By Dominique Hes

    I have been working on sustainability and placemaking for more than 25 years. One of the things that often comes up is what to do with land that was industrial and is now just sitting unused because it is so toxic.

    The map below shows an estimate of contamination in Melbourne and using a UA EPA model predicted lead levels in kids. Around these dots are parcels of unused old land. Note the density in the inner west!

    Source: Laidlaw, Mark & Gordon, Callum & Taylor, Mark & Ball, Andrew. (2018). Estimates of potential childhood lead exposure from contaminated soil using the USEPA IEUBK model in Melbourne, Australia. Environmental Geochemistry and Health. 40. 10.1007/s10653-018-0144-6.

    So, what can we do with this land? The trend is to scoop it out and move it elsewhere, but we have seen with the tunnel works that this creates other problems. Are there other options? Sure, expensive washing of the soil, landfarming (which means turning the soil and aerating it), chemical treatment, and capping etc. But these all take time, make the land unusable for the duration of treatment and cost a lot of money.

    What if we could clean the land in a way that is low cost and allows us to use it while it is recovering?

    There are many natural ways to enable the toxins to be drawn out of the land, but these tend to take time. There are plants like sunflowers, microorganisms, types of fungi all that thrive in contaminated soils and metabolise the toxins. The challenge then is to find something that can make use of the land effectively, efficiently and economically while nature takes its course. With a little creativity, collaboration and innovative thinking between industry, academia and government this is possible. The example below ticks all these boxes.

    Located in North Amsterdam in the Netherlands, ‘de Ceuvel’ is an incubator for innovative sustainability and circular economy start-ups. It is on a site that for 80 years was used for ship building and has been abandoned since its closing in 2000. After the ship building moved elsewhere the soil was deemed so toxic that the land wasn’t viable for redevelopment.

    The De Cuevel innovators, activists and artists took on the challenge of using the space. They used old house boats, repurposed them and placed them on the land, yes, ON the land, linking them with boardwalks. Between the house boats they planted different plant species and encouraged the establishment of micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi that for the last 10 years have been naturally cleaning the soil.

    All boats have composting toilets and have solar panels that feed into a local micro grid enabling them to share their energy. All of the occupants commit to supporting the upkeep and maintenance of the site. Through working together on the site, they also get to know each other and share their areas of innovation, which in turn leads to collaboration and further innovation, in a virtual cycle.

    In Melbourne we don’t have a rich history of houseboats, though as an aside I hope it is something we are thinking about with our great Maribyrnong in the west! But we do have a lot of unused portable buildings and classrooms. So, is this a viable idea for us to consider as we try to think creatively about our circular economy future?

    NB: Hobsons Bay Council is currently seeking submissions for its draft Industrial Land Management Strategy and Design Guidelines


    Dr Dominique Hes is the Zero Building Carbon Lead at the City of Melbourne. Dominique mixes theory and thinking, with doing and testing to discover how we can best contribute to the well-being and thriving of place, people and planet. 



    Dr Dominique Hes is the Zero Building Carbon Lead at the City of Melbourne. Dominique mixes theory and thinking, with doing and testing to discover how we can best contribute to the well-being and thriving of place, people and planet.

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