Penrith, Australia: Cooling the City

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Photo by Penrith City Council

Photo by Penrith City Council

Photo by Penrith City Council

Photo by Penrith City Council

Image by Penrith City Council

AIPH World Green City Awards 2022 logo

City: Penrith
Country: Australia
Categories:         Living Green for Climate Change IconLiving Green for Health and Wellbeing Icon
Award: Certificate of Merit

* This case study was written by the city and has not been edited by AIPH

Initiative: Cooling the City

The Cooling the City program delivered by Penrith City Council is a progressive and strategic approach to climate adaptation. As a region which experiences extreme heat during the summer months and has identified a high proportion of community members that are more vulnerable to heat, it is important for Council to address climate risks and build a cooler, more liveable and resilient city and community.

Guided by the Cooling the City Strategy (2015) and the Resilient Penrith Action Plan (2021), Council’s work covers a broad range of action areas including strategic work, advocacy, practical on ground actions, and community engagement. This comprehensive approach ensures that Council is working to progressively deliver a city that is cooler and more liveable, reducing the health risks to the local community from extreme heat.

Key actions implemented include:

  • The delivery of the Cooling the City Masterclass. Attended by 350 built environment professionals, the event fostered motivation and knowledge building around the critical importance of adapting to heat and the need for action.
  • Intensive local heat monitoring. 120 heat sensors were installed across the region to monitor air temperatures over a summer period, and the subsequent data identified priority hotspots for actions such as tree planting.
  • A broad range of tree planting and shade projects. This includes planting of street trees and planting in parks, reserves and specific locations such as sporting fields to provide shade for spectators. A specific playground project has combined tree planting with the installation of shade sails.
  • Key city shaping projects are underway to create a cooler CBD. This includes construction of City Park, a 7,000sqm greenspace in the heart of the city with a range of cooling features. Another city shaping initiative undergoing approvals is the innovative Soper Place project, replacing an open asphalt carpark with a multi-deck carpark providing more parking, draped in green walls and featuring a green roof.
  • Key policy and strategic work developed and endorsed in 2021 – Council’s Buildings Policy incorporates cooling the city criteria, the Resilient Penrith Action Plan includes key Cooling the City actions, and the Green Grid Strategy works to identify priority ways to plan green infrastructure, and how to align corridors with other community and natural assets.
  • A broad community engagement program includes education around the benefits of trees, hints and tips on how to stay cool and comfortable during heatwaves and showcasing Council’s positive work in cooling the city.
  • An urban heat controls package has been developed and is being exhibited as a component of the Local Environment Plan and Development Control Plan amendments. The package includes controls for creating cooling focused outcomes in planning and design.
  • Development of the Cooling the City: Planning for Heat Issues Paper and advocacy plan to advocate for improvements to the state-wide planning system to better address urban heat.
  • Construction of the Jordan Springs Community Hub, a community facility which features climate adapted design including cool materials, passive solar design, cross flow ventilation, and geothermal heating and cooling.
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350 professionals attended Penrith's 'Cooling the City' Masterclass

Addressing the urban challenge

Breadth of the issue – How are the problem(s) that are being tackled by your initiative affecting citizens/local businesses or a significant component of the local wildlife?

According to climate risk research specialists Risk Frontiers, extreme heat kills more people in Australia each year than all other natural hazards combined.

The challenge of heat is faced across the Western Sydney region. The physical inland location ensures the area does not receive cooling coastal breezes, and the region is also an area of high growth and development.

As part of Council’s Cooling the City work, heat monitoring was undertaken over the summer of 2019-2020, with 120 sensors spread across the Penrith area. On the 4th January, the lowest temperature recorded was 43.5˚C degrees (110.3F) while multiple locations recorded over 50˚C. High temperatures were recorded consistently across the whole Penrith area, however there were still a couple of suburbs at the extremities of the area that were considered to have their own microclimates, enabling natural adaptive capacity and slightly cooler climates to those suburbs closer to the urban centres.

Penrith has a population of just over 216,000, with vulnerability mapping showing that 194,322 residents are affected by heat, with 24,206 residents being the most vulnerable to heat including people over 65 years, people living with disability and chronic illness, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people and people with English as a second language. Eight of Penrith’s suburbs are also ranked in the bottom 30th percentile for levels of disadvantage, according to the national Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA), with these residents having a reduced capacity to prepare for and take action to adapt their homes to heat.

