Author Archives: Georgia Garrard

ICSRG at the Banksia Awards

Last week, I attended the Banksia Awards dinner in Sydney, hopeful of bringing home the Sustainable Cities Award for our entry Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design.

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ICSRG Researcher Georgia Garrard at the Banksia Awards

Unfortunately, we didn’t win – the gong was taken by 202020 Vision, who have been working towards a target of 20% more green space in Australian cities by 2020. But I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the benefits of the experience, which lies outside of the day-to-day experiences of most researchers.

First, it was fun! We got to dress up in cocktail/lounge wear, which is otherwise pretty much non-existent for conservation researchers.

But jokes aside, although Awards like this are not necessarily recognised by the reward structures we are used to, a number of potential benefits became pretty obvious very early on.  The Banksia Awards are held in very high regard by industry and local government.  Winning one (and perhaps even being a finalist, as we were) could be very helpful when trying to secure industry partners for research grants. In addition to (or perhaps BECAUSE of) this, recognition by the Banksia Foundation is an indication of the relevance of research beyond academia and therefore helpful in demonstrating research impact. And finally, the Awards attract a large number of applicants and I found it to be a great way of learning about what is going on in my own field OUTSIDE of academia. And there’s a LOT. The Awards dinner was a great opportunity to engage with a different group of people who are potential collaborators, stakeholders and end-users of our research.

Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design by ICSRG researchers Georgia Garrard and Sarah Bekessy was a Finalist in the Banksia Sustainable Cities Award.  We’d like to acknowledge the great work done by other finalists and winners, as highlighted here.  We’d also like to thank The Myer Foundation and RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research for supporting our research and application.

Beyond Advocacy – a new take on the advocacy debate

Georgia will be presenting this work at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology next week in Madison, Wisconsin (Tuesday, 19th July, 8AM, Hall of Ideas Room E), please come along if you’re going to the conference.

James Kenyon Cartoon_signedLate last year, we published (in collaboration with colleagues from The University of Melbourne) an article in Conservation Letters, which we hope will open up a little more space for conservation scientists and ecologists to engage in public debates without the fear of being labelled an advocate and, by association, having their scientific credibility questioned.

We were motivated to write the paper by what we considered to be a general reluctance by conservation scientists to join public debates about conservation issues and policy.  Without the voices of scientists, public conversations about conservation are dominated by vested interest groups – business and industry on the one hand, and NGOs and lobby groups on the other.  As a result, public debate about these important issues is impoverished.

However, we believe that the reasons conservation scientists choose not to engage are in large part based on misconceptions about the relationship between scientific integrity and objectivity.  In our paper, we set out to unpack this relationship a little bit.  Our key point is that values have a role and a place in science. It is not possible nor advisable for an individual scientist to be value-free.

But thankfully, objectivity isn’t maintained by individuals. It is an emergent property of a collective.  And greater diversity in the scientific community helps to ensure scrutiny and self-correction.  So, in other words, objectivity is maintained by the whole community of scientists, not individual scientists or established statistical thresholds.

Once you accept this, many of the common arguments against advocacy by scientists (ie. that advocacy will damage your credibility, or that advocacy is outside the scope of science) simply don’t make sense.

Of course, it is not the case that ‘anything goes’ when it comes to advocacy by scientists.  There are some value judgements (eg. what is a tolerable level of extinction risk?) that can and should be disentangled from judgements that are more factual in nature (eg. what is the probability of extinction?).  And scientists should aim to avoid inadvertent advocacy (which occurs when a scientist presents personal preference as a scientific judgement) or advocacy by stealth (in which values are deliberately dressed up as facts).

Drawing on precedents in medicine and the social sciences, we provide some guidance for scientists and science in general for responsible advocacy in order to reclaim some space for scientists to engage in informed public debate about conservation issues, in a way that does not deny their value-system.

What is the fate of Victoria’s flower-strewn plains?

ISCRG’s Georgia Garrard and Sarah Bekessy discuss the fate of Victoria’s native grasslands as part of The Conversation’s Ecocheck series.

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The native grasslands of the Victorian Volcanic Plain are one of Australia’s most endangered ecosystems. Productive and fertile, these grasslands were quickly converted to grazing pastures by early European settlers, and a notable degradation in their quality was documented by the beginning of the 20th century.  Since then, the addition of fertilisers, and clearing for cropping and development have led to further losses. Now, less than 1% of the original extent of these native grasslands remains.

