At a policy launch during the lead-up to this year's federal election Tony Abbott said "if elected, I want to be known as an infrastructure prime minister".
The list of urgent infrastructure projects Mr Abbott launched that day consisted almost entirely of roads, freeways, tunnels and bridges.
We rely on infrastructure like roads, sewers and railways to function as a modern society. But what about the natural infrastructure – the air, rivers, forests and ecosystems that underpin our economy, indeed our whole lives? When the quest for more roads, freeways, tunnels and bridges is achieved by degrading our natural life support systems, is it worth it?
The idea of 'green infrastructure' emerged from the United States. Advisers to former US President Bill Clinton argued that green infrastructure was an 'interconnected network of protected land and water that supports native species, maintains natural ecological processes, sustains air and water resources, and contributes to the health and quality of life [of] communities and people.'
The University of Maryland's Environmental Finance Center took up the idea, promoting green infrastructure as 'open space with a purpose that, like other infrastructure, should be an integral part of government budgets and management programs… just as growing communities need to plan for, upgrade and expand their grey infrastructure (i.e. roads, sewers and utilities) so too they need to plan for, upgrade and expand their green infrastructure.'
When 'natural capital' is restored rather than diminished by our economy, the flow-on effects to our lifestyle – and livelihoods – are huge. To achieve these benefits we need to completely rethink our notion of infrastructure; redefining it to include natural support systems that provide us with essential environmental services.
So is there anything wrong with Tony Abbott's emphasis on roads, freeways, tunnels and bridges?
The problem with such a narrow focus is that we will continue to cement our society as one with widely dispersed residential populations, which means high vehicle dependency, greater travel times and longer distances to urban centres of employment.
This leads to increased fossil fuel use, higher travel costs, longer working hours and less time available for living life. The combined costs to the environment, the health system and public safety are massive.
The infrastructure we so urgently require to build a healthy and sustainable future is not more roads, freeways, tunnels and bridges. Genuine progress towards a sustainable future for Australia depends on investment in green infrastructure.
In Australia we should redefine our notion of infrastructure to include more than just grey infrastructure. We urgently need to plan for, upgrade and expand green infrastructure to safeguard our future.
This means protecting our existing natural systems, such as the native forests that supply us with water and sequester our carbon, the wetlands that guard against flooding and recycle our waste and the marine environments that supply us with fish, tourism and recreational opportunities.
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