Depth of the issue – How seriously are the problems being tackled by your initiative impacting the life of the citizens/businesses/wildlife concerned?

Through its Cooling the City program, Council is leading to catalyse cooler development across Western Sydney. Most planning regulations which shape new development are set at a state government level, so advocacy has been a key focus for Council.

The Cooling the City Masterclass held in 2020 elevated the challenge of adapting urban planning and design to address the impacts of heat and underlined the business case for action for all sectors.

The Cooling the City Issues Paper launched in 2021 was developed through engagement with planners and industry stakeholders across Western Sydney to identify issues, gaps, and opportunities within the state planning system to better address urban heat in development to ensure cities and communities are adaptive and resilient to heat. Council has developed an advocacy plan to work collaboratively with partner organisations to be a strong voice in advocating to the state government to tackle the challenge of heat to benefit the community of Penrith and Western Sydney as a whole.

Council has developed an Urban Heat control Package for the amendment of the Local Environment Plan, applicable to development in all residential, business, industrial, special purpose and recreation zones as well as the RU5 Village and C4 Environmental Living zones, and the Development Control Plan to ensure cooling the city principles and controls such as cooling with landscaping, cool colours and materials, cooling through building design, optimising mechanical heating and cooling, are considered for development within the Penrith area (within Council control) to improve heat adaptation.

The power of plants and natural ecosystems to deliver benefits

How is the initiative shaped by scientific evidence of the potential for plants and natural ecosystems to deliver benefits?

Council has worked with leading urban heat experts at Western Sydney University to map heat across the region, to strategically identify priority hotspots for action. Over the summer of 2019/20, a network of 120 heat sensors were installed across the Penrith area, with air temperature results recorded at 10-minute intervals. Over 1.4 million temperature measurements were collected. There was a clear correlation in the results between greener areas and those with higher levels of canopy having cooler temperatures, and more urbanised spaces having higher temperatures. The resulting heat maps allow Council to identify priority suburbs/locations for practical actions such as tree planting to provide shade and cooling.

Prior to this research, official weather monitoring was only undertaken by the Federal Government’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM). The weather station present is located away from urban spaces so is not unduly impacted by the urban heat island effect, and therefore does not reflect localised temperatures across the region.

This research recorded air temperatures of over 50oC at 6 locations in Penrith, and also showed significant outcomes such as the St Marys CBD remained up to 2.40C warmer at nighttime compared to surrounding residential areas, and 39 days were recorded over 350C compared to the BoM records of 24 days. The research provides a snapshot of the variabilities of heat across the region and an evidence -base for future action. It has also been applied in the development of the Green Grid Strategy and to develop a vulnerability assessment webtool for Penrith.

How has the city exploited the potential of plants and associated ecosystems to deliver more than one benefit?

Trees and green cover provide positive outcomes in terms of cooling urban spaces, boosting physical and mental health, and creating more desirable, soothing, and visually appealing suburbs and places. Council is promoting these benefits in a number of ways:

  • The development of City Park in Penrith’s CBD, with construction commencing in late 2021. At around 7,000sqm, the City Park will convert open asphalt parking and low-density buildings into the cool green heart of the city, with an open lawn, shade trees, shade pergolas, water misting, and raingardens.
  • Soper Place carpark, which will convert an open asphalt carpark into a multi-deck carpark covered in green walls. This will provide urban cooling, increased parking, and increase amenity and open space for the community.
  • A green wall has also been installed in the foyer of Council’s Civic Centre providing a living ecosystem that benefits staff and visitors through enhanced visual amenity with greenery boosting mental health, also improving indoor air quality and providing better thermal comfort.
  • Tree planting projects completed since 2018 include planting at sports fields for spectator shade, street trees for suburban areas, trees (and shade sails) being installed at children’s playgrounds, and planting in open parks and reserves. By critically choosing the right tree for the right application, these projects provide the priority benefit as well as associated benefits, for example, shading and cooling for a specific audience with flow on benefits for the community, beautification and urban renewal, and also delivering on biodiversity outcomes.

