One of the greatest environmental and social challenges facing Australia and many other countries is the development of urban water management strategies that will support significant population growth in an era of climate change.
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By the middle of this century, about 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities where existing water services and planning processes are ill equipped to handle such growth and the accompanying economic and climatic challenges. Climatic extremes of droughts, floods and heatwaves will place increasing pressure on the livability of cities.
Australia has responded by developing exceptional skills and innovation in water management. One of its most internationally respected experts is Professor Tony Wong, who co-founded the Centre for Water Sensitive Cities (the Centre) at Monash University in 2010.
“One of the biggest global challenges we face is urbanisation,” Wong says. “There is the issue of our natural water resources being able to support population growth, the vulnerability of that resource to climate change and urban pollution, and the issue of liveability in cities.”
Australia establishes new research centre
Countries including China, Israel and Singapore have sought advice from the Centre and Wong has now led the establishment of an international Cooperative Research Centre into Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC). It will unite the research expertise of three Australian universities and the National University of Singapore, and has already attracted A$120 million of public and private funding.
Wong, who becomes inaugural CEO of the CRCWSC on 1 July 2012, says water sensitive urban design is a highly complex and multidisciplinary issue.
“Cities are by their very nature complicated. Everything is concentrated in the one space, including energy, transport, social cohesion and water. To solve problems for cities, you cannot isolate the issues one at a time. You have to understand how they interact and interface.”
“Technology alone is not going to deliver the outcomes we need,” he says.
Wong, with his co-directors Professor Rebekah Brown and Professor Ana Deletic, established the Centre with an A$20 million research program that brought together a number of the university’s faculties (Arts, Engineering, Science, and Business and Economics) to address problems associated with water management and city livability, and how one could underpin the other.
This interdisciplinary research was a key reason the CRCWSC proposal was awarded A$30 million in funding from the Australian Government.
Four research hubs established
“The CRCWSC now has four research hubs (at Monash University, the University of Western Australia, the University of Queensland and the National University of Singapore) that are looking at the whole dimension of urban water management, including sustainability and livability, and the overall question of how we redefine cities to accommodate a growing population and preserve livability through innovative water management,” Wong says.
The hubs will draw on disciplines including engineering, climate science, urban planning and ecology, social and institutional science, organisational behaviour, social marketing, community health, commercial and property law, risk assessment and change management. Over 70 partners will be involved, including state and local government, water utilities and consultants.
Obviously, it’s easier to incorporate world-standard water management strategies into cities at the planning stage, which is why Wong and his co-directors are also interested in advising developing countries, particularly China and India.
“Something like 35 new cities are currently being built in China. They are really keen to understand how they can avoid making the mistakes of the past in developed countries, and how they can create water sensitive cities as they develop them,” he says.
Cities of the future
The Australian Government and a number of state and local governments are also investigating how cities can be made more sustainable and livable. Wong says such cities of the future would be made up of many water sensitive precincts of varying densities, with innovative water management responding to local opportunities and constraints. Spatial planning that captures the innovation of emerging water technologies and green infrastructure plays an important role.
New housing estates would be designed with green corridors that would function ecologically in cleansing stormwater to protect downstream waterways from pollution and degradation and also to promote stormwater harvesting. Recycled water could provide nutrients for local landscaping, while green spaces would also introduce significant biodiversity, mitigate urban heat, create recreational spaces and provide safe passage for floods.
The Lynbrook Estate some 35 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, for which Wong gave advice more than a decade ago, included such green infrastructure. Residents have benefited from a better microclimate, biodiversity and environment, as well as strong property values.
Established in 1991, the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program is an Australian Government initiative that supports research collaborations into major challenges facing Australia. There are currently 44 CRCs operating in agriculture, forestry and fishing (11), mining (4), manufacturing (5) and services (24).
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