The backyard of Sustainable Cities

Your backyard

HOW BIG IS YOUR backyard? Is it a roof top or patio garden, a patch behind a terrace house, or the proverbial quarter acre in the suburbs. Could your backyard sustain you?

“Are you self-sufficient?” is a question often asked by visitors to Dr Richard Stirzaker’s Canberra backyard at the height of summer. At this time of year his fruit trees are laden and the backyard overflowing with vegetables, leading visitors to wonder about whether he ever visits the shops.

The reality is that Richard’s bountiful backyard falls a long way short of feeding himself for the year, let alone his wife and three kids. In his book, The Scientists Garden Richard calculates that on his 877-square-metre block, the backyard could just grow enough potatoes, fence to fence, to supply enough calories for himself only. Gone would be the fruit trees and vegetables which make the backyard so appealing during summer and provide the necessary variety in our diets.

Sustainable Cities

The notion of sustainable cities requires us to redefine our backyard. For cities are not, and never will be sustainable within their boundaries. Instead the backyard of a sustainable city extends well past what you see from your back door. The challenge is how can we contribute to the stewardship of this extended backyard?


To understand how big a backyard a sustainable city needs, let’s imagine an air and water-tight dome over our city. Such a dome would be roughly 40 kilometres across to enclose a city the size of Sydney or Melbourne and be home to around four and a half million people.

Our dome needs some farmland to produce our food as even Richards’s bountiful backyard is too small to provide a balanced diet. In fact our current diet requires around 2.8 hectares of farmland per person to grow enough food for the year (pdf). So we need to extend our dome out to 400 kilometres to include this farmland for our 4.5 million people.

But our dome needs to be much bigger to supply the water and fresh air we need. It would balloon to nearly 600 kilometres if we add a catchment area to supply water, and vegetation to absorb the carbon dioxide released by our city and stabilise the atmosphere.

A dome spanning 600 kilometres would be quite an engineering feat. When we tried running one on a small scale in the 1990’s Biosphere 2 project we could not manage it with only eight people in a dome 128 metres across. And our mega dome would become even more unmanageable if we add in space for the treatment of waste, the energy used by the city, resources for commerce, climate regulation, the national parks we like to retreat too, and room for Australia’s diverse plants and animals.

Our imaginary dome highlights the fact that the backyard which sustains you is a lot bigger than what is immediately outside the back door.

Extended backyard

So when you stand in your backyard, be it a roof top or patio garden, a patch behind a terrace house, or the quarter acre in the suburbs, look beyond the boundaries of your own backyard. Look beyond your street, your suburb and your city, for this is where the future of sustainable cities lies.

The need to connect and look after our expanded backyard is not just altruism, but enlightened self-interest: last time I looked there were no new continents to move to, so we better start looking after what we have.

This article first appeared on the ABC website

Soil Biology Masterclass – exploring the new frontier

This week the inaugural Soil Biology Masterclass was run at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment – University of Western Sydney. Soil biology is at the core of key processes underpinning agricultural productivity.

Nutrient cycling and availability, carbon storage as soil organic matter, soil water storage and movement, root and soil pests and diseases, are all determined or strongly influenced by soil biology. Our current management of soils, through tillage, fertilisers and pesticides, focus on the chemical and physical aspects, often to the detriment of soil biology.

Future improvements in agricultural productivity will increasingly be driven by soil biology.  We are now entering a period where the scarcity and cost of energy, nutrients and water are limiting productivity growth. However, the demand for food and fibre continues to grow.  New ways of explicitly managing soil biology is required to unlock low energy and nutrient input productivity. 

This is the fifth Masterclass I have been involved in developing and another incredibly challenging, stimulating and enjoyable group to work with. The mix of researchers from three Universities together with the diverse industry participants ( private consultants, farmers, policy-makers, EPA, advisors, commercial suppliers and R&D managers) produced a “hothouse” for the exchange of ideas, testing of assumptions and the collective development of new understandings and insights into the role of soil biology in agriculture and our ecosystems.

But don’t take my word for it have a read of Adrianna’s Soil Biology Masterclass blog

Soil Biology Masterclass August 2013 at Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at University of Western Sydney

Soil Biology Masterclass August 2013 at Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at University of Western Sydney

Are National Parks enough?