Innovative and Collaborative Solution

How does the initiative show evidence of feasibility, including on-going financial and logistical support?

The Cooling the City program has been integrated into a broad range of Council’s operational areas. By taking a holistic approach, Council is moving towards integrating cooling the city principles and actions into business as usual for our operations.

As an example, Council has invested significantly in reinvigorating our nursery, with work starting in 2020. Some of the physical works underway include the upgrade of existing amenity facilities, installation of gravel paved work areas and potting tables, pathways, a refurbished glasshouse, improved material store, solar panels, recycled water, and the undergrounding of power lines to improve safety and create more usable space. This will create enhanced capacity for Council to undertake activities like seed collection, plant propagation and growing, and the supply of plants for projects such as some of the Cooling the City initiatives, as well as other programs like Bushcare.

The integration of a cooling focus has become business as usual for Council delivered projects. Open space upgrades such as parks and reserves now incorporate heat considerations as part of their design, including constructed shade such as shade sails, tree planting, and other elements as appropriate. Also, Council’s Buildings Policy (2021) for new and existing building assets requires cooling the city criteria to be incorporated into the design, construction/refurbishment of Council’s buildings. By integrating these cooling, the city criteria from the design stage, costs must be considered and built into these project budgets from the outset. Council funds are supplemented by grant funding where appropriate.

In what ways is the initiative innovative?

The most distinct and innovative elements of Council’s Cooling the City program is how it is undertaken comprehensively across a broad range of action areas, how it combines practical on-ground actions concurrently with strategy and research, and how it frames the challenge of climate adaptation.

Cities are complex, interconnected, and continually evolving. It is only by focusing on these outcome areas holistically and over the longer-term, that we can ensure that cooling outcomes are delivered in a comprehensive and effective manner.

The need for climate adaptation is now and yet shade trees can require 5-10 years to reach a reasonable level of maturity. At the same time, there is a need to work strategically over the short and longer term to be effective in addressing climate challenges and adaptation solution. Council has taken the approach of delivering on-ground actions while continuously working to refine our strategic approach. This ensures both short term outcomes, but an ongoing culture of continual improvement.

Council has also framed the challenges and impacts of climate with respect to urban and extreme heat in an innovative way. By using the ‘Cooling the City’ terminology, and messaging it creates an inclusive dialogue with the community that is easy to understand and clearly positions the key challenge and solutions that Council and the community will work towards collaboratively. Cooling the City also creates a focus on liveability and wellbeing, which are universally valued across the community.

How is the initiative supported by collaborative working across disciplines and sectors?

Extreme heat is a challenge for Western Sydney, a region where population growth and development will continue. There is a need to create better urban spaces that are resilient and adapted to our changing climate, and this can only be achieved through working collaboratively with a broad range of professional stakeholders. Council’s Cooling the City Program and Resilient Penrith Action Plan recognise the need for a multi-disciplinary approach with actions being implemented collaboratively across Council departments and disciplines. The value of partnerships and collaborations with external stakeholders has been recognised and supported through our cooling the city work.

In 2020, The Cooling the City Masterclass hosted by Council was attended by over 350 built environment professionals including architects, planners, urban designers, horticulturalists, sustainability officers, and researchers from local councils, State Government, the private sector and universities. Attendees heard from leading international and national experts on the value of cooling and green cover, urban planning and design solutions, the latest research and case studies, and the business case for action. The presentations are available on Council’s YouTube channel, amassing over 3,000 views, demonstrating the success in engaging more professionals.

The event was extremely successful in advocating for change in adapting to heat. Post event surveys showed a significant increase in knowledge as well as motivation to address the impacts of urban heat through sustainable design and climate adaptation. Momentum from the event has been applied by attendees to undertake urban forestry strategies and technical design standards, and to form partnerships and networks.

How does the initiative demonstrate evidence of community support?          

Council regularly undertakes customer satisfaction surveys to gauge community perception of our operational performance. Results critically inform the IP&R process including the community strategic plan, delivery program and operational plan. The community have consistently reflected concerns about heat and creating a cooler and more liveable city in which to live.

