Liveable Cities Series: Pushing Sydney’s sustainability agenda

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Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore (centre-left) transformed Sussex Lane into 'Pop Sydney' in March 2012 for a two-day public consultation on the City's sustainability plans. Image: City of Sydney

Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore has been in the news often in recent months - a new law is forcing her to choose between her job as Lord Mayor and her long-time position as a member of parliament for the Australian state of New South Wales. Then there’s the controversial bicycle lane project she has proposed which has sharply divided opinion.

Australia’s Press Council earlier this month upheld a complaint that a local newspaper had failed to separate opinion from news reporting in a hotly contested debate over the new law, as well as over Sydney’s plan to build a 200 kilometre (km) network that includes 10 km of designated bike paths within the central business district.

The Press Council stopped short of ruling that the newspaper’s campaign against Ms Moore’s policies was unbalanced, saying that it had considered two opinion pieces from Ms Moore published after the complaint had been filed.

The outspoken leader and Independent Party MP has garnered both passionate support and criticism in her eight year stint as head of one of the region’s most notable liveable cities. She continues to push her sustainability agenda for Sydney, which despite containing fewer than 200,000 residents within a 25 square kilometre area, accounts for eight per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Ms Moore has driven small, local planning initiatives - such as new neighbourhood parks - that originally drew her from her teaching career into politics. Yet, she has also tackled large infrastructure projects and environmental issues that make hers a prominent voice in the global sustainability discussion. For example, she is a member of the Clinton Foundation’s C40 initiative, which is proving that the world’s mayors – unhampered by cumbersome national and international level negotiations – can make substantial inroads on carbon emission reductions.

Ms Moore speaks to Eco-Business about how she builds close community ties and uses ambitious long-term goals to keep the Sydney sustainability momentum going.

Eco-Business: As a city mayor who has made sustainability a hallmark of your tenure, what are your top priorities for creating a liveable city?

CM: After thorough consultation with the community, we created Sustainable Sydney 2030 – a plan to make our city ‘green, global and connected’. The plan includes reducing our carbon pollution by 70 per cent by the year 2030. The only way to achieve such a big target is to take many steps, both big and small. City of Sydney is building low-carbon precincts which will use trigeneration for energy, heating and cooling. We are switching our streetlights to state of the art LED technology and we are installing solar panels on our properties.

We are also improving transport options so that people have access to high quality options for walking and riding bikes instead of using cars. The City is investing $180 million to transform George Street, the spine of our central business district, by replacing the current congestion of hundreds of buses, taxis and private cars with fast, efficient light rail. George Street will be a destination for shopping, eating and entertainment, rather than just a funnel for traffic.

EB: Part of your sustainability strategy has been to foster a “Green Village” concept. What would you say is the relationship between community-building and creating a greener, more liveable city?

CM: The villages which make up the City of Sydney are the heart of our community – they strengthen communities, help define the character of local areas, and act as centres for education, business and recreation. Our residents have told us they want our villages to be as sustainable as possible, which is why we’ve been working with local communities to improve parks and open spaces.

We’ve awarded hundreds of grants to make local projects and ideas come to life, and we’ve supported the huge demand for community gardens. These ideas to green our villages have been driven by the local community.

EB: What are some of the best ways you have found for getting the community involved in sustainability initiatives?

CM: People are hungry for information about sustainability and for connections to their community. By helping create projects which satisfy both, we are able to satisfy the aspirations of our residents. We host regular seminars, talks and practical workshops on subjects like worm farming, reducing energy use, urban gardening and the design of parks and open spaces. These are always well attended and are an important way for residents to connect to one another.

EB: How do you get the business community on board with environmental initiatives such as energy efficiency and water and waste management?

CM: We’ve found that businesses are eager to improve their environmental performance. We have seen rapid growth in the number of new developments with the 5 or 6 Green Star rating for green buildings.

We’ve established the Better Building’s Partnership with the City’s major landowners, accounting for 60 per cent of the office floor space across the CBD. The Partnership is achieving substantial improvements in the environmental performance of participants’ buildings. We are also developing plans for decentralised low-carbon heating, cooling and energy, as well as decentralised water. Our plans for better transport have the backing of some of Sydney’s biggest business groups.

