John Vassallo, Celestino
John Vassallo, Celestino

Western Sydney Rising Series: With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, urban living labs are a vital tool in the battle to combat climate change.

How do you make a prototype city that is a great place to live and work while remaining resilient in the face of climate change?

You start with a collaborative research hub that examines the interaction between urban greening, energy efficiency, water demand, community well-being and the impacts of new technology.

That’s what the CSIRO is doing at the Sydney Science Park, a new development at Luddenham in Western Sydney that offers a vision of an internationally recognised centre for research and development, and a fully integrated community that incorporates liveability and sustainability into its design.

The research hub is what’s known as an urban living lab, a concept that has been around for at least a decade. There are hundreds of labs around the world, one of the best known being in the Swedish city of Malmö, where researchers, citizens, companies and institutions worked collaboratively to transform an old industrial area by the harbour into a sustainable housing district.

Malmö Western Harbour is powered 100 per cent by renewable energy; walking, bike riding and bus travel are prioritised over cars; and homes are built to high sustainability ratings, among other things.

Portfolio of labs

At Sydney Science Park – being developed by Australian-owned family business Celestino – the lab is the first in a series being rolled out by CSIRO across the country.

Another one has been launched in Darwin, where new heat mitigation measures are being tested to help inform tropical urban design. In the northern edge of Canberra, CSIRO plans to transform its agricultural research field station into another lab.

The value of a portfolio of labs is that it can tackle the breadth of urban issues that Australia’s towns and cities now face and will encounter in the years to come, principal research scientist for CSIRO Land and Water, Dr Tim Muster says.

“We are looking at national urban change and transformation but also recognising [that] different places have different issues, climates and local contexts to consider,” Dr Muster tells The Fifth Estate.

“For example, you have the difference between a greenfield development and a redevelopment or the repurposing of an urban environment.”

He says developers and planners need to consciously challenge business-as-usual.

“You need to open up avenues to do that. You need to bring a collective together to learn and build capacity for change,” he says.

At the Luddenham development, which will eventually be home to an estimated 10,000 residents, 10,000 students and 12,000 workers – the researchers will be able to follow the transformation of 280 hectares of rural land into an urban precinct, from the conception phase right through to its design, construction, occupation and any redevelopment that might take place on the site.

Sydney Science Park is the first lab in a series being rolled out by CSIRO across the country

Energy profiles

“If you think about the energy for the site and what you can do in terms of renewable energy, climate monitoring can give you information about the design of your solar PV, for example,” Dr Muster says.

“There is a wind energy trial that will soon start on site. Wind direction and measurements can give accurate information about where you should position the turbines, and what kind of energy profile you might get on a random day. We are also interested in what happens in the hydrogen energy space.”

A lot of the information gathered at the site will be relevant to other Australian cities, Dr Muster says. A good example is the work the researchers are doing on the role trees can play in cooling and shading an urban environment.

“The land [at Luddenham] at the moment has established trees. We are interested in understanding what those trees need to survive. We are looking at tree selection, not just now but taking into account a potentially different climate in the future,” he says.

Celestino chief executive John Vassallo says the developer is keen to measure as many things as possible before construction begins, and then after projects are finished, to see if the changes they have made cool or heat the precinct.

“Whether it’s new approaches to transport, advancements in recycling and water conservation or new uses for waste heat or ways to reduce heat in our cities, Sydney Science Park is the chance for a real-life, ‘safe to fail’ testing ground,” he says.

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