Andrew Wisdom, Catalyst, Keynote, Project, Team, Individual

INDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY
AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT

What would urban development that built on the idea of industrial ecology look like? Might this be an alternative to conventional residential development?

As part of my work with EAgri we spent quite some time working with Victoria University to explore the idea of industrial ecology as the starting point for urban development. Rather than simply sticking with the idea of giving people somewhere to live, we asked ‘what would urban development look like?’ This blog post explores the project and what came out of it for the client and the community.

So much of what passes for urban development around the world is in fact simply residential development. The financial interests of those who develop and build our cities tends to go no further than selling accommodation. This isn’t the fault of the developers, but an outcome of our urban development regime. This feels completely inadequate to me; we should create cities that flourish, not simply create accommodation for people so they can ‘experience’ the benefits.

The problems of our current approach are seen at the geographic extremes of development in Melbourne, and in cities around the world.

Melbourne continues to expand at an alarming rate. The problems of (almost exclusively) residential development on the edge of cities, remote from services and jobs, is well documented and something that governments tussle with all the time. At the other extreme, our inner city is being flooded with attempts to cash in on Melbourne’s well-documented liveability advantages; but by simply stuffing more and more people into our liveable core we risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg, as Rob Adams has warned.

So, rather than taking value, I am interested in making value. An interesting way to think about how to do this comes from the idea of Industrial Ecology. Industrial ecology encapsulates the idea of a mix of uses in which the output of one use – whether what is created or what is thrown away – becomes the input for one or more other uses. It may even be possible to be really tricky and create a closed loop system, so that nothing (or very little) gets thrown away, but instead gets used by complementary activities. Importantly, by making productive use of something that would otherwise not be valued, it is possible to create value.

If we took the industrial ecology idea as the starting point, rather than simply sticking with the idea of giving people somewhere to live, then what would urban development look like?

EAgri has spent quite some time working with Victoria University to explore this idea. We focussed on the University’s Werribee campus. The impetus for the development stems from thinking of the area’s characteristics as assets rather than impediments. The western trunk sewer can be thought of as a source of nutrient-rich water. A freeway running through the area provides excellent accessibility to Melbourne’s port and airports and beyond. A commuter railway line offers excellent connectivity to both Melbourne and Geelong. Victoria University’s challenging tertiary education position creates aspiration and openness to innovation. Even the rising salinity that threatens the productivity of market gardens in the area offers an incentive to innovate in land management and food production. Finally, the site sits in an area with some of Australia’s fastest growing population.

But the area’s assets extend further. The university has strong teaching and research credentials in a number of areas, including food, packaging, water treatment, and energy. It has strong aspirations in building its engagement with countries to our north. It also has an aspiration to make better and more productive use of its physical assets. These soft characteristics can be woven into the industrial ecology story as well.

Out of this came the idea of creating a research, training, innovation and commercialisation hub with a focus on urban food, water, and energy. This would be built adjacent to Victoria University at Werribee. We see Sydney’s Australian Technology Park as a model. We would build the research and innovation facilities first and then progressively create premises and associated infrastructure for the spun off businesses. This precinct would create a pathway to food security for Australia, generate ground-breaking applied research and commercialisation outcomes, attract Australian and international investment into Victoria, and, in the process, create high-value employment opportunities in Melbourne’s west.

The precinct would be developed along industrial ecology lines, whereby the both the output and the waste of one process is treated as valuable raw material for another. Practical achievement of this objective would depend on careful planning of uses and adjacencies. Our objective is that the precinct be an exemplar of low energy/low water urban development. Our aspiration is for it to be at least a zero nett energy consumer and water user. We want it to generate more food than it consumes, and consume more waste than it generates. We want it to become the focus of a community and to generate a range of employment and enjoyment opportunities for people in the area. Finally, we want to make the precinct a living lab, a physical and operational expression of the research outcomes emerging from the hub.

The idea of industrial ecology is both to create adjacencies to maximise efficiencies and to make use of things that would otherwise be regarded as waste. This is about creating value; it is about creating something that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Whether it is making productive use of waste material (generating energy from waste is an obvious example) or capturing the agglomeration benefits of people working together (this is why an appropriately configured hub is worthwhile), this is all grist to the industrial ecology mill.

So why would Victoria University want to participate in this? It would benefit from being deeply embedded in a research, innovation and commercialisation node whose focus matched its strengths. It would be able to build an excellent and unique teaching and research partnership offer with universities around Australia and in countries to our north. Development of the site would give the University access to new facilities and would allow it to make more intense use of its existing facilities. It would also enhance its reputation and offer and so make it easier to attract both funding and students. These are all benefits that are created, not simply enhanced through this approach. The University has no particular commercialisation programme at present. Right now, there are only limited reasons for students to come to this campus from around Australia and from countries to our north. And it has land and facilities that are under-utilised.

We retain high hopes that this idea will move forward. Members of the University see its benefits and are keen to participate; the University simply needs to resolve the role of this site in its longer term plans and whether this idea is the one they want to run with. We hope so!