Eighty years. A lifetime for us, but just a quarter of a life for a mountain blue gum – Eucalyptus deanei.  And only a fleeting moment for the Blue Gum Forest in the Blue Mountains, a community which stretches back over 30 tree lifetimes.

1932 – Building National Parks

But for a brief moment eighty years ago, the continuity of the Blue Gum Forest was threatened. What saved Blue Gum Forest eighty years ago was Do-It-Yourself conservation.

Shocked at the prospect of the forest being cleared a group of bushwalkers and conservationist came together to raise £130, more than $10,000 in today’s money, to buy the lease from local farmer Clarrie Hungerford.  All the more remarkable is that this happened in 1932 during the Great Depression.

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Eighty years on and Aboriginals, bushwalkers and conservationists came together in Blue Gum Forest to celebrate its continuity and remember those pioneers who were prepared to put their money where their conservation values were in 1932.

Eighty years. During this period the conservation efforts have focussed on the protection of large areas of public lands to build today’s conservation estate. The Blue Mountains personifies this. The sixteen hectares of Blue Gum Forests purchased in 1932 was swallowed up in the new 62,000 hectare Blue Mountains Nation Park in 1959. By 2000 more than one million hectares was declared as the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

Today nine percent of New South Wales, and thirteen percent of the nation, is protected in our national parks and reserves.

But this era of conservation is coming to a close. While battles over what can occur in the conservation estate will continue, the era of grand new national parks is drawing to a close.

The next 80 years – Conservation outside National Parks

Spending that October weekend in Blue Gum Forest provided the time to reflect on the next eighty years. What should we be doing in 2013 that would be celebrated in 2093? Maybe we also need to be looking beyond our national parks and reserves and at the landscape as a whole.

Our parks and reserves don’t exist in isolation. Increasingly our landscapes have been dissected into a patchwork of paddocks producing our food and fibre. Within this sea of agriculture sit our protected areas, increasingly isolated and vulnerable as surrounding production becomes more intensive and extensive.

If the integrity of these protected areas is to survive long-term, then conservation needs to increasingly occur across the bulk of the rural landscape managed by farmers.  We need our farmers to not only grow our food but also manage parts of their farmers for conservation. And the signs are promising.

A growing number of farmers are volunteering to put conservation covenants on their farms. In 2009 there were 4,900 conservation covenants, covering 3.6 million hectares. From Tasmania to the Northern Territory and across to Western Australia farmers have recognised the need to give nature some space in rural landscapes.  These farmers are not only producing our food but also building landscape-wide conservation required to look after nature.

But this is not something they can do on their own. They need our support, as the benefits are for all.

If you think State or Federal Governments will provide the ongoing support for landscape-wide conservation – think again. Recent cuts to Catchment Management Agencies and the biodiversity  and carbon farming initiative are part of a wider run down in the public investment in land management.

A leading ecologist, Hugh Possingham has called for a new order, where maybe more than half of all conservation of Australia’s wildlife needs to be done by individuals, not governments.  Clearly, a more sophisticated and ongoing DIY conservation approach is required.

Individuals again need to put their money where their conservation values are. This time not to buy a forest, but instead to support and encourage farmers to manage parts of their farms for conservation.

This could be to provide habitat for an endangered bird like the regent honeyeater, reduce sediment and nutrient run-off into your favourite waterway, to protect and restore bushland in a favourite walking area, maintain the landscapes aesthetic beauty and inspiration in a valley where you holiday, or to increasing carbon stored in the landscape to regulate the climate.  The gate needs to be opened to bring urban and country people together to support tomorrow’s landscapes.

Imagine eighty years on – 2093.

We have come together on a farm in Capertee Valley, west of the Blue Mountains, to celebrate and remember those who started supporting landscape-wide conservation.  The songs of the regent honeyeater can be heard as they feed along the now revegetated banks of the upper Capertee River.  Farmers, while still grazing the fertile flats, have reduced the invasive weeds, salts and sediment washing into the Colo River as it cuts through the Wollemi wilderness.  Regenerated corridors now connect the larger surrounding National Parks with remnant bush further west. This ongoing partnership between urban and rural people, started eighty years ago, now sustains both the people and landscapes where nature can flourish.

This article originally appeared on the ABC website

Conservation on Farms Survey

Take the survey below

This survey asks you how city and country people can come together to give nature a hand and support landscape-wide conservation. Just why we need to broaden our view of conservation is outlined below the survey and in articles on the ABC and National Geographic website and on my blog The survey will take around five minutes. If you would like the results sent to you make sure you sign up.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Why do we need a conservation on farms?

