Monitoring air quality at Liverpool Girls’ School

Building upon earlier air quality research in Liverpool, CAUL Hub has helped establish an air quality monitoring site at Liverpool Girls High School, in Sydney’s south-west. The site was installed in late February, and is a collaboration between CAUL Hub, Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH).

The site will help measure air quality in the area and also provide the opportunity for the high school students to design and run their own air quality citizen science projects in their community. Considerable time, expertise and equipment has been dedicated to the project from all involved researchers and contributing agencies. The new monitoring site includes a full portable air quality station, equivalent to OEH’s permanent installations around the state, and a Radon detector, installed by ANSTO to measure atmospheric turbulence. ANSTO have also offered data from their long-term PM2.5 monitoring station in Liverpool.

Image: Part of the Randwick air quality team. L-R: Kate Sneesby, Lachlan Spicer, Clare Murphy, Alex Kuhar, Jenny Xu and Imogen Wadlow. 

Towards Sustainable Development Goals with Nature-Based Solutions

Last week, the CAUL Hub co-hosted a workshop on nature-based solutions with international collaborator NATURVATION at RMIT University. The workshop was led by Professor Harriet Bulkeley, Leader of the NATURVATION program, as well as Dr. Judy Bush and Dr. Cathy Oke from the CAUL Hub. It provided the opportunity for over 30 Australian researchers, practitioners and policy makers to come together to discuss nature-based solutions in local urban development, and how these projects could contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Credit: United Nations

What are nature-based solutions?

Nature-based solutions use the natural properties of ecosystems. They have the potential to limit impacts of climate change, enhance biodiversity and improve environmental quality while contributing to economic activities and social well-being. Examples are green roofs and city parks that limit heat stress, urban wetlands that store water and permeable surfaces, vegetation and rain gardens to intercept storm water. Yet despite their significant potential, the use of nature-based solutions remains marginal, fragmented, and highly uneven within and between cities.

Why is this relevant?

Growing international attention is now being directed to the potential for cities to work with nature to address a broad range of sustainability goals – from climate resilience to health and well-being, economic development to biodiversity. Within Europe, a significant programme of investment is focusing on the impact of ‘nature-based solutions’ in relation to environmental, economic and social outcomes. Global organisations including ICLEI, the IUCN, The Nature Conservancy, the UNFCCC, WWF and many others are seeking to mobilise urban actions that are working with nature to realise sustainability goals, and in particular the SDGs. Locally, there are examples at all levels of Australian governments of investment in research and infrastructure with these outcomes in mind.

Central to these efforts is the realisation that working with nature can potentially address multiple goals simultaneously. For example, the provision of green space in cities can cool the surrounding city, reduce pollutants, provide a sense of well-being, create inclusive spaces and encourage physical activity. Whilst more and more research and on-ground experience confirms these contributions, we currently have limited ability or capacity to plan and capture the multiple contributions that nature can make towards the SDGs and to create the means through which this value can be recognised, and investment enabled.

Green roofs, like this one in Melbourne, are examples of nature-based solutions. Credit: Judy Bush

Towards the SDGs with nature-based solutions

The workshop functioned in three sections:

  1. Introducing nature-based solutions
    CAUL Hub researchers Professor Sarah Bekessy and Dr. Bush, as well as industry partner Greening the Pipeline, shared local opportunities of nature-based solutions from around Melbourne.The diverse presentations highlighted the challenges of bringing back or maintaining nature in cities. This included the importance of local solutions for local ecologies when looking to replicate international success, and ensuring links to practice and practicality. There was plenty of optimism that with good governance and a linked-up approach, more nature in cities will be a reality sooner rather than later – especially if practice uses the evidence base to select the right nature-based solutions for their purpose and project aims.

    Judy Bush presenting during the workshop. Credit: @naturvation via Twitter


  2. Exploring the NATURVATION Urban IndexThe Urban Nature Index is a new approach being developed as part of the EU-funded NATURVATION project, to evaluate how nature can contribute to SDGs. The NATURVATION Urban Index uses the existing evidence base to identify a set of environmental, social, cultural and economic indicators that can be used to evaluate how different kinds of nature contribute to twelve urban sustainability goals.Starting with a generalized assessment, the Index is designed to encourage discussion and debate about urban priorities. Currently, the Index can be used to explore how different interventions can contribute to sustainable development goals, or to examine how a specific type of urban nature project will support key priorities.Participants explored how the application of this tool can reveal the diverse ways in which a proposed urban nature project might contribute to multiple sustainability goals, the trade-offs involved, and how the diverse contributions that nature can make to urban sustainability can be debated and prioritized. According to Dr Bush, this was a great opportunity for Australian researchers and practitioners to reflect on the tool’s useability and usefulnesss.”It was a unique way for us to be able to contribute to NATURVATION’s research – by testing the tool and the model for ease of use, clarity and generalisability,” says Dr. Bush.
  3. Business models for nature-based solutionsDuring this interactive section, participants turned from questions of how we can plan and capture the multiple values of nature in cities, to how we might find practical ways of designing and implementing the business models and financing required to realise its potential. Working with a range of business models that have been identified as supporting the use of nature in cities, participants explored the different pieces of the ‘finance puzzle’ needed to create the potential for securing investment and experiment with diverse ways in which these could be bought together to enable cities to work with nature to address their sustainability goals.”The Business Model exercise served to reinforce the multiple benefits and services provided by nature-based solutions, and prompted us to build the business case using the business planning language of ‘value proposition’, ‘value capture,'” reflected Dr Bush. “As a result of our testing, we proposed that ‘customers’ should instead be called ‘beneficiaries’, so that we can include non-human biodiversity in the business planning approach.”