The media, locally, state-wide, and even nationally, are increasingly focusing on the need to adapt to the challenge of heat and our changing climate. Penrith has been recognised as the ‘hottest place on Earth’ – for recording the hottest temperature at that specific time worldwide. Media attention has brought about support from community and professional organisations/local business for the cooling the city program.

Council received support from its Resilience Committee, which functions as a formal subcommittee of Council. The Committee includes representatives from the local community, Councillors, and professional organisations. The Committee identified extreme heat as a key challenge, and expressly supported actions delivered as part of the Cooling the City program and were instrumental in contributing to and endorsing the Resilient Penrith Action Plan. Community and stakeholder engagement undertaken prior to the development of the Resilient Penrith Action Plan clearly identified extreme weather, primarily extreme heat as a major shock for the Penrith community, with associated stresses including financial stresses relating to cooling mechanisms and increased energy bills, as well as health impacts from heat. Community engagement highlighted strong support in building adaptive capacity and community resilience to heat through cooling the city initiatives.

Implementation, Impact and Replicability

How has the initiative had a ripple effect beyond the scope of the initiative itself, thereby demonstrating a change in the city’s and/or its partners’ way of working with plants?

Council is actively delivering positive outcomes, contributing to creating a cooler and more liveable area. This includes a broad range of tree planting projects, and engagement with the community.
Recent tree planting projects include:

  • Tree planting commencing in 2021 to deliver 5,000 street and park trees in suburbs identified as more vulnerable to heat, have low canopy, and higher proportions of vulnerable residents.
  • 340 semi mature trees planted in Chameleon Reserve in Erskine Park (2020), aligned with work to improve recreational spaces
  • Council Shade program (2020) to increase shade across 90 playgrounds. The project will increase shade through a mixture of tree planting and installing shade sails which block out 97-99% of UV.
  • Since 2018, Bushcare have planted around 10,000 native plants. This includes planting by volunteers, contractors and Council staff, and planting at community events.
  • Council undertook a street tree planting pilot in St Marys (2019). Close to 400 semi mature street trees were planted.

Council is also working to create a cooler city centre. The City Park project will create a greenspace of approximately 7,000sqm, and include shade trees and pergolas, as well as water misting features to make a cool space. The Soper Place development will convert an asphalt carpark in to a multideck carpark, complete with rooftop garden section and green walls, again alleviating urban heat.

Council’s cooling the city community engagement programs including a video and animation series has, and speaker videos from the homes and heat event have reached over 1200 people in the community.

How has the initiative had a ripple effect beyond the scope of the initiative itself, thereby demonstrating a change in the city’s and/or its partners’ way of working with plants?

A key focus of Council’s Cooling the City program is to foster positive change for reducing urban heat and increasing resilience of urban spaces across Western Sydney for our future projected climate. This approach acknowledges that heat is a challenge that impacts across a geographical area, and that creating cooler development is a priority for the growth in Sydney’s west.

The delivery of the Cooling the City Masterclass in 2020 demonstrated a ripple effect, with a post survey highlighting attendee motivation to take action, working towards implementing practical steps within their own organisation/city.

Released in 2021, the Cooling the City Issues Paper was developed following an engagement process with stakeholders across Western Sydney and identifies critical opportunities in the state planning context to create improved urban development adaptive to heat. The advocacy program identifies partner organisations for council to collaborate with to ensure we are all advocating for better planning solutions including green infrastructure on private and public land to address heat.

The Cooling the City Strategy and Resilient Penrith Action Plan promote increased canopy cover and green infrastructure. Based on Council’s commitment to cooling and greening to increase liveability of the city and resilience of the community, the Penrith Green Grid Strategy has been developed using the approach of a multi-disciplinary working group to ensure green corridors have now been strategically mapped and priority greening projects identified across the Penrith area, using green corridors to increase shade, cooling, biodiversity, amenity and align with the existing blue grid.

How have other cities expressed interest in the initiative, or what potential does it have to interest other cities and be customised to their own circumstances?

The Cooling the City program is a comprehensive approach to creating cooler and more liveable urban spaces, that other local governments can use as examples and adapt for their local areas.
Council has been invited to provide updates to the Resilient Sydney Ambassadors Network. Resilient Sydney aims to foster robust resilience programs in the 33 councils across Greater Sydney. The ambassadors network includes key staff involved in coordinating and delivering resilience focused actions. Given the large number of actions delivered by councils across Sydney, to be asked to deliver outlines of the program to the network is a great positive reflection of the esteem in which it is held.

