Seed Consulting director Andy Chambers, a keynote speaker at the Vision 202020 roadshow currently under way, has a strong message for the property industry: greening our urban spaces has multiple benefits, and many of them are financial – from improving the bottom line through cost savings to lifting the liveability factor that attracts tenants and helps with staff retention.
The Planting the Seeds tour aims to crowdsource solutions to boost the amount of green in our urban spaces. It will also present findings from a 2013 CSIRO study led by Dr Dong Chen of the Climate Adaptation Flagship for Horticulture Australia that involved modelling of vegetation and mortality relationships for present climate and projected future climates in 2030 and 2050 for Melbourne, Brisbane and Parramatta.
The study found some differences among the results for the present and future years in different cities, but the overall trend was that urban vegetation can potentially reduce excess heat related mortality and is an important strategy for heatwave mitigation and climate adaptation.
The tour kicked off in Adelaide last month with an event at the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The message from Mr Chambers, a director of Seed Consulting, is that there is a strong business case when it comes to urban greening, starting with the reduction in energy bills for cooling.
“Property developers and owners are likely to attract tenants who will pay more because some of the outgoings are reduced,” Mr Chambers told The Fifth Estate.
He said that there was a great deal of awareness of the “liveability” factor of green space, but that many people are unaware this also has a dollar value.
“The liveability factor at work means improved health, and that feeling people have of ‘I really like being here’ has measureable flow-on effects in terms of staff retention,” he said.
“High turnover of staff equates to much larger costs; retaining staff means you are not continually going through re-employment of people, which means there is less retraining required and so on. These are all the things we need to address to put an actual physical value on that urban greening.
“Some models are developing but it is very difficult.”
He said that when all the issues were aligned, the human system was similar to ecological systems in that change to any one thing has flow-on effects. In the case of urban greening, the relationship between workplaces, savings on employee turnover and investment in green buildings and green spaces all relate to one another.
The other aspect is that as the climate gets hotter, people are going to find it less attractive to live in areas where there is little greening, he said.
There is a “delicate balance” in terms of humanity’s deep – and often masked – connection to nature and the modern urban context.
“We have had a bit of a luxury in Australia of coming off the back of the quarter acre block; now there is a push to increase density,” Mr Chambers said.
“Maybe we didn’t really have the right to live on that size of block? But in an urban context, in a city, if we are to have density, how do we achieve that [in a liveable way]?”
The Adelaide case
Adelaide itself is a case in point. Mr Chambers said that the initial settlement cleared the vegetation almost entirely, resulting in a town that was like a “hot dry dustbowl” where no one really wanted to live. So the city’s urban plan of the 1800s by Colonel William Light included extensive tree planting for shade and cooling.
Recently, there has been both good and bad outcomes occurring in terms of the degree of green in the city suburbs. Bowden Village, a 5 Star Green Star development on former factory land on the edge of the city, has a western edge of parklands and incorporates a community garden, numerous trees and a park, in addition to efficient energy systems and smart building design.
In contrast, Mr Chambers said many Adelaide suburbs were becoming hotter simply because there was very little room left for greenery and, as a result, energy use is escalating for cooling.
“When we look at what’s happening around some of the suburbs, there are wall to wall dwellings. They have lost all of their green space, and we have got to be thinking about how are we going to replace that, and how it is to be provided in walking distance, and how to provide it in the spaces between dwellings?” he said.
“The quarter acre has been subdivided and as a result there has been a massive loss of trees, and you can’t live there without airconditioning. The buildings also lose their eaves [being so close together], and it is noticeably hotter in those areas, and that is costing people who live there a fortune in electricity.”
Adelaide is also a city where water efficiency is a high priority, and green space means a need for water. Parts of the city are resolving this by stormwater capture technology that stores the harvested water in the north and west in the city’s underground aquifer, and this water is then reticulated via a purple pipe system to the water the suburban parklands. The centre of Adelaide also has a purple pipe system installed for the central parks.
What greening effectively does is give planners, developers and local government the ability to influence and manage microclimates in the city.
Take up, however, comes down to the “proof factor”.
“It’s the business case factor. Ultimately [a planner or designer or facilities manager] is trying to prove to the financial controller that it’s money well spent and will have, for example, a three-year payback,” Mr Chambers said.
“It seems to be some of us won’t take action until we see 100 per cent proof – it’s that bell-shaped curve.
“The work we do around climate change adaptation needs to be considering 40 to 50 years down the track. Small cities [like Adelaide] can take action now and make it part of long-term planning. We do absolutely need to do things towards climate change adaptation – short-term thinking won’t give long-term benefit.”
He said an example of the approach that can be taken to long-term planning is that of the UK Transition Towns movement. Totnes and District developed the UK’s first energy descent plan, which involves looking 40-50 years ahead and planning backwards to what the community needs now.
“The question we need to ask is, how do we want it to look in 40 or 50 years?
“We’ve got enough proof; we’ve got enough evidence. We have got to break out of short-term political cycle thinking now – we must future-proof now.”
Another challenge is the shift required in developer thinking. Mr Chambers said that from a financial perspective the developer model was generally “what’s in it for me?”.
Seed, a partner organisation in the Vision 202020 program, is also working on a number of other sustainability initiatives. This includes as business alliance support partner for the Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s National Sustainable Pharmacies program, which aims to reduce the operational costs of retail chemists by undertaking lighting upgrades, energy efficiency initiatives and installation of renewable energy systems where appropriate.
The consultancy also worked with the CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship to prepare a regional Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the Eyre Peninsula, and has been providing energy efficiency workshops and support for public housing trust tenants in Enfield.
In the consultancy’s work in adaptation and sustainability pathways, it draws on the sustainability planning model developed by the international Alan AtKisson Group, which it also does some consulting work with. The “sustainability compass” developed by Alan Atkisson has four points – north for nature, south for society, east for economy and west for wellbeing.
“We build that into the things we do,” Mr Chambers said. “Wellbeing in societal models needs to be looking much longer term, and thinking in terms of generations.”
The same need for the long-range view also holds true for property assets, he said.
An example is Colonial First State Superannuation Fund’s influence on the redevelopment of Brisbane Airport, in which the fund was a substantial investor.
“An airport is a 100-year plus lifetime asset, so [the fund] was forced from a risk management perspective to consider climate change, for example sea level rise, and its potential impact on the runways, so they do not fail their own investors,” Mr Chambers said.
Another international resource the consultancy draws on is the Biomimicry Institute. Mr Chambers did one of the Institute’s courses, and said the organisation’s ASK Nature database is a valuable resource for biomimicry case studies.
“When you put in a questions like, “How would nature cool a house”?, it might lead you to how termites cool their dwellings – which they are very good at – and a case study of [a major commercial office block in Ethiopia] that applied this principle,” he said.
To influence the developer sector in terms of the part greening can play in the sustainability mix, Mr Chambers said there needed to be good case studies developed as a way to influence key decision makers.
“This is really strong systems thinking sustainability stuff. When you change one thing, it becomes a catalyst for increase and growth. The answers are embedded in nature.”