The workshop provided the chance for researchers and policy makers to come together to highlight and discuss key policy needs, existing research and research gaps.

Dr. Oke reflected that “it was great to see a tool utilising the evidence base for key indicators of the SDGs, so practitioners and policy makers can make informed decisions on which nature-based solutions provide the greatest outcome.”

The CAUL Hub looks forward to contributing to this with local evidence from our research hub and partners.

Uncovering the harmful pollutants inside our buildings

When you think of air pollution, car exhaust pipes and factory smokestakes might come to mind. But there are certain pollutants that we are exposed to while indoors. Despite this, indoor air is essentially unregulated and unmonitored in Australia.

One group of pervasive indoor air pollutants is known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They are emitted by consumer products, such as air fresheners, cleaning supplies, and personal care products, and react with ozone to generate secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde. In industrialized cities, consumer products now constitute half of the VOC emissions from fossil fuel sources.

Fragranced consumer products like these can contribute negatively to indoor air quality. Credit: Your Best Digs via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The aim of our work was to better understand the concentration and prevalence of VOCs within indoor environments in Australia. And from this, future work can now examine the effectiveness of strategies to reduce pollutants, to achieve healthier indoor environments.

Our work involved systematically evaluating 25 years (1991–2016) of peer reviewed scientific investigations into indoor concentrations of VOCs. We found that new homes had the highest VOC levels among all studies of domestic housing, and for nearly all pollutants, indoor levels were several times higher than outdoor levels. Among the most prevalent compounds indoors were terpenes, such as d-limonene and a-pinene.

Next, motivated by one of the gaps in the literature, we conducted our own indoor air quality investigation, by evaluating the concentration and prevalence of VOCs at a large Australian university.

We analysed 41 VOCs across 20 locations and found that indoor concentrations were higher than outdoor concentrations for 97% of all VOC measurements. We also found that certain types of VOCs were concentrated in particular buildings eg. The highest indoor to outdoor concentration ratios of formaldehyde (27), toluene (9), p-xylene (12), and m-xylene (11) were in a green building; highest of benzene (6) in renovated offices; and highest of o-xylene (9) in meeting areas.

This highlights that building materials and fragranced consumer products continue to be important sources of indoor VOCs, even in buildings with green certifications. Overall we have found that university indoor environments may be important sources of pollutants. Our assessment of the literature revealed that to enable comparisons among studies and with exposure guidelines, a standard approach for sampling and reporting VOC data is needed. Greater attention should be focused on indoor environments that are underreported and with vulnerable populations. Finally, what is also needed, and what has not yet been conducted, is a nationally representative study of indoor VOCs in Australia.

Building on the results from our university VOC study, future work can examine the effectiveness of strategies to reduce pollutants, such as through fragrance-free policies, selection of low-emitting construction materials and furnishings, evaluation of the green building certification scheme, and ongoing monitoring and assessment of indoor environments.

Our research has been presented by Professor Peter Rayner, and Dr. Cathy Oke at the CAUL Roadshow events in Canberra, Melbourne, and Sydney. Professor Anne Steinemann presented our research at a University of Melbourne public lecture titled “Hidden Hazards: Common Consumer Products and Indoor Environments.” Our research has generated enthusiastic discussion and keen interest from attendees. Nigel Goodman presented our research at an international conference in Philadelphia PA, USA (Indoor Air, July 22-27, 2018).

Excerpt from the CAUL Hub 2018 Annual Progress Report. 

Creating The Living Pavilion soundscape

The Living Pavilion team were excited to facilitate sound recordings today with Mandy Nicholson and the Djirri Djirri Dancers – to be used as part of the soundscape for The Living Pavilion. Even more exciting, Lou Bennett (internationally acclaimed performer and songwriter) dropped in.

The Djirri Djirris sing of Country, Creation and culture and we are honoured to be given permission to use and share the recordings made in the studio with all those who visit The Living Pavilion later this year. Woi Wurrung language on Woi Wurrung Country.

Language is embedded in all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing, and language, especially language which is sung, has always been a fundamental part of knowledge transmission. This year is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Long may they be an umbilical cord between our past, present and future. Indigenous languages are at the forefront of First People’s ways of knowing and call out to be celebrated, re-awakened, reinvigorated and nurtured so that they may nurture us. 

Special thanks to the Djirri Djirri Dancers (especially Mandy Nicholson), Cathy Oke (CAUL Hub), Professor Mark Pollard (Melbourne Conservatorium of Music), Alex Beck and the Brian Brown Recording Studio for making this happen.

–  Zena Cumpston, CAUL Hub Research Fellow.

 Image: L-R, sound technician extraordinaire Alex Beck, Lou Bennett, Sally-Anne Hunter, Jedda and Mandy Nicholson. 

Turning down the heat

People living in urban locations are especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of increased temperatures, resulting from climate change and urban heat island effects. As urban areas grow and redevelop then, it is important for urban planners to implement policies that protect city dwellers from heat exposure.

In this article for Science of the Total Environment, CAUL Hub researchers analysed the relationship between urban vegetation and land surface temperatures. Using satellite data and high resolution aerial imagery, the researchers assessed how different urban vegetation configurations, such as trees, shrubs and grass, could reduce temperatures in cities. In their case study of Perth, the researchers found that an increase in urban vegetation reduced summer and winter land surface temperatures, and that this effect was larger in summer months. They also found that increased tree and shrub cover had a larger cooling effect than grass coverage.

These findings illustrate the exciting potential to develop locally-detailed and spatially explicit tools to guide planning of vegetation configuration to maximise cooling in urban areas.

Image credit: Cecily Maller