Sunday, May 21, 2006

Conserving biodiversity in suburbia: Waterways Estate

I support maintaining biodiversity conservation zones close to the centers of large cities despite the fact that such land has a high opportunity value in urban or industrial uses.

There are two reasons for my preference:

(i) Costs of accessing such resources are low for city-dwellers so that, in simple terms, their existence yields lots of consumer benefits – they have very high amenity values due to the low costs of accessing them.

(ii) Such resources can have genuine conservation effectiveness – as an example take the Melbourne Wildlife Sanctuary at my own workplace, La Trobe University, which has recorded over 300 species of native wildlife including, in recent years, comparatively rare species such as the little bittern - I have seen this rare bird species there myself twice.

Such conservation reserves do not preclude the coexistence of nearby urban and even industrial settlements. In the La Trobe University case the little bittern has been seen in a wetland immediately adjacent to a newly-established housing estate.

The Waterways Estate in Melbourne’s south-east is a large-scale attempt to integrate urban development with biodiversity conservation. It comprises a 700-home housing development project with housing covering 40% of the area but including a constructed parkland and wetland covering 60% of the area. It is indeed the largest constructed wetland in Victoria. The land was originally the Carrum Carrum Swamp but this was drained in 1870 and the area subsequently used rather ineffectively for farming.

A 1992 Dandenong Valley Report sought to rehabilitate the wetlands and the new landowner, the Portland House Group, sought to rezone the land. It employed Australian Ecosystems to restore the wetlands. The objective was to provide a commercially-viable housing project that would also provide aesthetic and recreational benefits to residents and the local community and, additionally, provides more general ecological services such as water treatment and habitat for native flora and fauna.

Housing on the estate must achieve a 5-star Sustainable Energy Authority energy ranking and include a 4,500 litre rainwater tank. A ban on cat ownership is enforced as it should be.

This has been a successful project. The project has won various environmental awards – the UDIA Environmental Excellence 2001, Water Sensitive Urban Design Award 2002, National Environmental Award 2002 and many others more recently.

Habitats for native flora and fauna have been created. Monitoring results from 2003 listed over 100 species of birds, 6 species of frogs and 184 species of indigenous plants including 9 species of rare or threatened plants. The wetlands also treat water diverted from the Mordialloc Creek naturally before it enters Port Phillip Bay.

It has also been commercially successful in the sense that properties on the various subdivisions are selling well at prices from $350,000-$950,000. High income house-buyers are prepared to pay well for living in a quality natural environment and, in addition, a sound community environmental outcome has resulted. Aesthetic values and enhanced property values accrue as external benefits in the local region.

In one sense the success of the project is a surprise since many of the public good and environmental values are not marketed. That it has been a success provides a positive case for attempting to encourage such projects in the future. Indeed this is becoming an important form of development around the Melbourne area. For example, in August 2005 an environmentally-friendly housing estate Koolamara Waters was built at Ferntree Gully, Melbourne with wetlands designed to accommodate platypus.

By the way, the Wikipedia has only a stub for an entry on Waterways – someone more knowledgeable than me should think about writing one. If no-one does I will need to have a go myself. This project is an important example of how biodiversity-friendly urban development can proceed.


conrad said...

I didn't think Latrobe was close to the city ;)

Actually, really good examples come from the mega-cities of Asia. If you compare, say, Hong Kong to Beijing, then there is a huge difference. The parkland makes HK far more liveable than the concrete of Beijing, despite the even higher density of housing that it presumably must cause.

hc said...

Conrad, Depends how you define close. Its surrounded on all sides by urban settlement or industry. It is not exurbia.

I agree with your remarks re Asian cities. I lived in Bangkok for years and the central part of the city had a single park - Lumpini. Its enormous amenity value was obvious - and in a limited way it did proovide some conservation value.

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