Originally published on Sourceable by Jock Gammon, 6 March 2020

Whether you live in Australia or on the other side of the world, it is likely you have heard of the bushfires that have ravaged the country since October last year.

The scale of destruction and loss made global headlines and triggered an outpouring of shock, outrage, sadness and support from people around the world.

While most of the fires have now been put out, the damage to environment, wildlife and communities around Australia has been immense. It will take years to rebuild, and some of our native species may not recover the numbers lost. It is a tragedy.

Yet after drenching rains on the east coast, little green shoots are already starting to appear in blackened bushland. Nature is beginning to regenerate. While these little green shoots aren’t cause for all-out celebration, they are cause for hope.

The resilience of nature is incredible. It has long been a source of inspiration for me in life and business. Now I propose we use this fire season and green shoots as catalysts for change. The fires must mark the end of the era of inaction, and the green shoots the beginning of a new sustainable and resilient future.

The new normal

The climate is becoming more unpredictable and fierce with each passing year. Extreme weather and natural disasters like bushfires, storms, floods and cyclones can have a devastating impact on communities, businesses, homes, and public infrastructure.

‘Natural disasters pose significant threats to the physical, social, and economic wellbeing of communities on a national and international scale’[1].

With broader social and economic consequences including a weakened economy, financial losses, business interruptions, transport delays, stress and anxiety, the true cost of such hazards is substantially higher than direct repairs and replacement costs.[2]

If this is the new normal, we must change the way we plan, approve, build and rebuild our cities and towns. We must design our spaces with hazard mitigation and disaster resilience in mind and we must do it now.

What does resilience look like?

Researchers describe ecological resilience as the ‘the amount of disturbance an ecosystem can withstand without changing self-organised processes and structures.’[3] While the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities describes resilience as being ‘prepared but also dynamic, flexible and quick to respond.’[4]

So rather than manufacturing a ‘replacement method’ of resilience where damaged parts are substituted for new, wouldn’t it be better if critical infrastructure and buildings were designed to withstand more in the first place? What if this resilient design could absorb some of the impact of natural disasters and offset it – lessening the destruction caused and making ‘bouncing back’ easier to do?

It is time to review our mitigation strategies and build disaster resilience into business as usual. When it comes to storms, flood, fire and severe heat waves, living infrastructure  (like green roofs, green walls and facades, bioswales and rain gardens) is the sustainable way to build disaster resilience into business as usual. [10]

Here are a few examples of how living infrastructure can weave disaster resilience into our built environments.

Stormwater management and flood mitigation

Stormwater run-off occurs when rain (or snow) – unable to absorb into the earth where it falls – accumulates and flows over the ground and impervious (non-absorbent) surfaces and into drains, sewers, or waterways.

In urban areas where streams, floodplains and wetlands have been replaced by development, fill and impermeable surfaces, the strain on conventional stormwater management increases.

….

Yerrabingin Indigenous Rooftop Farm

A green roof can double the lifespan of a conventional roof (Yerrabingin Indigenous Rooftop Farm)

Natural permeable landscapes, like meadows and forests, can soak up as much as 90% of the rain they receive, whereas conventional streets, car parks, rooftops, and other hard impervious surfaces essentially repel stormwater and prevent it from soaking into the land.[13]

Living infrastructure slows and retains stormwater through infiltration (in green roofs, rain gardens, pervious surfaces etc.) and evapotranspiration from trees and other vegetation.[14]

In fact, vegetated roofs can control between ‘30-90% of the volume and rate of stormwater runoff, detaining 90% of volume for storms less than one inch and at least 30% for larger storms’.[15]

When we treat stormwater as a resource rather than a waste problem, we will have more water for plants (and a healthier ecosystem) to ward off the dry tinder-like conditions bushfires thrive on. It’s not the answer, but it’s a good place to st building resilience.

