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Urban Beat Issue 3 - April 2017

Selected stories from the third 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.

Smart Cities, What are They and Who Benefits?

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

The idea of a “smart city” is one that is increasingly used. On a basic level, a “smart city” is one which performs well. Beyond this is the notion of a city that is intensively and continuously monitored and which puts this information to good use in improving the performance of the city and its various component systems. However that suggests a big question: by whom and how will this data be used?

One way of thinking about this problem comes from computer science. In 1999, American programmer Eric Raymond published his essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”. This described two methods of software development: closed and open. In the closed, or technocratic, model access to the code is limited to a few accredited experts. In the open model everyone can see the code, even if not everyone can make changes.

Neither of these models is unambiguously better, although the open model appears to be gaining popularity. Different models work differently in different contexts. What approach should be taken to the use of data in managing cities?

One possible solution corresponds to Raymond’s closed model. Here the city is a dynamical system to be managed by experts for the good of its citizens. A paradigm for this is the existing system of traffic management. Thisapproach does allow for greater openness but the raison d’etre of data collection is decision support.

The other approach is to prioritise the measurements themselves, rather than their already-known application. An example of this approach is the proposal to place instruments on every lamp-post for air quality. It is hard to see how data generated in this way could be useful for current management techniques—but that is not the point However openness of data cannot be a solution of itself. At its worst, display rather than interpretation may become the endpoint. This shifts the burden of interpretation onto the end user. Problems abound here. For example measurements of air quality are likely to show large spatial variations, suggesting to some people that an inoffensive lamp-post marks a death-trap. The dangers of relying too much on data, rather than wisdom, were alluded to by T. S. Eliot in his poem Choruses from the Rock: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information”.

Yet a desire to return to some golden age from the past, as suggested by Eliot, is naïve. Limiting data to highly curated flows of information is not viable any more. I believe that it would also be undemocratic and defeatist. This would be naïve since it simply won’t happen, that genie has long escaped its bottle. That it is undemocratic is obvious enough, telling people what we think they need to know isn’t working well even when the information is incontroversially correct. I believe the view is defeatist since it presupposes that we cannot frame the information in such a way that people can independently and meaningfully interrogate it.

A solution, I think, is obvious—but it will also be painstaking. As researchers are increasingly releasing their data, it should also be a requirement for them to provide the necessary intellectual background to understand this data. This will take time, resources and importantly motivation to do this well. By comparison, putting another sensor up a lamppost is cheap. But if we want to build truly “smart” cities then we have no choice other than putting in the intellectual effort ourselves. I hope the CAUL Hub can contribute to this.

Measuring the progress of the Cities Agenda

Cities have never been more important. We are now living in the urban age. Over half of the world’s population now live in cities, and this proportion will continue to grow in the next few decades. “Cities are now the default places for humanity” according to Iain Butterworth of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.

This is true of Australia as much as anywhere. Already a highly urbanised society, Australia is set to see several of its cities double in population by 2050.

This concentration of human life offers many advantages, but also creates significant problems. The construction and expansion of cities radically alters the environments in which they are situated, and the volume of activity they house creates enormous amounts of waste and pollution.

Nor are the effects of cities confined to their physical effects. As cities grow, their impact on the health and well-being of their residents is increasingly obvious. The built form of urban spaces shapes people’s everyday routines and experiences, and thus powerfully affects the quality of those lives.

“Decisions made by city planners will impact the health and wellbeing of residents as well as the environment” said Billie Giles-Corti, the CAUL Hub’s liveability lead.

The World Health Organisation, the OECD, and the United Nations itself—through the UN-Habitat programme—are just some of the international bodies that have recently committed to the need to improve urban settlements. At a national level, the Australian Government has committed to Smart Cities Deals and state governments have also paid increasing attention to urban issues. Collectively this interest is known as the ‘Cities Agenda’.

The liveability of cities has been defined and measured in many different ways. The definition developed by the Healthy Liveable Cities Group at RMIT University (formerly the Place, Health and Liveability Group at The University of Melbourne) in partnership with the Victorian Government Department of Health and Human Services is that liveable cities and places are “Safe, attractive, socially cohesive and inclusive, and environmentally sustainable; with affordable and diverse housing linked via convenient public transport, walking, and cycling infrastructure to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities”. This broad scope has been adopted within the Victorian Government and is the basis of the CAUL Hub’s approach to liveability.

This definition is important because it describes criteria that are readily measurable and which link directly to health and wellbeing outcomes. This can allow the knowledge of these factors to be applied to the decisions of governments. While many of these factors have been appreciated by researchers for a long time, it is this latter aspect that has proved considerably more difficult.

There are a number of significant problems in achieving meaningful change in the liveability of cities. First is the lag time associated with urban development. At any given time, only a small amount of a city is being developed, but that infrastructure will have a lifetime of decades. Consequently we are always living with the decisions of the past. Even with greenfields sites on the edges of our cities, decisions about how the land is parcelled shapes the infrastructure that will shape the community for a generation.

Secondly there is the complexity of cities. When one thing is changed, many other parts of the system react. In a system as complex as cities, multiple factors produce city performance outcomes and they need to be considered together. For example, rather than just focussing on affordable housing, to optimise the city’s performance, we also need to consider access to public transport, employment, public open space and people’s access to all the amenities needed for daily living.

Third, there is the question of equity. Many of the traditional indicators provide city-wide measures of liveability. These mask inequities across the city, give a false sense of security about a city’s performance, and provide no insights into where to invest to improve a city’s performance.