Native grasslands are intriguing ecosystems. Historically, they provided habitat for a wide array of native animals, including rufous bettongs and eastern barred bandicoots, and were an important food source for Aboriginal people. Today, native grasslands are still home to fascinating native species, such as the grassland earless dragon and striped legless lizard, and native wildflowers continue produce a dazzling array of colour during spring (although you might have to get up close to see them!).

Conservation of these systems must occur alongside human-dominated landuses, such as urban development and agriculture. Community engagement is critical. Grasslands in other parts of the world, such as North America’s prairies or the African savannah, are viewed with romanticism and awe. In the Australian consciousness, grasslands take a back seat to the mythical outback. But the future of the grasslands of southeastern Victoria may well depend on our capacity to generate the same public profile for this truly remarkable but critically endangered ecosystem.

PhD Opportunity

The role of communication and messaging for community buy-in to threatened species conservation.

We have top-up funding for a PhD student to undertake research on the role of communication and messaging for enhancing community buy-in and support for threatened species conservation. Potential topics include Increasing support for non-charismatic species: How to get the unloved loved? and Understanding attitudes towards the role of fire and threatened species control in threatened species management, however we encourage students to propose other topics within the broader scope of the topic.

We are offering a top-up of $7,000 per year, to augment the PhD stipend. Students must have their own PhD stipend or scholarship. International applicants welcome.

Please contact Georgia Garrard: georgia.garrard@rmit.edu.au or +61 3 9925 9986.

Sustainable, biodiverse mid-rise development for Fishermans Bend

This post is about research recently featured in The Age that promotes an alternative approach to urban development in Melbourne.  This post also appears on Georgia Garrard’s research blog.

The case for an alternative

Current approaches to urban development in Melbourne focus on low-density urban sprawl and high-density high-rise. In middle-ring suburbs, opportunistic, ad hoc infill is occurring, often with marginal dwelling yields and high impact on amenity. The negative impacts of these types of development on communities are well established. Urban sprawl is associated with high transport and household energy costs, susceptibility to household financial stress, large infrastructure costs, high impact on the natural environment, low walkability, poor access to open space and conflicts with food production. High-density high-rise environments exacerbate the urban heat island effect and are typified by low walkability and inactive streetscapes, and residents experience social isolation and a disconnectedness from nature as a result of poor access to open space. Finally, ad hoc, low yield infill results in changes to neighbourhood character, and the loss of backyards, amenity and biodiversity recreational benefits associated with private open space.

What did we do?

We developed designs and visualisations of an alternative model of sustainable mid-rise development to create healthier, connected communities. We also aimed to create an environment that would re-enchant urban residents with nature and provide the multitude of co-benefits that come with experiences in nature. While the case study presented is Fishermans Bend, this model could potentially be applied to a range of infill sites identified in inner Melbourne and established middle-ring suburbs as well as priority greenfield areas. The design is based on two key principles:

Urban design and building types

Our building types are based on successfully implemented designs from Europe.  Urban design features include:

Building heights 4-7 storeys to improve accessibility and connectedness to nature and streets.

Active streetscapes to improve safety and strengthen community (Bain et al. 2012)

Diversity of building typologies to ensure dwellings for a range of urban residents.

Incorporating Melbournes unique city block and laneway features;

High quality living spaces, average apartment size 100 m2

Working with nature

Nature in cities has significant benefits to human residents, including improved human health and wellbeing, workplace productivity and childhood cognitive development. Nature also provides numerous co-benefits including cooling, flood mitigation, air and water purification and improved habitat for iconic and threatened species.

In working with nature, we employed a protocol for biodiversity sensitive urban design, which aims to create suburbs that are a net benefit to native species and ecosystems through the provision of essential habitat and food resources. We focused on five native species including birds (brolga & spotted pardalote), a butterfly (dainty swallowtail), a frog (growling grass frog) and a micro-bat (striped free-tailed bat). These species were chosen for their charismatic characteristics (eg. Brolgas are large, spectacular water birds), potential co-benefits (eg. Bats and frogs are insectivorous and therefore help control pests like mosquitos, and butterflies provide residents with restorative psychological benefits), and feasibility of their ecological requirements (eg. Spotted pardalote are already resident in nearby Westgate Park). In addition, the wetlands required by some species provide additional water purification and flood mitigation services in a flood-prone landscape like Fishermans Bend.