Council has also presented on key projects within the Cooling the City program to other cities, including presenting on the Living Places St Marys street tree planting pilot to the 202020 Growing Together conference as well as the Illawarra Walk Alliance. Council’s cooling the city program and actions under the Resilient Penrith Action Plan have been presented to Western Sydney Councils through regional forums, as well as to Committees of the Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District. A cooling the city case study has been included in the Local Council Guidance for Climate Health and Wellbeing report published by Western Sydney University. Additionally, we have received requests to provide our heat monitoring report to the local Members of Parliament and requests from international organisations to use the Cooling the City Strategy as a case study in their own research.

Sustainability and Resilience

What efforts have been made to reduce the carbon footprint of the initiative?

As part of Council’s sustainability work, the organisation has goals and targets to reduce our carbon footprint.

Within the Cooling the City program, this has been demonstrated by the design of the Jordan Springs Community Hub, which opened in 2018. In addition to creating a quality community space, the Community Hub was designed and built to be climate adaptive and reduce emissions. The Hub features the use of light-coloured materials for the carpark and building, water infiltration in the carpark, passive solar design principles, and maximises cross flow ventilation. Additionally, Cross Laminated Timber was chosen for the main building material, being close to carbon neutral in manufacture. The building features geothermal heating and cooling, which is far more energy efficient than traditional HVAC systems. It also features high performance glazing, insulation, efficient lighting, and solar to ensure emissions are minimised.

As another example, when tree planting projects are undertaken, they are planned in a way to cluster sites together. This makes establishment and maintenance more efficient and reduces transport and fuel use. Other examples include the City Park project in Penrith’s CBD, with a key aim of reducing urban heat by creating greenspace. The Park will utilise recycled materials such as brick from an on-site building, reducing the need for new materials, reducing the carbon footprint.

Council’s Buildings Policy for new and refurbished building assets includes objectives around cooling the city, resource efficiency, circular economy, renewable energy, net zero emissions with the aim of improving environmental performance.

How have the anticipated impacts of climate change been considered?

Resilience to future climate conditions is a core component of delivering Council’s Cooling the City program. The organisation is constantly looking for opportunities to increase the resilience of the program and future proofing it.

Council has been a formal supporter of the Which Plant Where project, coordinated by Macquarie and Western Sydney Universities. The project seeks to determine the future resilience of a wide variety of tree species, and their susceptibility to heat and drought conditions. The results of this project are being incorporated into Council’s work, including the development of a recommended Tree List of highly resilient species suitable for the Penrith area, enabling appropriate species selection for current and future tree planting initiatives. This Tree List will also be incorporated into Council’s Development Control Plan to ensure development across the Penrith area includes considered planting of appropriate trees for the Penrith climate.

Council is an active supporter of a project to pilot different approaches to passive irrigation of street trees. The project, which is currently in the planning stages, will monitor tree growth rates and success rates of different approaches and how they compare to each other. These results will be used to improve planting initiatives and ensure we maximise resilience to predicted future climate conditions.

Another key action has been a reinvestment in Council’s nursery, to maximise its capacity to support future tree planting projects. By doing so, we have increased our capacity to collect locally endemic seed stock, and grow plants adjusted to our local climate.

What processes does the initiative include for it to be considerate in its use of soils and other natural resources?

Council’s Cooling the City program seeks to work efficiently and in sync with the natural environment, in order to maximise cooling outcomes and the long-term success and growth of green infrastructure installed.

When planning tree planting initiatives, key consideration is given to how to work with and improve existing soil conditions. In suitable situations, such as a mass planting within a park or reserve, heavy mulch beds are laid down in advance of tree planting. This helps to suppress the existing grass, but more importantly improves the soil health and biodiversity in the lead up to planting. In the instances where pre-mulching of a site is not feasible, such as nature strip planting, mulching takes place after the trees have been planted, helping to trap and retain soil moisture, leading to long term health outcomes for the planted trees. Additionally, at an even earlier stage, careful consideration is given to species selection, ensuring that all tree planting initiatives utilise species suited to our local conditions, particularly our soils and climate, maximising the chances of success and reducing the need for artificial measures to keep trees healthy.

