All regulations and building codes, new and old, should be scrutinised and discussed with gusto. This means recent debate about the NSW government’s Low Rise Medium Density Housing Code, official on 1 July 2019, is a healthy one.
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But more importantly, all the evidence and data to help limit and reduce our carbon footprint as our cities grow must be considered. Sadly, the new code lacks focus on this.
Gathering this evidence has been a primary goal of the organisation I lead, the CRC for Low Carbon Living. Over the past seven years we have funded over 150 research projects, and the research and consequent outputs – guides and tools – are now available to help inform decisions to ensure our future cities are healthy, sustainable and minimise their carbon footprint.
But when it comes to our carbon footprint, it’s important to consider all aspects of human behaviour when measuring suburbs and gathering evidence – it’s not just about energy use.
A 2018 study Global warming impact of suburbanisation: The case of Sydney, a project led by CRCLCL’s Tommy Wiedmann, puts a spanner in the works for recent arguments about Sydney’s suburbs and the relationship between density and carbon footprints.
The densely populated city core has about the same footprint as outer city suburbs
The research shows that residents in the densely populated city core have a comparable footprint to residents living in the outer city suburbs. This contradicts previous studies that found densely populated inner city areas have a relatively lower carbon footprint.
This outcome is because the research used multiregional input output tables to model suburbs’ carbon intensities and accounted for the relationship between production and consumption.
In all, the total household per-capita carbon footprint in the Greater Sydney area was found to range from between 8 to 28 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e/cap).
Surprisingly, the suburbs with the highest carbon footprint are the wealthy areas of Potts Point and Woolloomooloo, at around 28 tonnes CO2e/cap, with North Sydney and Lavender Bay not far behind at 25 tonnes CO2e/cap.
This research clearly indicates that income and spending is linked to carbon footprint – something within our control. For example, in Western Sydney where households have below-average income levels, their carbon footprints are below 20 tonnes CO2e/cap.
Yet, when income levels rise in the not-so-far Blue Mountains, where population density is low, the carbon footprint is above 20 tonnes CO2e/cap (see figure).
It makes sense – if you earn more money you tend to consume more. This research shows that our overall human behaviour needs to be curbed to reduce our personal carbon footprint, something that individuals may tend to forget as governments make new policy and building codes.
Overall, this research highlights that as the Sydney population increases the metropolitan development plan may not be sufficient to provide a sustainable carbon emissions reduction strategy if the consumption of residents is not constrained.
It suggests that urban planners should look at policies that direct investment brought in via immigration towards a lower carbon economy and infrastructure, plus use the shared economy to change consumption behaviour.
The elephant in the room for low carbon living
As an advocate for sustainable, low carbon living, and the importance of research, I feel that the elephant in the room regarding development and our overall carbon footprint is the limited regulation on sustainable features in new building projects. The BASIX guidelines are excellent, but our research project that analysed their use shows that improvements can be made.
I believe that the key to sustainable, healthy and liveable development projects is having strict and clear regulation around what that development must include to keep its carbon footprint low.
This approach in the low to medium development arena has already been proven via Density by Design, a video series produced by CRCLCL project leader Dr Josh Byrne from Curtin University, which looks at how to meet the challenges of increasing density in our cities and suburbs to combat urban sprawl.
One of the organisation’s seventeen Living Laboratory’s, White Gum Valley in Fremantle, Western Australia, is featured in the series.
This project had the right approach from the start. The developer, Landcorp, sought to demonstrate that sustainable and innovative design can create a great place to live, and first talked to the community who had their say and became part of the project – a great first step.
The end result is a precinct that’s a green and pleasant place to live. Importantly, it has renewables to use and create energy; batteries for storing energy; smart technology and design for excellent urban water management (resulting in savings of up to 70 per cent); landscaping that complements the hot Western Australian climate and desire to save water; and finally ensuring the property aspect makes most of the seasons, ensuring cool in summer and warmth in winter.
Importantly, not only is White Gum Valley sustainable, it’s also affordable.
This project is a success because it has strong design guidelines that include water saving taps and shower heads to reduce flow, plus solar and batteries. All residents are made aware of the objectives of the project via the Comprehensive Guide for Residents. The team also worked closely with Freemantle Council, which is a strong advocate of sustainable design. Indeed, the project is an exemplar of how density by design can work.
Through White Gum Valley we have gathered a plethora of information for government planners and architects to access so that sustainable homes, precincts and cities can be created. Now is the time for decision makers to use this information broadly and wisely.
Low and medium density developments will be part of the future, but if designed sustainably, using the evidence that’s been painstakingly gathered for this purpose, the outcome will be a positive one for all concerned.
Professor Deo Prasad AO is CEO of the CRC for Low Carbon Living a national research and innovation hub that seeks to enable a globally competitive low carbon built environment sector.
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