Urban Beat Issue 1 - July 2016

Selected stories from the first issue of Urban Beat, the newsletter of the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, can be read online below. A pdf copy of the full issue can be downloaded here.

CAUL: Bringing Complex Research to a Complex Problem

Professor Peter Rayner, University of Melbourne
Hub Leader, Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub

The remit of CAUL presents a fascinating challenge for researchers. Cities are perhaps the most complex objects humans have constructed. A new road changes someone’s air quality, another person’s travel time and a third person’s land value. Cities are also inevitably contested; any development comes with opportunity costs for both space and spending.

Researchers, at least quantitative researchers, usually seek simplicity. Science has thrived on understanding simple systems then applying that understanding to more complex ones, using analogies or conceptual models. The approach has been successful but it has its limits, especially dealing with people.

The other touchstone of good research is depth of understanding, often at the cost of breadth. Researchers understand one part of their system profoundly, and will often come to see it as the most important part. This doesn’t leave them well-placed when asked about the trade-offs in improving one aspect while risking degrading another (remembering that everything comes at a cost).

What can researchers do about this dilemma? Some embrace generality. These worldly-wise generalists are invaluable but are too rare and don’t easily entrain the rest of the research world, who are likely to suspect them of superficiality.

Our approach is slower but hopefully more robust. It is to build communities of interest with deep roots. For this reason CAUL includes a range of people not necessarily used to working together. From experts in measuring atmospheric pollutants to psychologists and from urban ecologists to transport planners we believe we have most of the important research angles covered.

We believe the final ingredient is external pull: the needs of communities, governments and industry. For this reason we have made sure that the researchers, not just the leadership or the external relations staff have been intimately involved in the stakeholder consultation that the CAUL Hub has undertaken. This approach is already bearing fruit with our research project on understanding future air quality in Western Sydney. We are confident that this will be just the first of many cases. I invite all of you who are interested in our research to get involved, and contribute to the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub.

Evidence-based policy: opportunities and barriers

Scientists, policy makers and managers have many things in common. All grapple with uncertainty, seeking to reduce it. Yet there are clear differences as well. Can they work together effectively?

Over recent decades there has been increasing interest in basing policy decisions on scientific understandings. Such approaches have become common in education, social policy and, increasingly, environmental management.

“There is a lot of goodwill towards the implementation of evidence based policy” says Dr Carly Cook of Monash University, a researcher who has studied the application of scientific findings to environmental management, particularly in relation to Marine Protected Areas, “but the practicalities of doing so are the main barriers.”

Many of these barriers come from the different aspirations of the different participants. For researchers, a core requirement is that their work be seen to be novel at a basic level. On the other hand for environmental managers the uncertainty that they grapple with appears from the application of practices to the specifics of site or species.

Dr John Wright, Acting Manager of Science and Management Effectiveness at Parks Victoria emphasises the ‘three legs of the tripod’: science, policy and management. Both policy and management require science, but in different ways.

The practical problems can also go beyond a mismatch of aspirations. Ideally, research needs to be both salient—fit for purpose—and credible. However sometimes these twin requirements can work in opposition. The need for information salient to particular environments can mean that only customised studies provide useful information. However individual studies can be error-prone. More reliable scientific results come from synthesis studies and meta-analyses, yet these rarely provide the clarity of information that can be easily applied to a particular place.

Overcoming these practical barriers requires careful consideration of the relationship between participants. For many, the personal relationship is the most important part. Environmental managers may feel uncomfortable interpreting broad results to the specifics of their situation while scientists may not see the benefit of doing so.

There are a number of different ways in which a relationship between scientists and policy-makers can be developed. Larger government organisations and private business can employ their own scientists. There are multiple benefits for this. Personal relationships are easier to build from within an organisation and networks between many different participants can be sustained. However only the larger organisations are able to employ a significant number of specialists, and even amongst those, scientific resources can be seen as easy targets for downsizing.An alternative model is for organisations to support or commission scientific research, and develop ongoing relationships with those researchers, rather than employing them directly.

One good example is the Research Partners Program at Parks Victoria. This program, running since 2000, aims to identify areas of interest to both park management and academic researchers, and then collaborate on research in those areas. These have involved a broad range of topics, including fire management, control of invasive pests, and ecosystem functions as well as more policy-related problems such as decision frameworks. Many of these research projects are undertaken by honours and postgraduate students, so the program provides a clear benefit to universities as well as to Parks Victoria. One reason for the program’s success, according to Dr Wright, is that it fosters internal partnerships, between technical specialists and managers, at the same time as creating relationships with external researchers.

This kind of program may be desirable, but it is not always possible. It requires a significant investment of both budget and time that is not always available. One solution is to fall back on the skills of individuals—policy makers aware of the scientific fields, or researchers who are adept at communicating with broad audiences. While this can be effective, it is also contains risks.

Dr Cook suggests yet another possibility. While it may be illusory to think that the different interests of researchers and managers can be entirely reconciled, that the goal is to develop working relationship that is able to move between both. “One way to address these problems is to create organizations that operate in both scientific and practical spheres while retaining distinct lines of accountability to both groups.” The boundaries between scientific interest, policy focus and practical application may still exist, but they are boundaries that can be traversed with the right amount of planning.

Engagement with stakeholders, and making an impact with our research is one of the central goals of the CAUL Hub. We encourage both practitioners and academics to provide their perspectives on evidence-based policy in environmental management.

