election threatens to derail some of the elements that can keep our cities great places to live, by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promising to drop and dismantle a host of climate change and sustainability programs. See our blog for more on this.

  • UPDATE: 30 August 2013. Kevin Rudd has promised to introduce a minister for cities and to devote attention to suburbs. The Planning Institute of Australia has called on the Opposition to do the same.

In Johnson’s view, “Australia is the template of humanity and the most advanced society on earth.”

Why?

Because it’s the most urbanised country in the world.

Instead of almost apologising for this fact, or feeling slightly embarrassed by it, as so many people do, Australians should celebrate that 89 per cent of the population live in cities, Johnson said.

We speak of living in the city with self-reproach, as if we have failed as a species.

Deep in our psychic hard drive is the idea that the country is good and the city is bad. The city – there you will find disease and people of loose morals and taxi drivers who take you to Birmingham by way of Bethnal Green.

One of the most stunning developments of the last 20 years is not the rise of the internet and mobile communications – but the complete failure of those devices to quell the lust of human beings to seek each other’s physical company. They said we would spend our time telecottaging down the information superhighway, that meetings would no longer be necessary. How little they understood of the human spirit.

We agree. No amount of technology or working from home can replace the buzz of people with other people; it’s part of our nature.

We really should ask the federal minister Anthony Albanese before he’s turfed out on 7 September how many downloads the latest State of Australian Cities had achieved. The previous year downloads reached a stunning 1 million.

When we saw this figure we put it down to a typo or an overenthusiastic Google analyser. But Albanese later confirmed it at a public event for the property industry.

We shouldn’t doubt the deep interest in our cities. One of the most popular stories you can run in newspapers is on who’s winning the most liveable cities game.

We flock together because together we’re greater than the sum of our parts. Think about brain storming. The frisson of walking into a room of bright sparks.

Johnson again:

People just don’t like sitting at home checking their emails and making cups of coffee and hacking that moody lump of cheese in the fridge. They want to gossip and circle round each other at the water cooler and nick each other’s ideas. They come in search of jobs, and of mates, since statistically it is obvious that the city provides a much greater range of reproductive opportunities; and of course they come in search of fame, and reputation, and the city is the echo chamber without which reputation is impossible.”

Competition is excellent at stimulating outstanding results, he says.

Shakespeare would never have become Shakespeare if he had sat alone in a garret in Stratford on Avon with a bad haircut. He came to London in search of money and fame, and he felt the perpetual goad of competition with Jonson and Marlowe and Dekker and Chapman and Chettle and Haughton and Heywood to put bums on the seats of the wooden O; and so it was that sheer concentration of emulative talent that produced – flash, bang – the incandescent triumphs of Hamlet and King Lear.

From the dawn of literature we find poets extolling the countryside not from log cabins or riverbanks but from the cushy vantage of the big city.

Who was AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson? Was he a crag-jawed larrikin with a rain-drenched japara from RM Williams? Of course not: he was a Melbourne lawyer – nothing wrong with that.

People who live in cities will generally have better health care, better education, longer lives and a lower carbon footprint than people who live in villages – and yet something in us still pines, doesn’t it, for the countryside, or the idea of the countryside. How many people are here tonight wearing an item of RM Williams bush apparel?

These are beautiful words and they strike home. And Johnson doesn’t flinch from telling the audience is that cities need a load of maintenance.

Politicians need to play a big part to ensure that “the elite are as porous as possible, that as accountable as possible, that we look after those who cannot help themselves and we create a ladder of opportunity for all; and that means investment in housing and transport and about all in education,” he says.

He mentions that cities also need to be green and clean, but it’s politicians and major strategic objectives, incentives and – yes regulation – that will ensure that happens.

Individual actions and market forces are not enough. They might be, given 100 years, but we haven’t got 10 years.

No election

Clearly one place where there’s no election is NSW. Here the worthy citizens trying to protect their right to object to development in the time honoured way, when a project is proposed, are running out of time.

In the last few frantic weeks as they realise that the planning minister Brad Hazzard is all conciliatory talk and nice smiles but will ram through the planning changes anyway and they’ve taken to creating “Hazzard Tape” to show their concern.