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Green Cities, Melbourne 2014

Green Cities 2014 – the biggest event on Australia’s sustainable building calendar – was recently held in Melbourne. RDT Pacific Director Simon Wilson was there to take his place among more than 600 industry specialists and innovators.

Those present were challenged to “take our technical conversation around green buildings and link it to people” as World Green Building Council CEO Jane Henley said. Aurecon’s Quentin Jackson echoed this sentiment: “We think we are designing for people, but we don’t actually talk to them.”

‘Beyond the Baseline’
This theme was a chance to examine how the built environment can help address our greatest challenges, from ageing populations to healing our healthcare systems to boosting productivity. Panel sessions discussed the need to measure the seemingly intangibles: productivity, wellbeing and stress.

A keynote speaker, Director of MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places group Kent Larson, shared his work in ‘Cities of Tomorrow’ – a presentation on ‘better ways for people to live, work and play in our ever-expanding cities’. As it turned out, these include vertical agriculture, stackable electric cars, tiny apartments and alternative ways of moving through microcities where most everyday needs can be met within a 20-minute walk. In his opening speech, he reminded his audience that cities are for people, not machines, and the importance of shifting away from what he termed the “dysfunctional pattern” of private cars, to where people can “live large in a small footprint”.

Larson described a set of tools developed by MIT, which can be used to analyse neighbourhoods for their mix of amenities. It’s possible to estimate, using current data sets, how sick people will be in the area, how much crime there will be, and a range of other social and environmental outcomes, based on the proximity to schools, shops or green spaces. This will make it easier to map out optimal cities for the future.

“A particular highlight for me was ‘Talking ‘bout Regeneration’. This series of presentations and a panel Q&A shared innovative ways for reinvigorating existing built environments, backed up by outstanding case studies from around the world,” reflected Simon Wilson.

Speakers in this series included WSP Sustainable Cities director Ann-Kristin Karlsson. She made a strong case for shifting the focus from buildings to people, using an example from her own country. Sweden lacks a state housing model, depending instead on developers to create affordable housing, with cities supporting developments that benefit their communities. In her example, an agreement was structured around data that demonstrated higher rates of crime, truancy and illness associated with poor quality housing and unemployment – all of which cost local and central governments. This demonstrated the benefits of upfront investment in both quality affordable housing and using local, unemployed labour, in a process that promotes urban development that is good for all.

The Conference reiterated the need to deconstruct the silos between social and environmental development. “In the past was the idea that you had to be a green champion in terms of the building attributes, but that thinking is the inverse of what you’re looking for: effective use of resources. That’s what sustainability is about. I heard from people trying to engineer the optimal outcome for particular projects, based on a triple bottom line approach,” said Simon.

“Part of the green focus before was becoming too technical, which meant missing some of the big gains. Green Cities presented the argument that we need to build great places to live instead of being stuck on single, technical solutions that reduce carbon emissions. The triple bottom line approach seeks not only to make business and environmental sense, but improve people’s lives and wellbeing. For example, up to 70% of an office building’s whole of life value comes from improved productivity and health benefits. These are the metrics we need to help us expand the business case for green building.”