NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK: ISSUE #392 – You’ve got to have sympathy for scientists; they go about inventing new ways to make our lives more comfortable, generally by trying to beat (or cheat) nature and overcome our human vulnerabilities. But what happens between wonderful new inventions at their early discovery phase and devastating side effects or consequences no one predicted needs to be squarely faced.

We need to know who’s stepping in to grab half baked ideas or those not fully tested over the long term, to drag them out, dressed up, promoted with fanfare and sold to a public which has stars in its eyes about the inventive and clever supremacy of we humans.

But though we’d like to imagine it’s all the fault of the big corporates working skilfully against the kicking and screaming of good scientists, this would be to deny the fallibility and hubris of our fellow humans in the science lab.

We are all responsible.

We know deep down that nature may beautiful but we should also remember it can be fickle and unforgiving. It does not suffer fools lightly. Start messing with its DNA and there will be hell to pay.

It’s only after the fanfare of discovery and great riches were made by those who “owned” the lab that we came to realise that aerosols were wrecking the ozone layer, that DDT and any number of other insecticides don’t stop at killing nasty insects, that handy plastics that can keep things fresh or makes things convenient to carry home will also break down in our oceans and become part of our food chain, lodging within our soft tissue matter. And it’s only 200 years later (for most of us) that we realise cheap coal didn’t just send miners to an early death but potentially the rest of us as well.

But in today’s world, when we know that most artificial lab-concocted chemicals turn out to be bad for us, how is it that we have allowed the full scale contamination of more than 90 sites around Australia with nasty chemicals that are strongly suspected of causing cancer and other ill effects?

The story that Willow has crafted for us after the exposure of this issue by Fairfax Media is a sobering reminder of our hubris and the severe price we are now paying for it.

One of Australia’s leading experts in the field Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, senior policy advisor at IPEN– the International POPs Elimination Network told Willow that these chemicals collectively known as PFASs are to be found not just in firefighting foam that has contaminated sites including Defence property around the nation and our precious ground water in pristine places such as Katherine in the Northern Territory, but also a wide range of the furniture, materials and clothing we use on a daily basis, thanks to products including the once much used Scotchguard produced by 3M.

These chemicals are implicated in endocrine disruption, cancers and immune system effects in both humans and animals.

“They build up in the human body, as there is no metabolic pathway for them to be excreted or broken down,” Dr Lloyd-Smith told Willow. That’s why they are called “forever chemicals”.

Sadly these chemicals are also a danger for the fledgling recycling industry where workers have higher levels of the brominated flame retardant POPs chemicals in their blood than the rest of the population.

In Australia with our federation it’s proved difficult to get agreement from all the states and territories to take action that’s uniform and effective. Hard to believe, we know.

Yet, “This is one of the most disturbing toxic issues we have faced up till now.”

It’s even worse than CFCs, PCBs and dioxins, the Dr Lloyd-Smith says.

“It is depressing. People should be worried.” The lack of clear action by the Australian government on the issue “incomprehensible”. I see it as a massive problem that now we have to do something about quickly.

Sally Capps’s great day for sustainability

A lot of people have been watching and waiting to see how new Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp pans out.

Her transport policy discussion paper released on Thursday gave us hope that Melbourne can get its sustainability mojo back. The policy focused on reducing cars in the city and using the “storage” space on roads for better things, like trees and bicycle paths.

The plans were slammed by both the state government and the opposition. So you get a pretty clear picture that the sustainability angle is spot on.

Well…the policy reduces actual room for cars in the city and we know what a political grenade that can be. Remember when Tony Abbott, former PM, said that our cars are our castles (on wheels, obviously)? It resonated at the time – don’t mess with the rights of the man or woman to jump into their car and rip roar away.

Not much has changed. Sentiment wise.

Evidence wise, it has.

According to the city there are changes afoot. Surveys show that we’re falling out of love with our cars. Parking spaces in new apartment blocks lie empty collecting dust and adding cost to the mortgage.

“In SouthBank and West Melbourne between 26 and 41 per cent of private parking spaces are empty,” the city’s transport strategy discussion paper says.

Apparently we’re even leaving cars behind when we go shopping. “A study in Carlton found that space converted to bike parking returned five times as much retail spend as on-street car parking (Lee & March 2010).”

While the figures above point to a change in patterns among some people, overall the overall problem of Melbourne’s congestion is severe. In Australia’s fastest growing city, set to overtake Sydney, 900,000 people currently make their way to the CBD every day; and that’s projected to rise to 1.4 million by the mid 2030s.

One the city’s responses has been to raise the parking fees for onsite meter parking to $7 an hour.

Other responses will be to simply get rid of car parking on streets and make way for better things like trees.

“If we want to be the most liveable city and meet our Urban Forest target of 40 per cent canopy cover by 2040, we need to make space for more trees in the city,” the city says. “Underused parking spaces should continue to be converted to other uses, but at a faster rate.

“Higher value uses of street space include more trees, wider footpaths, improved tram stops and on-street dining areas. The large amount of space dedicated to on-street parking provides a significant opportunity to increase tree canopy cover and mitigate climate change impacts.”

The number of parking spaces has already been reduced by 22 per cent since 2011 because of street improvements such as tree planting, wider footpaths, bike lanes and new tram stops.

“This trend will continue and accelerate. New revenue streams will need to be found to deliver essential city services.”

Sydney has also lifted its parking fees to $7 (who says there’s direct competition?) but the inspiration for the overall strategy Melbourne says, is coming more from overseas – places such as Zurich, Hamburg, Oslo and New York.

If there are fewer cars on the road people are more inclined to walk, to ride a bicycle or catch a tram or bus so what’s happening with bikes and we know that works in elegant cities elsewhere.

With fewer cars there will be more focus on bicycles. Right now about 12,000 commute each morning during peak hour to work but most are males between 30 and 39 in age. One of the goals in the strategy is to improve the number and safety of bike lanes so that women and people outside of those age groups are encouraged to ride,

But according to the state government, which we thought was quite well behaved in Victoria when it came to its relationship with the capital city government, this is not okay.

“The lord mayor’s radical proposal to reduce car numbers in Melbourne’s CBD has been shot down by both the government and opposition,” The Age reported on Thursday after the announcement.

Premier Daniel Andrews and Opposition Leader Matthew Guy both voiced their disapproval of the plans that also include giving more time to pedestrians to cross streets, cutting the speed limit to 30kmh, and more one way streets.

Daniel Andrews rejected the plans saying more public transport was the best way to reduce congestion and Matthew Guy said: ‘‘I don’t think it’s a radical plan, it’s a ridiculous plan.’’

Ms Capp welcomed the debate and said the Melbourne had to plan ahead now for its projected growth.

Hmm… long term thinking must be something that sounds right out of the blue to some people.

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  1. Partnered with RMIT & Deakin’s Design Thinking Guru Mark Watson along with leading engineers and PTW architects, we propose a single platform multi-modal renewables-powered and generating-distribution solution that helps solve multiple urban transit & design issues with three revenue streams while potentially being funded by Green Bonds – as recently shared with North Sydney Mayor Jilly Gibson, NSW DoT Innovation Team and Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District:

  2. Premier Daniel and Opposition Leader Matthew – get with the program!
    Let’s get the party started a la Barcelona’s Superilla! Shrink the cars (footprint) and enjoy a quieter and safer city for everyone!