Water is an essential service – even more so at the moment as we all wash our hands regularly to prevent transmission of COVID-19. In these challenging times, the urban water industry continues to provide services that extend beyond traditional water and wastewater provision, creating healthy and resilient communities.
Accessing high quality greenspace (at a safe distance from others) for physical and mental health is more important than ever during this time of increased community stress – and it’s a sign of their critical importance to healthy communities that our water-enabled urban parks and gardens have remained open during the lockdown period.
Anyone who has walked through a park or along a waterway over the last few months will have noticed the huge increase in community use of these areas. It is clear that they have been rediscovered by communities in isolation seeking refuge, recreation and mental rejuvenation, as well as social connection (at a safe distance).
Greener Spaces, Better Places recently did a survey amongst urban local governments right across Australia, and found that this phenomenon has been seen almost everywhere. Importantly, over 60% of survey respondents said that urban greening was ‘essential’ for their council during COVID-19, and 40% were already receiving funding to deliver capital works.
The WSAA team getting out for a walk, run or bike ride and enjoying the physical and mental health benefits of blue and green spaces.
During the warmer and drier seasons, Australian and New Zealand water utilities continue to provide fit for purpose irrigation water to many parks and green spaces. This lowers urban temperatures and improves air quality, which both reduce human morbidity rates. Research from Monash University shows that irrigated urban green space can be 2-8 degrees cooler than surrounding pavement and buildings.
SA Water’s Smart Irrigation program with Greater Adelaide metro councils has deployed over 240 air temperature sensors in irrigated and non-irrigated open spaces to capture the temperature difference between the two, and to provide live data to the community to help inform choices about which park they visit on hot days. The data shows irrigated parks are 3-7 degrees cooler than non-irrigated. To help manage the increased water needed for open space irrigation, SA Water has a smart irrigation package at over 20 parks to help councils optimise their water use.
Having open space within walking and cycling distance to people’s homes has proven to be important during lockdown, and water utilities are actively collaborating with planning authorities and local governments to make sure new urban communities are well served with green space that is usable year-round.
This is being done through employing integrated and adaptive planning approaches to ensure efficient investment in fit for purpose water supplies that will stand up to droughts and pandemics alike. With hotter and drier temperatures predicted for most Australian and New Zealand cities due to climate change, irrigated green space is going to become even more important to healthy and resilient communities.
The benefits to healthy communities of high quality urban greenspace enabled by water are significant: a report prepared for WSAA by Frontier Economics, ‘Health Benefits from Water Centric Liveable Communities’ showed that these benefits accrue in terms of reduced healthcare costs and increased productivity, and can be up to $94/person/year in large greenfield developments. These stats are echoed by a report out of London from Vivid Economics that shows Londoners avoid £950 million per year in health costs (£580 million for better physical health and £370 million for better mental health) due to public green space.
Research from cities around the world including London, Milan, Melbourne, Delhi, Sao Paulo and Sydney, has noted a large decrease in car use and associated air pollution and carbon emissions during COVID-19. Global daily emissions are down 17%, and in Australia fell a whopping 28% during April, mostly from reduced road transport. In contrast, cycling popularity has exploded, with trails in Melbourne recording a 200-780% increase in riders.
Before the pandemic, programs and partnerships through the Greater Sydney Commission, Greener Spaces Better Places, ASBEC, CRC for Water Sensitive Cities and Greening the West in Melbourne were gaining momentum.
Now, many forward thinking urban planners are using the crisis to remake cities with greater access to walking, cycling and green space in a bid to maintain this healthier environment, while maintaining social distancing principles. Industry bodies and green space advocacy groups around the world are urging governments to prioritise a ‘green economic recovery’ to reinforce these new healthier and more environmentally sustainable habits.
With an eye watering $7 trillion and counting allocated as stimulus by governments worldwide, every sector (including WSAA on behalf of the urban water industry) is putting a case to government to access stimulus funds to kickstart the economic recovery. Maintaining the liveability of Australia’s cities and their resilience from the challenges of growth and climate change is critical to the nation’s competitive advantage, and will require significant and ongoing investment.
The recent Productivity Commission Paper on Integrated Water Cycle Management has again highlighted the importance of liveability and the impact the water industry can have in this space if properly supported by enabling policy, regulation, legislation and funding avenues, and this report along with WSAAs previous work forms the backbone of our advocacy with the Federal Government for a new National Water Initiative.
In times like these the full range of services provided by our industry are essential – not just because they enable hand washing – but because they give us blue and green spaces to support our physical and mental health.
For more information contact Elliot Stuart, WSAA's Liveable Communities Advisor.