United Nations Environment Programme

Going green on a dry continent

How the world's most liveable city has won that status by embracing sustainability.
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Melbourne is expected to be Australia's largest city by 2051, with a population of 7.7 million. By 2070, it is expected to experience more than twice as many heatwaves as at present, and an 11 per cent decline in rainfall.
Melbourne is a smart city as well as an eco-city, and we rely on partnerships here and around the world to ensure we have access to the brightest minds and latest technologies to protect and enhance sustainability.

Melbourne has just been named the World’s Most Liveable City for the sixth consecutive year. Naturally I am tremendously proud of that, but such an accolade cannot be achieved without a strong focus on sustainability. For liveability and sustainability are intrinsically linked.In particular, we do much to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Take our international award-winning Urban Landscapes Adaptation Program, concentrating on trees, water and green open space.

Australia is the driest continent in the world and Melbourne is known for its extreme weather. Heat now causes more deaths in the city each year than road accidents. Over ten days in 2009, the temperature exceeded 104°F (40°C), culminating in a 116°F (46.7°C) day which became known as ‘Black Saturday’. One hundred and seventy three lives and 2,029 homes were lost in the worst bushfire in our state’s history. It also caused irreparable damage to our trees: afterwards, 40 per cent of them were dying or in decline.

With the program, we acted to protect and renew our urban forest, our green infrastructure. Tasked with doubling our tree canopy cover, cooling our city by four degrees, and retaining our precious water resources through stormwater harvesting, it is still in operation and has been an unprecedented success in helping to improve liveability.

We have spent 60 million Australian dollars (AUD) over the last six years to plant 18,000 new trees and bring the value of our urban forest to AUD1 billion, converted 16,200m2 of asphalt into parkland -– with a further 63,000m2 now undergoing conversion – and captured 25 per cent of the water we need for our parks, gardens and trees.

Every time we undertake a major urban design project, we think about how we can make that space more environmentally sustainable. For example, while redeveloping Lincoln Square in Carlton, one of the city’s many open public spaces, we have incorporated Australia’s first combined stormwater harvesting and flood mitigation tank.

The AUD3 million underground tank, which can hold 2 million litres of water, sits at the top of a catchment and relies on new technology which allows water to either be released or retained depending on the weather. This prevents stormwater collecting around Flinders Street Station, a flood-prone area which was once a creek. And it harvests water for use, including on the World Heritage-listed Carlton Gardens. We have undertaken similar projects at Fitzroy Gardens, Birrarung Marr park, Queen Victoria Gardens, Darling Street and the Royal Park Wetlands. Indeed, the city aims to source half of its water requirements from rainwater tanks.

The City of Melbourne became a certified carbon-neutral organisation in 2011/12 and has since maintained that status. There is a major focus on moving the city to a renewable energy supply, sourcing 25 per cent of the municipality's electricity from renewables by 2018. The city is encouraging the retrofit of 1,200 commercial buildings – two-thirds of the building stock that contains office space – while a new metro rail project will alleviate pressure on the existing public transport network by allowing an additional 20,000 people to access inner Melbourne at peak times.Other measures designed to meet our strategic goal of being an eco-city include the Zero Net Emissions Strategy, Total Watermark Strategy, Open Space Strategy, Urban Forest Strategy and Climate Change Adaptation Strategy.

Melbourne is a smart city as well as an eco-city, and we rely on partnerships here and around the world to ensure we have access to the brightest minds and latest technologies to protect and enhance sustainability. We take great pride in our membership of the C40 network of cities committed to addressing climate change, and find it a useful way for cities to share their experiences, projects and views. Cities are the closest level of government to their people and I love the way the C40 encourages us to share, not hoard, the secrets of sustainability and liveability. Smaller scale projects which are measureable, scalable and transferable are always the best.

In 2013, Melbourne was selected as one of the first 33 cities to participate in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge. Its Chief Resilience Officer, funded through this initiative, started work in December 2014 and has completed the Resilient Melbourne Plan. Developed in collaboration with municipalities in the Greater Melbourne area and our State Government; the plan outlines practical measures to strengthen our ability to identify and manage shocks and social and economic stresses. It represents the first time metropolitan Melbourne's 31 local authorities have united on a project to ensure sustainability, liveability and future prosperity.

The City and the University of Melbourne recently appointed the internationally recognised scholar, Prof. Lars Coenen, as our inaugural Chair in Resilient Cities, and will jointly fund the position over five years to help combine expertise on improving resilience, and in order to enhance Melbourne's role as a leader in knowledge-based urban resilience, leverage opportunities to attract research funding and provide a new model for collaborative research.

We support local and international universities to expand knowledge of the adaptive capacity of green infrastructure. We are, for example, supporting PhD research at the University of Illinois to understand how our integrated water management approach can be applied by other cities. Our urban forest work has been referenced in several academic peer-reviewed publications in Australia and overseas.

Looking forward, we have commissioned the University of Melbourne to collaborate with us in developing the Integrated Climate Adaptation Model, which will provide a visual decision-making platform for adaptation action. It aims to understand the best approach to minimising flood impacts, drought and extreme heat vulnerability simultaneously through multi-purpose interventions.

We are also collaborating with IPCC AR5 lead author Prof. Roger Jones to develop a Green Infrastructure Economic Framework to assess the economic benefits of green infrastructure and so advance the business case for early adaptive interventions in the city. We are also seeking to understand how the urban landscapes approach can be extended to the private realm and working with the city’s development community to create a new program.

Melbourne is expected to be Australia's largest city by 2051, with a population of 7.7 million people. By 2070 it is expected to experience more than twice as many heatwaves as at present, and an 11 per cent decline in rainfall. If we are to maintain our status as the world's most liveable city, we must be smart about how we prepare for our future growth as well as for major shocks and stresses and climate change.