Project Update: Western Sydney Air Quality Study

The aim of this project is to provide informed evidence for a Clean Air Plan for Western Sydney as the area undergoes major infrastructure and residential changes into the future. Measurements and modelling will combine to provide tools enabling well informed decisions around urban planning. The University of Wollongong has engaged the expertise of the Office of Environment and Heritage NSW (OEH), CSIRO and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to assist in making this happen.

The current focus of measurements is to investigate “hot spot” areas to evaluate the worst case scenario for Western Sydney air quality. Preliminary sampling was carried out at Chullora in September 2015 looking for potential ammonia sources. Additionally flask samples were collected at Master Plumbers Association NSW (MPA) in Auburn on 26th April 2016. A very short preliminary measurement of particulate matter was also conducted from the MPA roof on 26th April 2016. On 23rd May 2016 equipment on loan from OEH was installed on the roof of the MPA to measure criteria pollutants at a point location. Open path Infrared and UV-VIS sensors will hopefully be installed soon to assess further pollutants in a larger air mass. The MPA building is located alongside a major rail corridor for freight and passengers and long path measurements will capture both the rail corridor and the Auburn CBD. Discussions are ongoing with Auburn City Council regarding locating mirrors on the council chamber roof to terminate the long path measurements.

Further measurement site possibilities are been pursued to expand the “hot spot” measurements and see how they compare. These “hot spots” will also be compared to existing and continuous data records from OEH monitoring stations which provide a measure of the average air quality across the region. Data collected from “hot spot” sites and continuous monitoring stations will feed into models to give a regional picture of air mass movements and air quality around western Sydney. Long path measurement data will also be used to help constrain model outputs for the region.

Currently the modelling work has involved configuring and testing a number of chemical transport models for the Sydney and Illawarra regions. The comprehensive, high resolution emission data collated by the NSW EPA/OEH has been integrated into a number of top models from the US and Australia. Initial modelling results are being compared to historic monitoring campaign data from both regions to measure model performance and guide refinements. The models will be compared to understand any constraints of any of the models in the ensemble in terms of spatial, temporal, chemical and physical process biases. This will allow greater confidence in model results when they are used for examining potential regional air quality impacts of policy scenarios.

The current team at University of Wollongong involved in these investigations include 4 academic staff, 2 post-doctoral positions, 1 research assistant, 1 post graduate student and 1 undergraduate (honours) student.

Project Update: The Shared Urban Habitat

In February 2016, the Urban Sustainability Branch of the City of Melbourne, organised a workshop with the objective of identifying appropriate target species for rewilding, monitoring and public engagement in the City of Melbourne. The workshop was held in close collaboration with RMIT University’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group and the Shared Urban Habitat research project of the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes hub, and involved experts on plants, fungi, birds, reptiles, frogs, bats, insects and molluscs.

The workshop began with a discussion of the advantages of nature in cities, including the emerging and compelling evidence of the benefits for health, wellbeing and liveability. This discussion also focused on the growing recognition that cities play a significant global role in the conservation of biodiversity. Participants then heard from two successful monitoring programs run by BirdLife Australia and Earthwatch.

Following the introductory discussion, the working group of experts considered a set of criteria that could be used to assess the suitability of species for rewilding, monitoring and public engagement. Following this exercise, experts developed lists of potential target species from plant and fungi taxa; vertebrate taxa; and invertebrate taxa. Finally, each working group was asked to select a few species as examples, and to discuss their suitability, habitat requirements and associated risks in more detail.

Researchers from NESP-CAUL are presently engaged in a project titled ‘Rewilding the city: which species and why?’, which aims to develop a decision-making model to assess the ecological and social suitability of species for rewilding actions. This tool will be used in the future to evaluate the targeted species identified in the workshop.

Indigenous Advisory Group Update

Australia’s cities are Indigenous spaces. One of the most pervasive misconceptions regarding Indigenous Australian culture is that it happens only in remote areas, and that the construction of urban environments has erased traditional perspectives. In reality, most Indigenous Australians live in cities, and use these spaces in ways that are deeply informed by Indigeneity.

The Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub is committed to engaging with Indigenous knowledge through a range of collaborative and participatory approaches to our research. These perspectives have the capacity to integrate issues of sustainability within urban structures and provide perspectives on the diverse ways in which cities are used. They will also make Australian cities distinctive spaces that people can connect with on an emotional level.

Indigenous perspectives are provided within CAUL formally by an Indigenous Advisory Group consisting of Indigenous people from around Australia with a range of skills and experience. Beyond this formal input are the partnerships that are being created by our research groups with Indigenous communities in their areas or interest.

One of the first tasks undertaken by the Indigenous Advisory Group was a review of current research projects, providing guidance as to how to increase Indigenous engagement and participation in these activities. Their work highlighted the importance of considering Indigenous stakeholders and interests in urban research and practice, as many opportunities for a different knowledge or skill set were identified. The next key step for the IAG and CAUL is to, go beyond an assessment of existing work, and move to instigating Indigenous-led research into environmental quality in cities. Project planning is underway through a collaboration with the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University and other partners.

These research projects will be supervised by Associate Professor Libby Porter at the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University and Dr Cathy Oke at the CAUL Hub, with guidance from CAUL’s IAG.