Saving the planet is serious business. But dense reports and grave figures don’t always capture hearts and minds. What if playing on our human appetites for fun, creativity and community is just what the environmental cause needs? That’s the thinking behind a new $100 billion plan to create a self-sufficient, waste free Melbourne within a decade.
Back in 2017, engineer and sustainability expert Ross Harding threw a solar-powered off-grid music festival on the summer solstice.
The crew spruiked the party, which also featured talks from environmentalists, architects, activists, entrepreneurs and chefs, with the promise that “music sounds better when it comes from the sun”.
People loved it. And not just the sustainability geeks – dance music lovers also thought it was great.
From this experience, Harding recognised that tapping into the culture of a place is a powerful way to spread enthusiasm for sustainability.
“People are tired of hearing this talk and not connecting with all these targets and are asking ‘do I need to have PhD in sustainability to be involved in this kind of thing?’”
What people want is tangible solutions to sustainability problems, Harding says, and preferably, solutions that do not detract from their lives but add more to them.
He wanted to tap into this idea to communicate the message behind his sustainability consultancy Finding Infinity’s latest piece of work: a comprehensive plan to create a waste-free, self-sufficient Melbourne by 2030.
True to its namesake, “A New Normal”, the plan relies on only viable, proven technology and practices collected from around the world. This is because Harding and his team know we don’t have time to wait for tech that’s still in the lab to be commercialised and scaled.
The consultancy spent two year on the report that, rather incredibly, has no client attached.
They didn’t want the report to end up like many others that sit around gathering dust. So, Harding engaged 15 of the top architecture firms, including Clare Cousins Architects, John Wardle Architects, Kennedy Nolan, Greenaway Architects, Six Degrees Architecture, Dreamer, Edition Office and Fieldwork, to bring the next generation of city infrastructure to life by teaming it creatively with the social infrastructure cities need to thrive.
The resulting 15 prototype projects inject fun, creativity and a little pizazz into the sustainability agenda.
Pay for pool entry with potato peels
Some are intended to help normalise technologies and ideas that some people may be wary of.
For example, landscape architecture firm Openwork is trying to get people comfortable with treated water, which is a much cheaper, more sustainable solution than desalination plants. Its project at the MCG will have people drinking treated water and experiencing a water misting art installation meant to mimic the experience of “beer goggles”.
Architecture and interior design company WOWOWA’s prototype project is another example. It will hopefully see the Fitzroy swimming pool help deal with the city’s expanding food waste problem. The pool will be kitted out with anaerobic digestors to convert this waste into biogas used to heat the swimming pool’s sauna, spa and indoor pool.
Swimmers get free entry if they bring a bucket of food scraps.
Other clever ideas include solar panels used as shading devices, or on facades, and energy efficient building retrofits achieved by wrapping buildings in an external “quilt” of insulation.
On show at Design Week
These ideas will be showcased to the city at Melbourne Design Week event, which starts today. The rooftop installation is meant to attract support from the public, government and businesses to roll out the whole city-wide plan.
While not formally backed by any government, so far, the Design Week installation itself has attracted a grant from the City of Melbourne, Sustainability Victoria and Development Victoria and the National Gallery of Victoria.
The report has an endorsement of sorts from the City of Melbourne Mayor Sally Capp in the form of a foreword, Harding says, and interest from the Committee for Melbourne which represents the business side of the city.
While the plan needs buy-in form the public as well as the private and public sectors, Harding stresses that the plan belongs to no-one.
“It’s very inclusive … it’s just a thing, it’s not a non-profit, no one owns its.”
The plan is to get $50 million this year to build the 15 prototype projects. With any luck, that will be enough to kickstart the rest of the transformation, which Harding imagines could be done with mostly private sector investment.
The plan is effectively a giant city masterplan that looks at the city’s sewerage treatment plants, water treatment plants, landfills and sources of power from coal fire stations in the Latrobe Valley.
It then looks at the cost and land needed to replace this infrastructure with best-in-class technology and practices to run the city sustainably, such as rooftop solar, water treatment plants, public transport and an anaerobic digestors to convert organic waste into biogas.
The final figure? Around $100 billion, which will pay itself back in under 10 years. It may sound like a lot of money, but it would replace the patchwork of expensive fixes to existing infrastructure.
“We have this inefficient machine that is our city and instead of doing a complete overhaul, we are choosing to recondition this old thing and leaving a big mess behind.
“Let’s instead create this finally tuned machine that leads to no damage to the future custodians of the city.”
Basically, Harding and his team embarked on A New Normal because they become impatient about how slowly Australia is transitioning to a low carbon, circular economy.
There has been some activity, but Harding says it hasn’t been ambitious enough. In the built environment, for example, the industry tends to aim for buildings that are “10 per cent more sustainable”.
“The other stuff we build is still 90 per cent bad.”
Harding says the industry needs to look beyond Section J compliance in the building code and the standard environmental rating tools and embrace the technologies at hand to deliver buildings that are both profitable and have a positive impact on the environment.
He says that sustainability can be readily achieved in new and existing buildings at a cost that has a pay back of a few years, and that the finance to do high performing buildings is now readily available.
“Developers can lead right now; they are the custodians of the future building stock.
“At the moment, they are doing a bad job of it, they are building concrete boxes that will need fixing in no time.
“Then there’s these poor people buying these apartments and office buildings and houses who will be forced to upgrade them soon because they were sold junk.”