Helen Papathanasiou

PLANNING FOR HIGHER TARGETS: All eyes are on Sydney’s west as a site of huge growth but is all this new development equipped to cope with the impacts of climate change and other ecological pressures? The city of Parramatta certainly will, if Helen Papathanasiou has anything to do with it.

City of Parramatta manager, environmental outcomes, city strategy Helen Papathanasiou is on a mission to future proof Paramatta’s fast-growing built environment using planning controls.

The council is mandating piping for recycled water to be installed in every single type of development in the CBD, and energy and water saving targets as much as 25 per cent above state government BASIX levels for some developments.

To combat the urban heat island effect, the council is also working to better understand the way glass facades contribute to warming outside the building on the street. 

It also wants to prepare for the influx of electric vehicles in the future by making sure charging equipment can service most car spots.

Speaking at The Fifth Estate’s Tomorrowland 2019 event, Papathanasiou said that planning controls are useful to push through the inertia experienced when local governments are planning for city’s futures.

“At City of Paramatta we’ve been really looking at the planning controls. 

“I feel like I’ve become a planner – I’m a scientist, planning’s not my thing, but it’s become my thing because that’s the frontline and that where we need to tackle it.”

She said that mandating recycled water piping in new developments has been “quite a coup”. 

Existing recycled water providers are not yet capable of servicing the community but the council wants to be ready when the industry matures.

“If a provider or investor wanted to come along with a big plant and start servicing this area, and buildings can’t take the water, then it’s sort of game over.”

She says at the local level it’s important “to make sure the opportunities aren’t lost” to build more sustainable features into communities. 

“It’s about making sure buildings that are 30-40 storeys high, and will be there for a long time, are open to plug into later.”

Another win for the council is higher mandatory energy and water saving targets.

In briefings ahead of Tomorrowland Papathanasiou said: “We’ve increased energy efficiency targets by 25 per cent on top of government targets [for buildings of 5-15 storeys] and are giving floor space incentives.”

These energy targets differ from building to building, with lower targets for taller buildings. This is because the higher the building, the more energy is needed to pump water up to the higher levels and operate lifts.

Papathanasiou noted that buildings have a “sweet spot” for energy performance at between five and 15 storeys. 

Street-warming glass boxes are also under the spotlight

The City of Paramatta is also investing in urban heat development controls, which are expected to be released as part of its new development control plan (DCP).

The city is working with energy consultants to better understand the way glass-heavy facades exacerbate the urban heat island effect. 

Part of the problem is changes to the energy efficiency requirements in the building code, which has prompted glass manufacturers to develop more efficient glass.

This glass might keep heat out of the building, but it ends up reflecting heat back onto the street outside.

This is particularly problematic at the ground plane level, Papathanasiou told The Fifth Estate before the event, as at higher levels there is stronger wind that carries the heat away.

“All the energy building requirements in the last 10-20 years focused on the impact of the sun inside the building, so developers put in heat-reflective glass that filters out the rays of the sun and reflects them away from the building, and adding heat load outside the building.”

Architects are familiar with glare, she says, but you can’t see heat. 

Solutions being investigated include mandating green or painted white roofs.

Some buildings might be required to put in shading to minimise reflectivity with vertical or horizontal fins, for instance, or another type of façade treatment.

In Japan, one option has been to have a “cool façade” that has water running through it, like a cool skin, she says.

“There are some really interesting high tech approaches.”

As the city expands the likelihood is that there will be more vertical surfaces than horizontal. “The impact could be significant on a cumulative basis”.

It’s among some of the more progressive changes coming about in urban planning and development such as the Greater Sydney Commission’s objective for a more walkable city and a 30 minute city, which means people will have less need to travel vast distances for work.

“Things are changing and we’re talking about it from a user experience.”

Getting the planning controls in place

Papathanasiou says local governments face difficulties with so many competing interests they need to deal with and the sheer volume of work that means sustainability considerations often slip off the agenda.

Fortunately, the Department of Planning has not kicked back on any of the environmental initiatives, and has given gateway approval for the Local Environmental Plan, with final signoff pending.

From industry, the response has been a few questions but essentially they simply “get on with it”. Especially once the council explained that the state government has signalled a recycled water treatment system for the region.

We need more work on utilities for the future

Papathanasiou told the audience at Tomorrowland that the council is “desperate” to work with other levels of government to plan for the future.

“When you talk about energy and water infrastructure you need investors and frameworks and new regulation.”

She’s says at the moment there’s lots of money for infrastructure going into transport and housing 

“But I don’t see that for utilities such as energy and water – but we need those local utility solutions and plans collaboratively worked on so that housing has the right infrastructure.”

Papathanasiou says it doesn’t help that communities aren’t banging down her door asking for sustainable utilities such as recycled water systems and renewable energy. 

“We haven’t got people jumping up and down and asking for recycled water. 

“We don’t see that. I think it’s because water is really cheap, so those pressure aren’t there.

“But we know within our industry that the pressures are mounting, you can’t really ignore it.”

She says there’s some people are becoming interested in energy and water now that we’re in the midst of a drought. “But for me that’s too late.”

“It’s easier for communities to talk about greenspace – they see lots of buildings are going up and wonder ‘where are the parks?’ They get that. 

“But this other tsunami will hit us, and they will say ‘why has my energy tripled in price, and why can’t I use my water whenever I want to, and why have I lost power in that last heat wave?’ 

“It’s because the plans aren’t there. I know people are planning but they are nowhere near where they need to be.”

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