URBAN GREENING: Imagine a cool and green Western Sydney replete with clean swimming spots, recycled water, locally-sourced food and renewable energy powered by waste. Renée Ingram wants to re-imagine how we harness the power of water and waste. But who would fund such a crazy idea?
For Renée Ingram, working at Sydney Water means harnessing the power of water to realise the NSW Government’s ambitious vision for Western Parkland City.
The new CBD will be one of the three “capital cities” of future Sydney: a trifecta of metropolitan centres in Western Sydney, in the “River City” of Parramatta, and in the “Eastern Harbour” – what was traditionally known as the Sydney CBD.
It’s a monumental task: but one that the head of Western Sydney development says starts at a simple idea. To provide well-planned, sustainable and liveable urban areas that are locally self-reliant to within a walkable radius.
“I think the pandemic really sparked interest… when you were locked down in your five kilometre radius, all of a sudden the parklands and your access to water and water bodies became really important for your mental health.
“[It was] potentially something which until then we had taken for granted.”
It’s a job that involves ensuring residents have access to clean waterways and green parkland. And at the heart of all that is water servicing.
Stormwater servicing, for example, is a complex task that involves establishing a planning and servicing framework for reuse of stormwater.
Ensuring that water is utilised as a circular and renewable resource means thinking beyond just setting up mechanical treatment processes. It also means that waterways must be protected from stormwater so that the natural waterway is healthy and can sustain new development in Western Sydney.
What normally happens to stormwater?
Remember those “no swimming after rain” warnings you’ll see signposted at local beaches in Sydney?
Stormwater falls from the sky and collects in stormwater drains, picking up oil and other contaminants from the soil on its journey downstream to the sea. When it flows out into the harbour, that means that an incredibly polluted source of water is going directly into our natural waterways.
Ingram wants to change that, and harvest the water for industrial purposes and for greywater uses in Western Sydney. No longer will a shocking 5-10 litres of perfectly clean drinkable (potable) water be wasted every time you flush.
Ms Ingram is working with government and developers to go back to a more natural approach to water use: think green wetland basins forming parklands, which can then be harvested as a renewable resource for reuse (like flushing your toilet).
It’s a green and natural solution to recycling water for non-potable uses, and it also will produce “fantastic cooling results” by keeping moisture in the grasses and air, and providing clean swimming spots for locals to utilise.
Western Sydney is one of the most at-risk areas for urban heat, and future residents can expect to sweat through up to 46 days over 35 degrees every year by 2090, an analysis from the Australian Institute this year revealed.
If sufficient long-term investment can allow Sydney Water to properly set up a wetlands system, this will not only reduce the urban heat effect, but also provide a respite on those hot days.
Imagine a scenario where on a hot summer’s day, locals would be able to stroll down to their local river swimming spot instead of commuting an hour or more to the already overcrowded Bondi Beach.
Long-term investment reaps rewards
Since the idea crosses a number of council areas, Sydney Water is taking a regional approach for the project, with partnerships with a number of developers in the area.
The financial rewards for developers are multi-faceted. Firstly, there is less infrastructure investment needed to protect properties from stormwater, and secondly, wetlands provide an aesthetic advantage that many buyers see as a drawcard when they are looking to buy a property. But the investment goes beyond economics.
“Everyone thinks that developers are out to make money… Actually [they are] really interested in doing the right thing.
“People are looking to attract global enterprises which have environmental sustainability targets. And that then means that developers are really looking to make sure that their development stands out in terms of the way that it’s designed to protect the environment.
“I think it is something that is important to big global corporations moving forward.”
The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) and Nature Positive frameworks are a major driver of this investment. Developers and local government groups are now thinking deeply about the ways nature must be managed to reap the rewards.
Ingram says this means thinking about things like what materials (like gravel for example) go below the surface of the ground to retain moisture in the soil, and using sensory technologies to calculate exactly when trees need to be watered and when councils can rely on the natural weather patterns.
All this means less maintenance costs and safer, greener urban environments.
This is a relatively new concept, and one that she says they can’t look overseas for learning and education, because “there aren’t a lot of other global cities that have developed in the same sort of climate in the same way that we are developing”.
Towards a circular economy
The future of Western Sydney goes far beyond stormwater – Ms Ingram firmly believes that most things which we classify as “waste” in our society should be put to good use in a circular economy.
Part of that is good planning – locating waste facilities close to food production facilities, installing biogas biodigesters into waste treatment plants.
It also requires investment and innovative thinking.
“Can we somehow find a way as a society to link all of this together, so that the waste products and the byproducts of our process can be used to help food production?
“We can all work together to keep resources at their highest use, but also make sure that waste products [are] potentially useful for someone else.”
Calling on industry to make the move
Ms Ingram says that more long-term investment is needed to reach these goals.
“It’s still really hard to put it together and to make appropriate investments now, when we have such an uncertain future.”
A 20-30 year investment is what’s required, and Ingram is gauging interest with University’s and investors who are looking at a long-term and holistic view of the city of the future.
A group led by Western Sydney University is interested, and the new Western Sydney Airport, as well as smaller businesses that are looking towards this vision.
Bigger waste companies are getting on board, and that’s the kind of interest that Ingram says is needed in order to make these plans a reality.
“We are the first-movers, but we’re not industry… We need industry partners to take a leap of faith as well.”
Rennée Ingram is speaking at The Fifth Estate’s Urban Green event on 28 July. Get your tickets before they run out.