A broad-scope city deal aimed at increasing liveability in South East Queensland (SEQ) could change the way we approach engineering design.
From any perspective, the SEQ City Deal is big news. It’s a 20-year, $1.8 billion infrastructure agreement that brings together three levels of government, plus industry, to fund a suite of 31 projects across the South East Queensland region. It encompasses 11 local governments represented by the Council of Mayors (SEQ), populated by 3.8 million people and which collectively boast a GDP of $170 billion.
Signed on March 21 this year, the SEQ City Deal is more than just a financial commitment. It’s a statement of intent around priorities in the region over the next few decades. It strongly focuses on transport, jobs and liveability and also underpins the Federal Government’s financial commitment to the Olympic Games 2032.
Importantly, the deal doesn’t just favour the big cities, with outlying centres such as Caboolture, Lockyer Valley and Toowoomba included.
It points to a future focus on resource recovery infrastructure, intended to encourage a circular, and therefore more sustainable, economy.
“The fantastic thing about this is that it’s the first time ever in a city deal that resource recovery and waste management has actually been identified explicitly,” said Fellow and Chartered engineer Joyanne Manning FIEAust CPEng, Australasian Resources Leader for Arup.
In the SEQ City Deal there is $500,000 dedicated to a regional waste management strategy and $105 million for resource recovery infrastructure.
“If anything, this provides a demonstration of the sort of changes that have happened across this industry and from the three levels of government. These are changes in prioritisation and the recognition that waste and resource recovery is an essential part of our infrastructure,” Manning said.
“We understand the fundamental need to be able to turn on our taps, flush our toilets, and put out our bins. In recent years though, we have witnessed a significant disruption to the waste and resource recovery ecosystem, triggered by the Chinese government’s China Sword Policy which stopped the importation of potentially contaminated recycled materials. Since then, the Australian Government has responded with an export ban on certain types of recycled materials and significant investment in sovereign capacity in order to build capacity to process and re-use these products here.”
What will the deal mean for engineering?
According to the President of Engineers Australia’s Queensland Divisional Committee, Fellow and Chartered engineer Marie Gales FIEAust CPEng in South East Queensland, what happens in one council area very much impacts on the others.
“The mayors work closely together and have done a lot of things to push forward the region as a whole,” Gales said. “They were the ones that kicked off the Brisbane Olympic Games campaign several years ago, and it’s great that they have come together again to get this agreement.”
What does the SEQ City Deal mean for engineering? Plenty, Gales believes.
First, several pieces of transport infrastructure have been identified, with funding provided for project completion, and others funded for planning studies. These include projects within the Brisbane Metro, the Brisbane Valley Highway network, ferry terminals, road bridges, further development of a public transport corridor and more.
One exciting development is the funding of various priority digital projects, addressing connectivity gaps – along rail corridors, for example. Their intention is two-fold, to enable greater productivity for users and opportunities for real-time data analytics for the operators of the infrastructure.
“The digital stuff is quite exciting, because it enables rail/work corridors,” Gales said.
What are ‘rail/work corridors’? Currently, mobile and data coverage on rail corridors is quite patchy. While there is free Wi-Fi on the Brisbane bus fleet, people on trains don’t enjoy the same coverage.
When passengers are travelling into Brisbane by train from the Sunshine Coast or Gold Coast, they can use that time to work and be productive only if they are connected. Therefore, rather than it only being a ‘rail corridor’, it becomes a rail/work corridor’.
This, in turn, provides a far better argument for people to utilise that public service offering.
“There’s also a segment of the Deal focussing on data-driven Road Safety mapping,” Gales said. “We talk about the road safety death toll being unacceptable. Data mapping will allow a more holistic view across the region in terms of where our safety hotspots are and how we deal with them.
“If we can get crash data in real time it will be powerful information, because at the minute we are relying on the police service pulling that data. Sometimes it can take a long time, depending on the type of crash, to get to a stage where we understand what’s happening on the road.”
Improvements across all transport corridors between the major population centres brings choice. With choice comes a deeper comfort with the post-COVID working environment that involves flexibility of place and time of work, as well as a greater appreciation of travel time as potential productivity time.
Rather than something that must be endured before and after work, stealing away from personal time, the act of travelling to and from the office can instead be considered work time, potentially meaning less hours in the office.
“That’s how this all translates into a different way of approaching engineering,” Gales said. “Rather than starting with a plan, such as a transport plan, we start with the final goal of supporting the region to be more liveable. We then engineer that goal.
“There’s now more of a requirement to be more holistic and to recognise the complex relationship engineering has with climate change, with post-COVID lifestyle, and with connection.”
Is the SEQ City Deal enough?
While the SEQ City Deal is a positive step forward for those in the region, it could do more to commit to sustainability in terms of climate change and liveability, said Fellow and Chartered engineer Dr Helen Fairweather FIEAust CPEng, Senior Lecturer, Environmental Engineering at University of the Sunshine Coast.
“We’ve come to a point in society where we’ve identified that we cannot continue down the business-as-usual route,” she said. “Having documentation that recognises that is important. Having said that, I’m not sure that this document does that to the extent required.”
It would be useful for such a document to include an explanation of how sustainability success will be measured, Fairweather said. Perhaps sustainability-measurement tools developed by Infrastructure Australia could be utilised.
“It’s the same as doing a financial model,” she explained. “There are up-front costs and then there are ongoing costs to future generations. Sustainability should be no different.”
The idea of changing the infrastructure experience, of creating smart cities and connected transport systems, is a thrilling one, Fairweather said. But it’s vital that planners and engineers don’t leave behind the people who most need a liveability boost.
“Liveability is an interesting concept,” she said. “I have recently become aware of the desperate situation for hundreds of people in SEQ in a low socioeconomic bracket. For them, liveability is finding somewhere to put up a tent. That is all they can afford. Real liveability in this region must be about everyone having their basic needs met, including a hard roof above their head.
“So I believe the intent of the SEQ City Plan is good. I just don’t think it goes far enough in terms of ensuring that an authentic sustainable approach is taken.”