Reducing the severity of heat waves and fire weather

We know urbanisation has led to the urban heat island effect. While a few degrees more on a summer’s day might make you sweaty and uncomfortable, a heat wave in these urban hot spots means an increased risk of heat stroke and death in urban populations.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO report that Australia’s climate has already warmed just over 1°C since 1910, leading to an increase in the number of extreme heat events[21] and a long-term increase in extreme fire weather and the length of the fire season across large parts of Australia. [22]

Living infrastructure can reduce the thermal mass of buildings and cool the surrounding air temperature (Manly Vale car park).

Living infrastructure like green walls and facades, green roofs, trees and parks can offset this heat through evapotranspiration and shading. One study found that by adding 10% green cover in high-density residential areas in Manchester, United Kingdom, maximum surface temperatures could be kept at or below 1961–1990 baseline levels in the 2080s. That’s a big deal when the projected climate change increase is 1.7°C to 3.7°C with business as usual.[23]

Pairing green with grey

Living infrastructure can be successfully combined with grey infrastructure (pipes, drains, water treatment facilities, stormwater systems, buildings and roads) to extend the life and efficiency of these grey assets by acting as the ‘first-line of defence’ for various weather and climate events.

If not now, when?

This fire season should be treated as the end of an era – an era of complacency, inaction and indecision that cost lives, land and livelihoods. It will be a dark and damning chapter in Australian history, one future generations will lament and critique. It should be. We should have done better. We should have acted sooner. The science, the reports, data and projections have been kicking around for more than 20 years.

Enough is enough. We cannot continue as we have before. It is clear that we must change the way we do things in order to survive in the years to come.

I’m not going to pretend living infrastructure is the silver bullet for climate change and natural disasters, but it’s what I know, and I know it can be part of the solution.

Living infrastructure can strengthen against fire, flood and extreme heat. Green walls, facades and walls can protect our buildings as living shields. Bioswales and gardens can soak up and store excess rainfall. These are the green shoots we need to nurture for a brighter future.

Working resilience into business as usual and making it standard practice means we can focus our attention on innovation, process and efficiency – we can look to the future instead of being tied to (and cleaning up after) the past.

This excerpt can be read in full on Sourceable


Refererences

[1] Tyler, J. (2016.) ‘Sustainable Hazard Mitigation: Exploring the Importance of Green Infrastructure in Building Disaster Resilient Communities’, Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development, Vol. 15, Issue 1, p.135.

[2] Deloitte Access Economics. (2016.) Building resilient infrastructure. Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities, p.10.

[3] Haigh, R. & Amaratunga, D. (2010.) ‘An integrative review of the built environment discipline’s role in the development of society’s resilience to disasters’. International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, 1 (1), pp.11-24.

[4] Deloitte Access Economics. (2013.) Building our nation’s resilience to natural disasters. Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities, p.13.

[10] Benedict, M. A. & McMahon, E. T. (2002.) Green Infrastructure: Smart Conservation for the 21st Century. p.25. The Conservation Fund. Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse. Washington D.C.

[13] Denchak, M. (2019.) ‘Green Infrastructure: How to Manage Water in a Sustainable Way’, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). United States. Published 4 March 2019. Accessed 8 January 2020. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/green-infrastructure-how-manage-water-sustainable-way

[14] Rouse, D. (2014.) Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation Briefing Papers.  American Planning Association.

[15] Foster, J., Lowe, A., & Winkelman, S. (2011). The value of green infrastructure for urban climate adaptation, Center for Clean Air Policy, p.6

[21] Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO. (2018.) ‘Report at a glance’, State of the Climate 2018. http://www.bom.gov.au/state-of-the-climate/index.shtml ISBN: 978-1-925315-97-4. Commonwealth of Australia. Accessed 13 January 2020.

[22] Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO. (2018.) ‘Report at a glance’, State of the Climate 2018. http://www.bom.gov.au/state-of-the-climate/index.shtml ISBN: 978-1-925315-97-4. Commonwealth of Australia. Accessed 13 January 2020.

[23] Rouse, D. (2014.) Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation Briefing Papers.  American Planning Association.