Australia’s New South Wales state has been hit by its worst drought in a century. Its farms have dried up, and farmers are struggling to make ends meet, with many having developed mental health issues from stress.
The state’s capital city Sydney is running out of water due to the lack of rain. “We’re experiencing increasingly extreme weather events with every year classed as another record breaking year. the hottest year on records,” says Lord Mayor Clover Moore. But the drought is only one of the city’s many problems. “We’re seeing rising inequality, homelessness, mental illness and obesity.”
As Sydney’s challenges continue to pile up, its city council is taking steps to prepare the city for the decades ahead. “We need to consider the kind of city people will inherit in 10, 20 and even 30 years’ time,” declares Moore. GovInsider caught up with the Mayor to find out how Sydney is fighting the heat and engaging its citizens.
Fighting the heat
Heatwaves are a major strain on Sydney’s residents and public amenities. In 2013, an extreme heatwave of 46 degree celsius caused 133 residents to faint, and local railway lines suffered from power outages. Meanwhile, a single heatwave in 2017 caused 1,100 residents to be hospitalised, according to the 2018 Resilient Sydney report.
To mitigate future incidents, the city council’s has launched a “Cool Suburbs” strategy that aims to reduce urban temperatures by two-degrees Celsius. First, the city is trialling the use of cooling infrastructure like water fountains and “cool roofs”.
Cool roofs are coated in white reflective coating to reflect sunlight away from buildings. This means that building interiors do not collect as much heat, lowering ground temperatures by up to 1.5-degree Celsius.
Next, local districts are collecting environmental data so officials can identify places that are lower in temperature and safer for residents during a heatwave. Officials have begun embedding sensors in trees to collect and monitor temperatures across the city.
Another initiative looks to plant an extra five million trees by 2030 to increase canopy cover for residents and thus lower ground temperatures. The local government will plant 400,000 native trees annually till 2030, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told Australian media.
Working with others
The city council is working with nonprofits to prepare citizens better for natural disasters. “No single organisation can solve our problems”, says Moore. But “we can work together, across boundaries to protect and champion the needs and interests of our communities”.
For instance, Red Cross Australia has launched a mobile app that educates and prepares local residents for natural disasters. The one-stop app – called Get Prepared – connects citizens to local emergency responders, allows them to build their own survival checklist, and create personalised emergency plans. The council aims to connect 100,000 Sydney residents on the app by 2020.
At the local council level, the New South Wales Office of Emergency Management is initiating a pilot disaster preparedness programme to educate local councils on disaster risk management. The programme, which runs from July 2018 to October 2020, will help local officials understand disaster risks in their regions and learn to coordinate disaster management efforts in case of future disasters.
The city is using digital platforms to engage with local communities beyond traditional platforms like town hall meetings. “The city sees digital technology as an enabler, rather than driving how we do things,” Moore says.
Upcoming projects are shared on the ‘Sydney Your Say’ website, where citizens can get in touch with project officers to share their views. The city council also hosts live polling sessions, workshops and community meetings, stakeholder meetings and roundtables, and school workshops.
The council considers these opinions as a “key part” of its decision-making process, according to the 2018 United Nations e-government survey. In the UN survey, Sydney has ranked sixth place for local e-government services.
But unlike other Australian local governments, Sydney has not allocated funding to implement citizens’ ideas. South Australia’s pioneering participatory budgeting programme allocated AUD$40 million for citizens to spend on neighbourhood improvement projects. Meanwhile, Melbourne conducts Open Innovation Challenges to crowdsource solutions to urban problems, such as accessibility. The city then funds winning ideas to scale them for wider use.
Improving digital access
With more public services going digital, the city council must help people use these tools. “As the City makes the changes necessary to keep pace with a digitally transforming world, it’s important we bring all our communities along with us,” she shares.
The city’s libraries offer personalised courses to children, adults and the elderly, so residents from different age groups can learn the skills relevant to them. These training programmes teach citizens how to use digital tools such as apps, and other digital skills like coding and 3D-printing.
But reliable internet connections remain a national problem for Australia. In Sydney, internet access still comes from decades-old copper phone lines in “cabinets” located on every street, while other global cities have long since turned to high-speed fibre. Australia ranks 50th in the world for internet connection – a full 40 places behind the United States of America, according to a 2017 State of the Internet global report.
Sydney is trying to make ends meet by providing free internet access at public libraries. Whereas in Adelaide, it is building a ten gigabit fibre optic network to ensure dedicated and reliable internet connections, Peter Auhl, Chief Information Officer of Adelaide, told GovInsider.
In its efforts to power its future, Sydney needs to make sure that it is bringing its citizens along, while ensuring that its internet can keep up.