Australia has a great parks and reserve system. But these parks and reserves don’t exist in isolation. Our landscapes have been cut up into a patchwork of paddocks to grow our food and fibre. Within this sea of agriculture sit our protected areas, increasingly isolated and vulnerable.

A move to landscape-wide conservation supported by individuals may be needed if the integrity of our parks and reserves are to survive long-term. We need our farmers to not only grow our food but also manage parts of their farms for conservation. But how can we encourage this?

If you think state or federal governments will provide the ongoing support for landscape-wide conservation, think again. Recent cuts to Catchment Management Agencies and the biodiversity and carbon farming initiative are part of a wider run down in the public investment in land management.

A leading ecologist, Hugh Possingham has called for a new order, where maybe more than half of all conservation of Australia’s wildlife needs to be done by individuals, not governments. Clearly, a more sophisticated and ongoing conservation approach is required.

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Your individual responses will be confidential (results are combined for analysis) and anonymous (no information is collected that will personally identify you). If you would like the results from the survey to be sent to you, in addition to be notified on any new articles, surveys and other activities, then head over to the sign up page.

Environment conservation, conservation on farms, landcare, support conservation, landscape conservation, farm conservation, on farm conservation, caring for country

A second transformation of Australian landscapes

Inarguably colonisation and industry have changed Australia’s environment since the first fleet set foot on NSW in the late 18th Century. This first industrial age was built on natural capital, driven by the need to populate and establish, with unprecedented changes to the natural environment.

In some cases we have exceeded environmental and resource limits, a scenario echoing across the world.

A new paper, co- authored by Wayne Meyer from the Environment Institute suggests we are moving through a second industrial transformation of Australian landscapes. Wayne and his co authors including Kelvin Montagu, examine six emerging economies driving change in the Australian landscape; water, carbon, food, energy, amenity and mining.

Capertee valley

These emerging economies could result in positive or negative transformations of Australia and the paper delves into some of partnerships and decisions we face as a nation to ensure a positive outcome.

This includes forming new partnerships between government, science, the private sector and communities, supported by renegotiated institutional settings and governance. Science has a pivotal role in getting the information we need to make these decisions and supporting effective strategies for positive change.

The paper is wide ranging in its scope, looking at local impacts and communities to generation- and nation-wide changes in how the country manages economies, environments and society. Overarching is the need to adapt to climate change and the global changes it will force in the absence of immediate and deep cuts to carbon emissions.

The authors provide  potential pathways to move forward, citing the need for vision and the power it provides towards solving these complex multidisciplinary problems.

The full paper is accessible here or email me for a copy at

Brett A Bryan, Wayne S Meyer, C Andrew Campbell, Graham P Harris, Ted Lefroy, Greg Lyle, Paul Martin, Josie McLean, Kelvin Montagu, Lauren A Rickards, David M Summers, Richard Thackway, Sam Wells, Mike Young, “The second industrial transformation of Australian landscapes”, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Available online 24 June 2013, ISSN 1877-3435,

This post is from The Environment Institute of Adelaide University.

Jane Nethercote, Crikey (Australia)

So you think that your shower bucket is saving the planet. Think again. Most of your water waste is around your waist.

Through eating and drinking, the average Briton consumes about 3,400L of water a day, according to Hidden Waters [PDF], a recent report from Waterwise. Australian irrigation scientist Professor Wayne Meyer reckons it’s more like 3,000L per meal, or 10,000L of water a day in the Western world.

Everything you eat and drink contains “embedded water” – the so-called hidden water it takes to bring produce from the field to your table. But not all foods are created equal. It takes a lot of water to grow food, and then “much more water to feed and service the animals that we eat”, says Waterwise’s head of research Joanne Zygmunt.

Which means vegetarians have a right to feel smug: a leafy diet contains about half the embedded water content of a meat-lovers regime. Not that anything is ever that simple. There’s methane output too of course, and here, some might venture that vegetarians are bigger contributors.

Natural rainfall (green water) plays a large part in embedded water content – only 15% of crops produced worldwide are irrigation-fed — but 70% of global freshwater withdrawals are for irrigation (blue water). And in Australia in 2003-04, the most extensive use of irrigation in agriculture was for pasture for grazing (ABS), not for crops. Despite being the driest continent on earth, Australia is a net exporter of embedded water. Water that we don’t have.