Care is also given to how water is managed as part of Council’s Cooling the City initiatives. The Jordan Springs Community Hub features Water Sensitive Urban Design features in the carpark, water efficient fittings, as well as a 16,000L water tank. Combined these were calculated to achieve a 22% reduction in stormwater leaving the site and a 25% reduction in overall potable water usage.

Monitoring, Maintenance, and Management

How has the initiative been designed and implemented so that long-term needs for management and maintenance are reduced and can be met?

The Cooling the City program is thoughtfully planned and delivered by Council to ensure long term maintenance and management is feasible and realistic.

A key example has been a cultural shift in the way that green infrastructure is managed by Council. In recent years, trees have shifted to being managed as key assets, and included in our asset management system – the same way traditional assets such as footpaths or roads are considered. When trees are planted, they are logged into the asset management system using GIS, including details such as species, size, location and date planted. Street and Park trees planted by contractors, are regularly watered during an establishment period of up to 18 months, and the tree condition is monitored during this work and the data uploaded to Council’s asset management system.

Additionally, high levels of planning and care go into each tree planting project to minimise risks of issues occurring in the medium to longer-term. The first stage is desktop planning, to identify underground and overhead utilities, traffic, and pedestrian safety issues, and even ensuring solar access for north facing properties in winter. The secondary stage is an in-person site assessment, to check for unforeseen factors which may inhibit tree growth, or which the mature tree may interfere with. Only after these steps are undertaken are trees planted.

What protocols are in place to facilitate monitoring of results?

Council has worked to integrate its Cooling the City program across all relevant business units to ensure that urban cooling and climate adaptation is integrated holistically across the organisation and is publicly identified within performance reporting.

All local Council’s within NSW are required to work within the Integrated Planning and Reporting (IP&R) framework, focusing on identifying priorities within the local community and developing actions to deliver positive outcomes. Community engagement through the strategic planning process as well as engagement on Penrith’s resilience to risks, shocks and stresses identified heat as a key risk and priority. The Cooling the City strategy and Resilient Penrith Action Plan have been integrated into the framework including the delivery program, operational plan and business plans. Reporting is a key component of the framework with quarterly, bi-annual and annual reporting requirements on cooling the city actions.

In 2020, Council undertook a review of the Cooling the City strategy to monitor and evaluate progress of the Strategy in achieving its stated goals and outcomes. Council has also integrated and aligned strategies and plans to enhance the ability to monitor and report on actions, with Cooling the city actions integrated into the Resilient Penrith Action Plan.  Cooling the city outcomes have also been aligned through the Green Grid Strategy which priorities future tree planting and green infrastructure projects.

Key greening, cooling and resilience actions have also been included in the General Manager as well as Director/Manager level key performance indicators for further accountability in ensuring monitoring and reporting.

How has the initiative been enhanced in response to monitoring of results?

Council is consistently looking for opportunities to improve the delivery of actions to create a cooler and more liveable city. This involves working with leading researchers and stakeholders. Council’s cooling the city initiatives can provide learnings and be applied across other council projects and/or replicated by other cities. For example:

  • Tree planting health and success rates. As part of the establishment phase of key tree planting projects, the contractor is required to undertake a minimum maintenance period and assess tree health during this period and determine the cause of any problems. This data is shared openly so learnings can be considered in planning subsequent tree planting actions.
  • Heat monitoring. Robust data is essential in making strategic decisions. When first adopted in 2015, the Cooling the City Strategy utilised 2011 aerial surface temperature mapping from the CSIRO. Acknowledging the shortcomings of this data, in the summer of 2019-2020, Council worked with Western Sydney University to undertake extensive heat mapping, measuring real time ambient air temperatures. In doing so, this provides a more practical reflection of heat experience by our community and has enabled Council to prioritise cooling actions.
  • In 2021, Council installed a temporary wildflower garden as part of a broader tree planting project.
  • In 2022, the meadow will be ploughed into the soil to foster improved soil health. Tree planting will follow, and the tree health will be monitored comparative to the usual planting approach. These learnings will be applicable for future Council projects and are replicable elsewhere.