For Development Victoria’s new sustainability manager Samantha Peart, there are big opportunities to reset and improve best practice sustainability in the development sector, especially in the wake of the current pandemic.
When Development Victoria hired its first sustainability manager around six months ago, it was far from the state agency’s first foray into sustainability. But you could say it was an important signal that this government agency, responsible for major urban renewal projects such as Fishermans Bend and central Dandenong, was stepping up on sustainability.
The appointment was an opportunity to further integrate sustainability into the agency’s core operations and to nudge the agenda along.
For Samantha Peart, the former Arup engineer selected for the position, the focus is on achieving best practice sustainability on all projects in the organisation’s portfolio.
This involves a massive 50 projects in urban renewal and development, the result of a merger three years ago between Places Victoria and Major Projects Victoria.
The past six months have taken Peart on a deep dive into the mechanics of the organisation.
This has informed a draft sustainability framework, which will be tested against the agency’s levels of control to ensure the desired outcomes are reached.
The first part of the process involves defining best practice from a sustainability perspective.
“That’s basically what we’ll try and get done on current projects, and a post-mortem on completed projects to try and get sustainability components into them.”
Determining best practice in sustainability has required casting the net far and wide.
This has included work with the City of Melbourne on urban greening, as well as with the Resilient Melbourne team. The framework is also informed by the state government’s new circular economy strategy, and existing government policies and standards around biodiversity, transport, clean energy and water sensitivity.
It’s also meant looking into the policies and actions plans of the private sector’s practice in sustainable development “to make sure we are delivering to best practice, not minimum standards”.
As you’d expect, the framework will also look at how it can deliver on the state’s Climate Change Act, which first came out in 2001 and was revised in 2017.
A global path to the job
Before joining the agency, Peart spent close to 14 years at Arup. Her stint at the global engineering services firm allowed her to build experience in technical ESD, building physics, masterplanning and policy work, and to work in both Singapore and California.
Working in Singapore was a completely unique experience because the city-state government runs everything, including the equivalent of the Green Building Council and a land development authority.
There, she told The Fifth Estate, “change can happen very quickly, or very slowly.”
It helped that the city wants to be a site of massive innovation, and to attract human capital. The building industry in Singapore is relatively small compared with the Australian sector and this allows more agility, she says. The downside is fewer people making all the decisions.
When she moved to California from Singapore in 2014, the biggest difference in industry attitude, she noticed, was a “really strong policy framework” and active approach from government in driving change.
Since returning from the US in 2018, Peart has watched momentum building behind sustainability and climate action in Australia. She believes we’re at “a bit of an inflection point”.
“It’s super exciting, there’s heaps happening.”
When she first got back two years ago, the National Construction Code hadn’t been updated since she left the country in 2012. There was some progress, however, including the advances of the commercial building sector to standardise a five- and six-star approach.
Now there’s a “critical mass” of professionals championing these ideas, with engineers and architects declaring a climate emergency in impressive numbers. Peart points to the IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C as the catalyst for much of this momentum.
“It’s motivating to see how people are stepping up and doing something tangible.”
A time to reset and get things right
Peart hopes that the next few months spent responding to the coronavirus pandemic will serve as an opportunity “sit back and reset”.
“We work at such a fast pace. It’s one of the fastest-paced industries. So it will be good to sit back, reset, and look at what we’re doing to make sure we’re doing it right.”
Supply chains are the biggest risk to the construction industry over the coming months, she says, but “there’s an opportunity to do something a bit innovative” such as incorporating circular economy principles.
These are the sorts of levers that can be pulled to simultaneously help the economy and drive the sustainability agenda, she suggests.