These initiatives have the strong support of business.

EB: What lessons have you learnt about helping businesses, particularly small ones, balance environmental responsibility and the need for healthy balance sheets?

CM: At the micro level, we know that small businesses can actually achieve big savings through improving their efficiency and environmental sustainability. Whether it’s through reducing energy and water use, or by creating less waste, there is an economic and environmental win-win.

At a macro level, the City is providing the infrastructure and leadership to make Sydney a greener city. This has knock-on benefits for businesses, both big and small, and our aim is to make Sydney both economically successful and environmentally sustainable.

EB: What advantages do mayors and other local leaders have over national-level politicians when it comes to creating and implementing positive change in terms of sustainable development?

CM: Local Government is closer to the community than any other tier of government. As Mayor, I am constantly meeting with residents and business owners to discuss the state of our city. I am proud that our initiatives, including Sustainable Sydney 2030, are driven by the community.

As Mayor of a major global city, I am also proud to work on both large scale projects, which have the capability to transform the way our city works, and smaller scale projects which may improve one street, one park or one neighbourhood.

EB: What can national or state governments do to improve the ability of urban leaders to follow the adage ‘think globally and act locally’?

CM: We need political leadership, courageous thinking and strong investment to tackle the environmental challenges we face. This means national and state governments must be willing to look beyond partisanship and the next election, and take actions which improve our community for decades to come.

EB: Large environmental projects inevitably face opposition from various groups. What advice would you give to local leaders who are trying to implement large, environmental initiatives such as Sydney’s trigeneration project (described below)?

CM: Leaders need to be focused on what is good for their constituency in the long term, rather than just what will make them popular in the short term. Many environmental projects have overwhelming community support; but because of their scale, it may take years to deliver them. Leaders need to have the perseverance to see these initiatives through to completion.

EB: Sydney already has the claim as the first Australian city to go carbon neutral, and now it’s trying to meet ambitious goals for renewable energy. Is Sydney on track to meet its energy targets, and what do you foresee as the biggest challenges to meeting those?

CM: Careful planning and research means City of Sydney is on track to meet our goals for reducing pollution. A draft of our renewable energy master plan, a big part of achieving our overall goal, will be made public shortly.

Some elements of our plans need to be done in collaboration with other levels of government, so we need to make sure that they share our passion and commitment to delivering on our residents’ wishes.

EB: Other than Sydney, which cities in Asia Pacific would you say are making remarkable progress as Liveable Cities, and what can other city leaders learn from them?

CM: I think Singapore has had great success in improving their urban canopy. Trees are important in our cities: They help cool our streets, reduce air pollution and provide habitat for animals. Sydney has a plan to increase our own canopy cover by 50 per cent by 2030.

I’m also encouraged by the massive investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy across China. While the country still faces extreme challenges to improve its overall environmental sustainability, the volume of investment shows that China is serious in its intentions. Hopefully, cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou can benefit from this investment.

  • Sustainable Sydney 2030: A plan to make Sydney ‘green, global and connected’ that includes reducing carbon emissions by 70 per cent by the year 2030;
  • Bicycle networks: 10 kilometres of separated bike paths installed within the city and regional routes planned for 160 suburbs. Sydney has seen an 82 per cent increase in ridership over the past two years;
  • Light rail: Sydney has committed $180 million to revamp George Street for light rail, including closing off some blocks to vehicle traffic. The project is dependent on negotiations with the state government;
  • Trigeneration: By 2030, Sydney will have an AUS$440 million district-level energy network that provides 70 per cent of the city’s electricity, cooling and heating needs in a single efficient, low-carbon system;
  • Liveable, pedestrian-friendly spaces: The city is planting extra trees and creating new pedestrian zones, community parks and gardens to attract residents and visitors;
  • Community consultation: Interactive events and ongoing dialogue with residents  informed the Sustainable Sydney plan and continue into implementation;
  • Green Renter’s Challenge: Addresses the need to involve non-owner residents in energy efficiency and other sustainability initiatives;
  • Better Buildings Partnership: Agreements with major developers such as AMP, Dexus, Lend Lease, and Mirvac to green 60 per cent of the office buildings in the CDB.

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