So how do you trim your water use? The Crikey Water Diet can help. Our motto: A moment on the lips, a life of bucket trips.

To kick off, here are some general rules, with expert commentary from Kelvin Montagu of the Cooperative Research Centre for Irrigation Futures.

  • Find food close to the source. “The closer your food is to the source of all food, photosynthesis, the less hidden water you will be using. All the food we eat is originally produced by plants as they grab carbon dioxide out of the air and produce sugars via photosynthesis, losing a lot of water in the process.” 
  • Green should be seen. “If you are dead keen on reducing the amount of hidden water in your food then eat leafy vegetables. By doing this you minimise the amount of food value lost as the original sugars are changed to more complex foods – but there is a limit!”
  • Fruits and grains reduce the pain. “The next best is to eat fruits and then grains which will have more hidden water than vegetables. This is because there is a cost to the plant in transporting, making new more complex compounds and storing them in the fruits and grains.”
  • If it moves, lose it. “The real big jump in hidden water comes when another animal gets involved. A lot of the food values are lost in the conversion of the original plant into the products from animals such as cheese, eggs and finally meat.” It’s estimated that one kilogram of beef has 50,000-100,000L of embedded water, more than a backyard pool, as Des Houghton notes in the Courier-Mail.
  • Where did it come from? There are many variables in food production and embedded water can vary significantly depending on country (or even region), as well as the aridity or humidity of the atmosphere. A kilogram of tomatoes produced in the UK has an average embedded water content of eight litres, but a kilo from Indonesia contains about 340 litres.

Originally published in Crikey – 26 March 2007.

Nature needs a hand – who’s going to give it?

Versions of this article have also appeared on the ABC’s website as “The new normal in nature” and the National Geographic Water Currents blog as A river recovering: Australia’s upper Snowy River

You could hear the roar. It reverberated between the soaring ridges of the Byadbo Wilderness in Kosciusko National Park. This was the sound of nature’s raw power as sixty thousand tonnes of water every hour crashed down the Snowy falls.

We felt vulnerable paddling the rapid above the roaring falls. Eight willow warriors, a voluntary adventure conservation group, setting out along a remote section of the upper Snowy River. It was easy to feel insignificant, and almost arrogant to believe our impact on nature was such that it needed a hand. For this was wilderness and weren’t we vulnerable and rare guests?

The “new” Snowy River tells us a lot about how our relationship with nature is changing. While nature is still ultimately in control, people increasingly manage that which we previously left to nature.

The Snowy River, once so big, irrepressible and powerful, virtually dried up overnight, after the Jindabyne dam was completed in 1968. The decision to take all of the water from the upper reaches of the Snowy River, is a decision from a different era. This was the Snowy Hydro scheme – nation building and taming nature was the mantra.

So began a battle over the next three decades. What began as an obsession for a few locals along the Snowy River, became a broader alliance, and ultimately cajoled New South Wales, Victoria and Commonwealth Governments to restore a fifth of the flow to the upper Snowy River.

After ten years of increasing environmental flows and riparian restoration, all that was needed was the drought to break. Finally flooding rains came producing a sizable natural flood and allowing greater environmental flows. Paddling on the back of these flows, our task was to help map and poison the remaining invasive willows in the more remote sections of the Snowy River.

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Being one of the few groups to paddle this section of the Snowy River in over fifty years added to the anticipation. And of course there was the mystique of the landscape through which the river passes. For the Ngarigo people Joona Mar Djumba was a giant spiritual area, more recently the Man from Snowy River imprinted the area on the national psyche, and local names like Wild Women Ridge and Devils Hole Creek makes you wonder what inspired such names.

What we found in autumn 2012 was a river starting to recover. The recent flushing flows had started to reshape the river bed. Below the Snowy falls, piles of dead trees, mainly willows, wrenched from the main channel by the river had been dumped high on the banks. A reminder of the power of the river.

One of the joys of being on a river is the wildlife. A highlight was catching a glimpse of a platypus surfacing for air and following their bubble trails as they foraged on the bottom. A promising sign. However, it is clear that the river and its catchment will require continued help.

The Snowy River is a new river. One entirely dependent on us – when it flows, by how much and even the water temperature. All determined by when the gates at Jindabyne dam are opened – by us. Whether the new Snowy River becomes a functioning and healthy river system is now in our hands.

