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What is a Water Sensitive City?

Water sensitive cities are resilient, liveable, productive and sustainable. They interact with the urban hydrological cycle in ways that: provide the water security essential for economic prosperity through efficient use of the diversity of water resources available; enhance and protect the health of watercourses and wetlands; mitigate flood risk and damage; and create public spaces that harvest, clean and recycle water. Its strategies and systems for water management contribute to biodiversity, carbon sequestration and reduction of urban heat island effects.

A Water Sensitive City is one where water’s journey through the urban landscape is managed with regard for its rural origins, coastal destinations and spiritual significance. A philosophy of flexibility in supply and use to meet all users’ needs underpins the collection and movement of water, and the technologies to facilitate the physical movement of water are designs that manifest these ideals visually for all to acknowledge and appreciate. Three principles set the foundation for this vision of a Water Sensitive City:

  • Cities as Water Supply Catchments: meaning access to water through a diversity of sources at a diversity of supply scales;
  • Cities Providing Ecosystem Services: meaning the built environment functions to supplement and support the function of the natural environment; and
  • Cities Comprising Water Sensitive Communities: meaning socio-political capital for sustainability exists and citizens’ decision-making.
Attributes Traditional Regime Water Sensitive Regime
System Boundary Water supply, sewerage and flood control for economic and population growth and public health protection Multiple purposes for water considered over long-term timeframes including waterway health and other sectoral needs i.e. transport, recreation/amenity, micro-climate, energy etc.
Management Approach Compartmentalisation and optimisation of single components of the water cycle Adaptive, integrated, sustainable management of the total water cycle (including land-use)
Expertise Narrow technical and economic focussed disciplines Interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder learning across social, technical, economic, design, ecological spheres etc
Service delivery Centralised, linear and predominantly technologically and economically based Diverse, flexible solutions at multiple scales via a suite of approaches (technical, social, economic, ecological etc)
Role of public Water managed by government on behalf of communities Co-management of water between government, business and communities
Risk Risk regulated and controlled by government Risk shared and diversified via private and public instrument

Background and aims

The twin challenges confronting Australian cities and towns of accommodating increasing population and the effects of climate change have implications for almost every aspect of water in our urban environments.  Through the practice of Water Sensitive Urban Design, the planning and design of a “Water Sensitive City” responds to issues of water conservation and water security, risk of flooding, degradation of urban waterways and rising temperatures, in a way that enhances the liveability of our cities and towns.  The notion of water sensitive Australian cities has featured in government policies, but how to get there remains largely undefined.


Defining Water Sensitive Cities

The idea of a Water Sensitive City emerged almost simultaneously, when a researcher and a policy maker were searching for terms to encapsulate a vision for a sustainable urban environment.

Concepts like total water cycle and catchment management, or adaptive and integrated urban water management, offered philosophical underpinnings of a new water management paradigm, but not necessarily a tangible vision from which new design principles, management frameworks and technological innovations could grow.

The idea of a Water Sensitive City seemed to encapsulate this type of vision, and was released into the lexicon of the Australian urban water sector through the Council of Australian Government’s National Water Initiative agreement, and very soon found its feet. Researchers vigorously debated and developed the concept, and practitioners adopted it as a direction for sustainable water futures that engaged their superiors and peers.

Soon, practitioners and researchers joined forces to realise Water Sensitive Cities – learning together to create shared understandings of what it will mean to be sensitive to water in cities, by working on new technologies and trajectories to take them there.

So the story of Water Sensitive Cities has begun…

How do we get there?