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The Magazine

Sustainable urban planning

Running the world’s most livable city

Thanks to visionary planning, Australia’s second-largest urban center has been ranked the world’s most livable city four times consecutively, despite rapid growth and the constant threat of bush fires. Lord Mayor Robert Doyle reveals the secret.

Melbourne, the second-largest city in Australia and the fastest-growing, has been judged, four times consecutively, as the most livable of 140 major cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). That enviable status has been achieved by visionary planning – looking 50 years ahead – to build a city that aims always to be one of the world’s best while it also preserves its unique culture.

The city council, led by Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, and its administration, headed by chief executive Kathy Alexander, began work four years ago. They were spurred by the disaster of the Black Saturday bushfires in the hills north and east of the city, when 173 people died and 1,800 houses were destroyed in Australia’s worst natural disaster.

That was 2009, Doyle’s first year as Lord Mayor. The tragedy shaped his view of how his city should develop: “What was not generally appreciated was leading up to Black Saturday, Melbourne had ten days of temperatures as high as 46°C. The city nearly came to a halt… and 375 people died of heat-related stress,” he notes.

Melbourne: a great city in which to live and do business

Natural heat protection

An increased tree canopy within Melbourne helps to lower summer temperatures in the city by around 4°C.

Doyle believes Melbourne summers will always be a threat, so he led a drive to develop defensive systems – storm water harvesting, renewable energy generation, and amelioration of inner city temperatures by planting an “urban forest” of 30,000 shady trees in the streets. “I think of where Melbourne needs to be in 50 years’ time, and then work back to where it should be in 30 years, 20 years, ten, five and two.”

International awards show how well the plan is working. “Two of the most recent awards are particularly important to me,” says Doyle. “The first was for our program to help owners retrofit up to 1,200 30- to 40-year-old buildings that don’t perform well in terms of sustainability.” So far, 560 buildings have been or are currently being renovated to 4.5-star National Australian Built Environment Rating.

Doyle believes Melbourne summers will become longer and hotter and that long periods of drought will recur. Thermal mapping has shown that on very hot days, the metropolis’s leafy outer suburbs are up to five degrees cooler than the CBD’s “heat island” of asphalt and big buildings. City arborists designed an urban forest strategy to double the inner city’s tree canopy and cool the streets. 

An increased tree canopy in Melbourne helps lower summer temperatures by around 4°C

Equipped to face hotter summers in the future

Large-scale storm water harvesting projects, including the world’s first in-road storm water harvesting system, water the trees, while lower temperatures save air-conditioning energy. That won Melbourne the second award, for resilient adaptation. “We can face hotter summers in the future,” Doyle says.

Federation Square, a 238,000-square-meter space beside the Yarra River, has highly innovative Siemens technology that lowers carbon emissions by 49 percent and decreases overall water use by 26 percent. Foot traffic over the pavement generates energy to add to output from a 25-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array. Storm water is harvested and filtered, evaporative misters cool the area, and a biogas plant generates heat energy from organic food waste. Overall, energy cost is down by more than 43 percent.

The real challenge, says Doyle, will be the next 15 to 20 years, when Greater Melbourne’s population could double to beyond seven million. The City, the autonomous original heart of the metropolis, currently has only 95,000 residents, but social changes now underway will bring severe pressures, Doyle believes. Where middle-class Melbournians once sought suburban homes, today’s well-educated young knowledge workers want inner-city living; they want to cycle or walk to work as well as ready access to the city’s vibrant café culture, theaters, and parks.

“We have brought people back into living in the city center by improving the public realm,” Doyle says. “We have seen a very carefully planned and designed reinvigoration of the center of the city, and it has worked remarkably well.” 

Federation Square: the center of a cultural precinct that features art galleries, a museum, exhibition spaces, and more – as well as cutting-edge technology for efficient energy use in buildings

We have brought people back into living in the city center by improving the public realm.
Robert Doyle, Lord Mayor of Melbourne

Melbourne’s smart grid

Siemens is also involved in Melbourne’s sustainable success story. The company’s smart-grid technology helps Citipower, Melbourne’s electricity distributor, to boost the reliability of the city’s power network and contributes to Melbourne’s aim of deriving 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2018. “The technical expertise that Siemens brings to this project is a critical element,” says Krista Milne, Sustainability Manager for the city. “On the one side, we have a very experienced grid operator, and on the other, we have the city with its bold policy ambitions. Siemens fits in the middle ground in terms of bringing technical knowledge and facilitating an outcome between those two ambitions. We need Siemens there to facilitate solutions that work for both parties.”

Garry Barker, journalist based in Melbourne
Picture credits: Sean Fennessy, Abigail Varney