Finally, is the need to make research relevant to policy. Again, most traditional liveable indicators are poorly adapted in this regard. They provide little information about what policies are working, or not working in a city. Hence, it is difficult for them to inform policy development.

None of these problems are intractable and high quality research has a big role to play in shaping the cities of the future. It is for this reason that urban researchers have been developing appropriate liveability indicators that speak directly to policy. This work has been done through many groups in Australia including the Place, Health and Liveability Group, the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Healthy Liveable Communities, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, and the Healthy Liveable Cities group. This research program is being further extended through the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, enabling teams at RMIT University and the University of Western Australia to map liveability indicators for several Australian cities, to enable the implementation of urban policies to be benchmarked and monitored over time.

“Importantly, liveable communities are also healthier communities, and more sustainable and resilient, helping to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals” concludes CAUL’s liveability lead, Billie Giles-Corti.

As Iain Butterworth says, “If we can create good places where people can live good lives then people will stay happy, socially included, physically active and stay healthy for a lot longer—and have the skills and resources to live their lives well.” High-quality research, such as that conducted by the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, is a vital part of this vision.

Research Project Update: Shared Urban Habitat

The Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub is collaborating closely with The Friends of Westgate Park (FOWP) in Melbourne in a number of ways that show the Hub’s breadth of research, focus on practical outcomes and engagement with community.

The FOWP are about to start developing a new wetland area in the park, following the successful development of the eastern section of the Southern Wetlands during 2014-16. This new wetland and grassland area has become part of the Network of Biodiversity Study Sites that the CAUL Hub has being establishing in Melbourne and other cities across the country. These sites will help us to quantify how biodiversity changes before and after urban greening interventions.

Another focus of the Hub in the park is on native pollinators. The FOWP are working with CAUL Hub researcher Luis Mata to study the ecology and biodiversity of native pollinators within the park, with a view to better understanding how pollinators interact with the park’s plants, and to make these interactions more visible and enjoyable for park users.

This work will include the establishment of a series of pollinator observatories within the park. These observatories will allow study of both insect and bird pollinators on a series of targeted plant species. Research will include both academically-based surveys, but more importantly community-led citizen science observations. The latter component will benefit from the CAUL Hub Beneficial Insects citizen science app, and will be preceded by a series of workshops and training sessions to help maximise the benefit to community participants.

Research Project Update: Upper Stony Creek

The Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub takes an integrated approach to urban environments. We see the importance of the ecological and biodiversity characteristics of cities as going hand in hand with their social and psychological aspects.

The CAUL Hub research project that best exemplifies this is the research on the Upper Stony Creek redevelopment in Melbourne. This development involves the reclamation and rehabilitation of a section of Upper Stony Creek in Melbourne’s western suburbs to a revegetated creek bed with wetlands, and improved surrounds including walking paths and parkland. Adjacent to the parkland will be a new residential development. The project is expected to improve both the environmental values of the space and the social amenity of the community.

Scientists from the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub have recently completed the first round of data collection for this project, including interviews with local residents and surveys of urban wildlife at the site. As the redevelopment progresses, Hub scientists will monitor changes in wildlife and air quality, while after its completion they will detail the way the new area is used, utilising newly developed observation protocols.

There have been a number of previous studies of the social or ecological benefits of urban greenspace redevelopment, such as the Highline in New York, or the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project in Seoul. However, by the time the Upper Stony Creek study is completed, it will be one of the most integrated studies on an urban development anywhere in the world.

The Upper Stony Creek redevelopment will be undertaken throughout 2017 and into 2018, and the study will continue beyond that. The first research results from the project are expected to be completed by July and will be presented at a number of conferences in the second half of 2017.

The Upper Stony Creek transformation is being undertaken by City West Water, Melbourne Water, Brimbank City Council, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Places Victoria and Greenfleet. The Australian and Victorian governments have provided funding.

Indigenous Advisory Group Update -
AIATSIS National Indigenous Research Conference

CAUL Hub researchers recently presented at the AIATSIS National Indigenous Research Conference in Canberra about the project ‘Toward an Indigenous-led urban environmental research agenda’. Held from 21 to 23 March, delegates from across Australia met to discuss Indigenous research around the themes of “Impact, Engagement, Transformation”. The presenters for the CAUL Hub were Indigenous Advisory Group co-chair Jason Barrow, Lauren Arabena and Libby Porter from the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, and Cathy Oke, the CAUL Hub Knowledge Broker.

The project being undertaken by Lauren, a Torres Strait Islander descendent and Libby begins from the principle that all urban environments in Australia are Aboriginal places. Yet the aspirations and knowledge of Indigenous communities are rarely at the centre of policy or research about how cities are designed, how they grow, and how they are governed. The CAUL Hub project aims to reverse this and ask ‘What would the cities of the future look like if the perspectives of Indigenous peoples were central to their design and management?’

In answering this question, the project seeks to develop models for urban environmental research that privilege Indigenous knowledge and experience. This will necessarily involve the urban research community learning how to engage with Aboriginal communities that reflects the diverse experiences and lives of Indigenous people in cities, and does not merely seek opinions from Indigenous people about a research process that is already underway.

The conference session took the form of a workshop where attendees provided a lot of useful advice and suggestions. The team looks forward to developing the Indigenous Urban Research project further based on all feedback received, and presenting it to future conferences.