by Adam Beck, Green Star Communities project manager, Green Building Council of Australia

Australia is confronted by significant long-term challenges. Population growth and demographic change, transport congestion, housing affordability, infrastructure development, climate change, energy and resource limitations, technological advances and the influences of the global economy have the potential to irrevocably shape the nation.

Many of these challenges will be most severely felt in our major cities, which will accommodate around 85 per cent of our 35 million plus population by 2050.

These issues are front-and-centre in the minds of our political leaders. Our Prime Minister now considers urban planning to be “core business” for the Commonwealth.

The State of Australian Cities Report 2010, released in early March, predicts a future nation of gridlocked transport networks, soaring transport costs, increasing car dependency, declining air quality and generally poorer health outcomes.

The report pinpoints congestion as a serious challenge – one that will erode not only lifestyle quality but also economic prosperity. The report estimates that the avoidable cost of congestion for the Australian capitals will rise from around $9.4 billion in 2005 to $20.4 billion in 2020, impacting adversely on Australian productivity and our economy.

Congestion not only lengthens working hours but also plays havoc with the already precarious work/life balance sought by the majority of Australians.

What’s more, transport emissions are one of the strongest sources of emissions growth in Australia. That growth is expected to continue, with direct CO2-equivalent emissions projected to increase 22.6 per cent between 2007 and 2020 – or around 1.58 per cent a year.

Clearly, we need a new approach to the way we design and build our cities.

The Australian Government has recognised that more sustainable and more liveable Australian cities will deliver a stronger Australian economy and an enhanced lifestyle for all Australians.

Industry has also acknowledged the need for change, with recent research calling for a radical paradigm shift in the way we plan, design and built cities. The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council’s Cities for the Future: Baseline report and key issues reveals that, by 2041, transport-related greenhouse gas emissions across Australian cities will increase by an average of around 50 per cent and travel times for commuters will increase by a quarter.

The report also suggests that, within 30 years, urban centres will become more transport intensive and less transport efficient. The result being that greenhouse gas emissions in some regions, such as South East Queensland, are predicted to increase by 75 per cent.

The Green Building Council of Australia has entered the cities debate and is now investing in the full strategy spectrum – from policy through to practical tools – to help Australia transition to a low-carbon, sustainable built environment.

We have a vision for an assessment and rating tool that will address many of the challenges outlined in the State of Australian Cities 2010 report, and will reduce many of the negative impacts of urban living – traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, obesity and isolation.

As Australia’s only independent and nationally representative member-based organisation for sustainable building, one of the GBCA’s core functions is the development and maintenance of tools for assessing and independently certifying best practice performance.

Initial stakeholder discussions held during Green Cities 2009 in Brisbane identified potential opportunities to support the national cities agenda through the development of a rating tool for communities. As a result, the GBCA was asked by key government and industry stakeholders to lead the development of a national framework and a rating tool for sustainable communities.

Known as Green Star Communities, the project involves a two-staged process:

  • Stage 1: development of a national framework and consistent language for sustainable communities that establishes five national best practice principles to guide sustainable communities in Australia and the development of the Green Star Communities rating tool
  • Stage 2: development of the Green Star Communities rating tool that assesses sustainable communities against best practice sustainable benchmarks.

Green Star Communities: a draft National Framework was developed by the GBCA, with the support of its project partner VicUrban and a diversity of stakeholders representing all levels of government, the development sector, academia, natural and social sciences and the planning and design profession. This draft framework was released at the national Green Cities 2010 conference in February. The framework has established five principles to influence the evolution of new and existing sustainable communities in Australia:

  • Create liveable communities
  • Provide opportunities for economic prosperity
  • Enhance environmental quality
  • Design great places
  • Promote urban governance.

A range of government and industry sponsors are supporting the development of the tool that will ultimately assess the application of these five principles through a range of best practice benchmarks and standards.

The GBCA has adopted a consultative approach in developing the framework and is currently seeking feedback from government and industry stakeholders across Australia on the suitability of the five principles and what the Green Star Communities tool could achieve and who the target audience should be.

The Green Star Communities tool will not be built in isolation, but recognise and draw upon existing tools and methodologies being used in Australia and internationally that represent best practice standards for communities. Green Star Communities does not aim to replace any existing tools, but rather provide a broader context for their development and application. A detailed review of these existing tools will be undertaken to identify their strengths in achieving the outcomes sought by the principles contained within the framework.

Both the outcomes of this review and the stakeholder engagement process will inform the tool development process.

The Green Star Communities tool will be developed in partnership with a Technical Working Group made up of GBCA members with specialist skills in the areas identified in the five principles.

The TWG will help review existing best practice standards and benchmarks with a view to compiling a suite of final benchmarks for each of the tool’s categories. These benchmarks will be used to establish an assessment process which will rate sustainable communities.

Green Star Communities will play a fundamental role in shaping sustainable cities of the future. Green Star Communities will help us manage our natural resources, minimise our environmental footprint and create places that are healthy, liveable and provide opportunities for people and economies to prosper.

After all, we are not building cities for tomorrow, but rather cities for generations. Our built environment must be enduring, viable and sustainable for the next fifty or possibly the next one hundred years. Green Star Communities will help us understand and innovate to achieve the best practice standards of today and imagine those possible for the future.