The need to manage the Snowy River to try and mimic nature is not unique. Across this land and its waters, people increasingly manage that which we previously left to nature. Deciding when rivers flow, when bush burns, where animals wander, what grows across entire landscapes, and what is in the air. Our impact is everywhere.

The Snowy River personifies our rapid transition from inhabitants of a natural world to managers of complete landscapes. A hundred years ago the Snowy River, and the plants and animals dependant on it, followed the natural cycles. Now we control the water, struggle to manage our impact on the catchment, and are in the early stages of replicate the natural cycles with all their complexity.

Our challenge is to acknowledge and quickly come to terms with this new responsibility. For while we play an increasing role in managing landscapes, we are still dependent on nature to deliver the life supporting and nourishing benefits to all. New ways of supporting those managing our public and private landscapes are required, so that nature can continue to flourish.

Nature needs a hand. Increasingly our communities and individuals will need to give it as governments struggle. People power is required as conservation must spill out of our parks and reserves and into the surrounding privately managed landscapes. A new way is needed to connect city and country people to support tomorrow’s landscapes, through volunteering, and increasingly by financially supporting conservation. If we are to rise to this challenge, we must first acknowledge our new role in a human-altered environment.

Kelvin Montagu has worked as an agricultural scientist, forest labourer, knowledge manager and gardener, and recently started ecoXchange to try new practical ways of connecting city and country people to support tomorrow’s landscapes.


The author wishes to acknowledge the help from the following people:

Sara Phillips, ABC environment editor;
Annette Macrae, for discussions and proof reading;
Jeff Cottrell, chair of Willow Warriors and Snowy River leader;
Danny Henderson, Snowy River Rehabilitation Project, Southern Rivers CMA
Simon Williams, Aquatic scientist with the New South Wales Office of Water

Further background can be obtained from “Snowy River Story the grassroots campaign to save a national icon.” by Claire Miller, 2005.


Kader Asmal

Mixing water, human rights and leadership – the Kader Asmal legacy

Chairing a conference can be a lot of hard work with a few minutes of fame at the beginning and end – ask the current IAL2011 Chair, Chris Thompson. But for me one of the highlights of chairing 2010’s One Water: Many Futures conference was hosting our two overseas keynote speakers, Professor Kader Asmal from South Africa and Sandra Postel from USA. Both provided insightful, challenging and positive views from the outside looking in.

Almost a year to the day after the conference I heard of the passing of Kader Asmal. We were indeed most fortunate to have heard from such an eloquent, outspoken and colourful character as Kader.

Kader Asmal became involved in water management through some dramatic events in recent South African history. It was an unusual, but some considered inspired, choice by Nelson Mandela to appoint Kader as his first water minister in 1994.

It was a challenge that he relished: “my relationship with water use and management has been one of the most creative and exciting aspects of a chequered and full life”.

As a human rights lawyer, Kader brought a unique perspective to the redrafting of the South Africa’s Water Act. The act introduced the “Reserve” to meet the basic needs of all people and the ecosystem, and placed this as the most important share of the water resource. It also dramatically changed the way the natural resource was viewed and managed. As he explained, “The fact that the National Water Act placed the Reserve above industry and irrigation does not mean that these sectors are less important, it just emphasises that there are constraints to development set by the environment, and we need to recognise those limitations, a key principle in sustainability”.

One evening last year, Kader was guest of honour at a parliament, this time in NSW rather South Africa. He urged those attending the Water Leaders Dinner to take a greater world leadership role. “The management of our precarious and dwindling water resource is likely to be the barometer for managing the economy in general under conditions of resource constraints. Are we up to this test? I hope so.”

Both our international guests were impressed with Australia’s progress and the level of discussion across the industry. With so many challenges and so much happening on the home front it’s easy for us to get self absorbed. What we are doing is leading the world in many areas of water management. We are being watched!

It would be a fitting tribute to Kader Asmal if we could increase the cooperation between Australia and South Africa to expand our connections beyond rugby and cricket to learn from each other with respect to water management.

I will leave the last words to Kader. “I also propose a trade. Please send back our water sector professionals – we need them at home – and you can take all your eucalypts and wattles back.”

Note. You can view Kader Asmal’s presentation on water management, “Responsible transformation of water management in an era of scarcity: achieving multiple objectives in a complex and dynamic content”.