Towards water sensitive cities

Towards water sensitive cities

In the early 2000s, Australia experienced a crippling drought known as the ‘Millennium Drought', considered by some to be the worst since European arrival. Monash University's Dr Briony Rogers, a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, says across Australia this drought was a real wake-up call for the need to rethink how we manage water.

“We know that climate change is going to mean more frequent and longer periods of drought but when it does rain it’s going to rain more heavily, more intensely, meaning flooding is going to become a bigger and bigger issue,” she said.  

In 2015, Dr Rogers and fellow researcher in the School of Social Sciences, Mr Alex Gunn led the project ‘Towards a Water Sensitive Elwood: a community vision and transition pathways’, funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities. The project saw community members and local government participate in an engagement process to explore what a sustainable and water sensitive future could look like in Elwood.  

The suburb of Elwood was built over an old swampland that was drained to make way for urban development. But whenever it does rain, the swamp reappears and creates flooding problems. Flooding is therefore one of the major issues in the area, which will be further exacerbated by climate change impacts such as sea-level rise in the future.

As the arts researchers working in a multidisciplinary team, Dr Rogers and Mr Gunn were largely involved in working with the community to explore the range of strategies and actions that could be pursued to help create a resilient and thriving Elwood.

“We led the community engagement side of things, bringing an understanding of social processes to help people come together and have different types of conversations,” Dr Rogers said.

“[We translated] the community insights into a form that the government agencies could then engage with and connect with in a more formal governance sense and had a lead role in bringing together these [engineering modelling and urban design] disciplines and providing the overall framework for thinking about social flood resilience for the suburb of Elwood.” 

Looking beyond the commitments to their funding partners, Dr Rogers and Mr Gunn wanted to ensure their research outputs were disseminated to the community and government agencies to support achieve real-world impact.

To do this, they collaborated with Monash Art Design and Architecture (MADA), Engineering and Information Technology to prepare a public exhibition that showcased the community’s future water vision. The exhibited work included pieces by MADA students based on the community’s ideas, expressing how their suburbs and neighbourhood would respond to future environmental problems and sustainability drivers.

Their ideas were adapted by the MADA students and produced into a range of different things like 3D models, 2D designs and a 3D digital visualisation that were shown for one month in the St Kilda Town Hall as well as through Monash’s exhibition space.

“[The exhibition] was designed as a thought provocation piece, so it was not claiming that these are the solutions that need to be implemented but it was recognising that the community had a whole lot of great ideas that could be influencing and informing the decisions that the key agencies need to think about in terms of developing a flood management strategy,” Dr Rogers said.

Agencies are now working out how they can work together to take a more integrated approach to managing floods and Mr Gunn says the research he and Dr Rogers started has made a difference to the way the communities see their problems in water management.

Mr Gunn says that the community will continue to work with their agencies and councils to see a more sustainable water management outcome for Elwood, and that they will probably make use of the ideas that were talked about in the research.

“The community has benefited from the project through shining a light on Elwood’s water management issues,” Dr Gunn said.

“We’ve been able to talk about sustainability in a broader governance and structural way, as opposed to just the specific physical problems that might happen through flooding. They look like they will see actual design changes in their neighbourhoods as a result of this kind of work.”

A subsequent project in Bendigo, as part of a much larger CRC for Water Sensitive Cities project, continues to explore the idea of engaging with different stakeholders including community in new ways. The techniques developed in Elwood are being applied to the Bendigo community, also in parallel with industry perspectives, to be able to bring those different perspectives to explore the future water management challenges for Bendigo and, once again, it’s been very promising.

The team is now in the process of launching the project outputs where community and industry participants and their broader networks will be invited to showcase what came out of the project.

Agencies in Bendigo are now considering what governance arrangements they can establish so that they can start taking a lead in advancing this water sensitive cities transition agenda.   

Study at Monash