Fishermans Bend_WIDE1

Biodiversity sensitive urban design proceeds in 5 steps: 1 Identify and map ecological values (including ecosystems, species, landscape context, historical values); 2 Define ecological objectives (eg. maintain threatened species, restore ecosystem quality, opportunities for re-wilding); 3 Identify development objectives (population size, infrastructure requirements, etc.); 4 Identify actions and resources required to achieve ecological objectives (including habitat and food requirements for target species); 5 Identify urban design that accommodates ecological and development development objectives from steps 2 and 3.

Outcomes

The sustainable mid-rise model achieves housing densities that are comparable to those identified for brownfield development sites in Plan Melbourne.  However, when compared to the proposed high-rise development for Fishermans Bend, the sustainable mid-rise model will provide better urban design and human health and well-bieng outcomes, including better access to open space and improved streetscapes, a reduction in the urban heat island effect, a reduction in household energy use, and improved workplace productivity and childhood cognitive development.

FBend aerialDensity    We achieved net housing densities of between 200 and 310 dwellings per hectare, assuming average apartment size is 100m2. This is comparable to densities required for many brownfield development sites, as identified in Plan Melbourne.

Activated streetscapes    In contrast to the standard tower & podium model, building frontages are residential, mixed with office spaces and Fishermans Bend_WIDE3commercial use on the ground floor. High diversity of street types, including laneways and vegetated boulevards, provide improved connectivity.

Open space    100% dwellings are within 2 minutes walk of at least one green open space. Open space is a mix of large shared areas and smaller semi-private courtyards.

Access to open space

Fishermans Bend_WIDE2Cooling    Vegetated landscapes are up to 4 degrees cooler on the basis of City of Melbourne urban greening temperature modelling.

Household energy use   Operational energy use of midrise apartments is up to 45% lower per dwelling than that of high-rise apartments.

Childhood cognitive development   Numerous recent studies have connected the provision of biodiverse green open space to significant improvements in childhood cognitive development.

Workplace productivity   Evidence demonstrates that integrating nature with workplace design reduces stress and increases productivity. For example, a recent study showed 6% increase in productivity of employees who have a view of nature compared to those who have no view.

Policy implications

To move towards the sustainable mid-rise model presented here, we need:

  • better strategic identification of appropriate development sites;
  • a tweaked policy environment including some alterations to current zoning to allow residential and mix-use development in sites currently zoned commercial and industrial;
  • a shift in the built-form/design typology of current practice. This could be achieved through changes to precinct plans, planning schemes and design guidelines; and
  • Better integration of planning and biodiversity. Changes to the planning scheme that mandate urban greening are required, as are policies that explicitly link urban greening with biodiversity.

This blog presents initial findings of research funded by The Myer Foundation. Entitled ‘Reimaging the Suburb’, this work seeks to identify alternative urban forms for Melbourne that protect biodiversity, while creating liveable, healthy, connected communities. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with for further information.

Georgia Garrard georgia.garrard@rmit.edu.au  Sarah Bekessy sarah.bekessy@rmit.edu.au

Acknowledgements  This blog post represents the work of many individuals.  Simon van Wijnen did the urban design and video fly-through. Graphic representations fo individual scenes were produced in consultation with Mauro Baracco, Catherine Horwill, Jonathan Ware (RMIT School of Architecture and Design).

Detectability, threatened species and environmental impact assessments

Georgia Garrard

This blog post is about an upcoming paper in Conservation Biology.

It is now widely accepted that many species are not perfectly detectable during an ecological survey. This means that, sometimes, a species that is present at a site will not be detected by an observer (or observers) during a survey of that site.

The probability that the species will be detected if it is present (its ‘detectability’) is influenced by many factors. One of the most important factors is the level of effort put into the survey – in general, the more effort that is expended, the higher the chance of detecting the species.

Detectability curve showing how the probability of detecting a species when it is present increases with survey effort Detectability curve showing how the probability of detecting a species when it is present increases with survey effort

But why do we care? Well, there are many reasons. Imperfect detectability affects our ability to determine a range of important ecological metrics, such as the…

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Biodiversity offsets could be locking in species decline

Biodiversity offset policies are an increasingly common part of biodiversity conservation strategies in Australia and around the world.  But how well do they work?  Ascelin Gordon and Martine Maron explain how biodiversity offsets may – perversely – provide an incentive for the continuing decline of the species they are designed to protect.

Read about it here.