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Students look to the future for water-sensitive urban design

Students from across the world came together to participate in the 2020 Our Future Cities (OFC) competition, focusing on sustainability, water sensitivity and the future of urban design and liveability in our cities.

The competition was a "transformative challenge" in which 170 contestants competed in more than 30 interdisciplinary teams to explore the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and apply water-sensitive city solutions in a cutting edge urban design challenge.

OFC Co-founder Simon Roberts said the motivation for creating the competition was to capture the enthusiasm of students and create an interdisciplinary environment where young people could share their ideas and experiences in an effort to create more sustainable urban environments.

“We want to create a space where people from all walks of life can play a role in shaping our future cities,” he said.

“Over the past 20 years, there's been a dramatic change in universities in terms of the courses they offer that encourage and upskill people to be sustainable designers that shape our cities.

“As a result, there's a huge amount of untapped enthusiasm and drive in the younger generation to tackle the wicked challenges of our time and drive transformative change.

“At Our Future Cities we're trying to create an outlet and opportunity for people to practice their trade in a challenging and interdisciplinary environment.”

Interdisciplinary approach

Through developing the competition, OFC encourages the sharing of perspectives, knowledge and expertise to break new ground in urban design, Roberts said.

“Interdisciplinarity is one of the most defining attributes of Our Future Cities. The challenges we face in cities require a diversity of skills and perspectives coming together to design holistic sustainable solutions, not just technologically and environmentally, but from a social perspective, too,” he said.

“We are trying to encourage people to share their personal experiences, values, knowledge and to get people thinking outside their traditional roles or disciplines.”

The major sponsor for the OFC competition is the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, which aligns with the OFC’s drive for sustainability and connects with the objectives of the competition, Roberts said.

“The competition focused on the Box Hill Metropolitan Activity Centre and required the students to address three key objectives related to the UNSDG's, water-sensitive cities and interdisciplinary design,” he said.

“Box Hill is a key middle-ring transport node in Melbourne’s north east and is strategically significant to the growth of the city. With the population expected to double within the next few decades, there's going to be a huge amount of investment and redesign in the area.

“The OFC competition challenged students to ask themselves “How do we transform Box Hill to be sustainable community and environmental asset for years to come?’”

Roberts said this year's competition submissions were particularly impressive, all showcasing a strong desire for increased urban greening, as well as a desire to incorporate Traditional Owner values into city planning and civic life.

“In one way or another every submission embraced urban greening. This reflects the value so many of us place on access to local quality green spaces, especially in our ever-densifying cities. A fact that Covid 19 has shone a spotlight on,” he said.

“The OFC submissions highlight the tools we have at our disposal to design our cities with these needs front of mind. Equally, the majority of submissions sought to recognise and celebrate Traditional Owner values. This is increasingly being acknowledged as a key part of how we shape Australian cities.”

Thinking local

OFC co-founder Paul Satur said participants were encouraged to think about how we might apply the SDGs at a local level.

“Recent national reporting that has been led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute has identified that while Australia has made a lot of progress in progressing the SDG agenda, there's still a lot to be desired,” he said.

“For many of the SDG targets, we're not yet on track to deliver. There is a real need for innovative thinking. This suggests that the way we have done things in the past isn’t necessarily going to support us in the future, particularly when we think about emerging challenges of population growth and climate uncertainty.

“We are a community that are eager to bring diverse people together, people from different backgrounds, experiences and professions, to think outside the box, to challenge convention, to develop more inclusive and sustainable future cities.

“The SDGs provide us with a lens for exploring this. Including the SDGs in the challenge was about considering just what a sustainable future might mean in rich detail. We used them to identify the sorts of values we wanted to pursue and to think in a different way about how these sorts of values might be applied in a real world setting, at a local scale.”

Winning ideas

Satur said adapting and applying the SDGs to create solutions to local urban contexts is no easy feat, but the program surrounding the competition aimed to help guide students with the skills they needed to think about urban areas differently.

“There's some really interesting challenges in how you take the high level SDG goals and targets and localise them to deliver meaningful on-ground outcomes,” he said.

“We had a series of short online workshops that brought together leading sustainability thinkers and practitioners together with student teams to talk about ways of thinking about the application of the SDGs in local contexts and the challenges, tools and processes for localising them to deliver sustainability outcomes.

“The second major component of the program was to take these high-level principles of sustainability and think about how to apply those through a lens of a water sensitive city.”

The winners have been announced and are featured in the OFC’s official coverage of the event.


Roberts said: “There's a new generation of young professionals that want to contribute to a different future for Australian cities and they're willing to spend a lot of their time and energy to make it happen.”

“Our Future Cities is playing an essential role in expanding the breadth of people involved in shaping city design. This process brings new ideas to the table, upskills diverse professionals and helps develop valuable networks that will pay dividends in the long term,” he said.