Sept. 19, 2013

ecoPOPs at Bondi Beach

ONE OF THE REASONS I like attending the Wednesday night educational forums that Transition Bondi have been running these past couple years is that it gives me the opportunity to wander around Bondi beach and the adjacent area beforehand. So it was that I came to explore the headlands and backstreets with their melange of domestic architecture that includes some nice examples of Art Deco (the Streamlined Moderne style, for you Art Deco fans out there).

It was a good afternoon at this, Australia's most iconic of beaches, fine, end-of-winter weather and tourists not all that thick on the ground. As afternoon turned to evening I made my way towards Chapel by the Sea, the place where Transition Bondi hold their weekly event, and there, at the end of the small plaza, I encountered something new and shiny.

Made of reflective, grey, galvanised metal and looking like sections of a rainwater tank assembled into some strange machine, I read the sign exclaiming 'Installed by Waverley Council' and discovered that this device is an ecoPOPs.

ecoPOPPing Fair Food Week

ecoPOPs were what the evening's Transition Bondi gathering were about. And that was appropriate because this event, which featured a ten minute TED Talks video by Ron Finley on footpath gardening in Los Angeles, featured sustainability consultant, Michael Mobbs, who spoke about cooling our roads to cool our cities — and about his ecoPOPs.

Shrinking the island

If you think of all the hard paving, the roads, buildings and other stuff that makes up our cities you can imagine how it absorbs the sun's heat during the day then emits it as the day cools. Not all that bad a thing in winter, but in summer it triggers the desire to switch on the aircon and this boosts electricity consumption, which boosts the amount of coal going into the power station furnace and boosts the amount of carbon dioxide flowing from their chimneys to warm the atmosphere.

Heat absorbed then emitted from those roads, buildings and hard surfaces forms a bubble of hot air over our cities and raises their temperature above that of the surrounding environment. This is known as the urban heat island effect and it's something that Michael Mobbs has been advocating the planting of street trees for, a means of shading our streets to reduce their temperature. His Ecopop is an adaptation of that idea.

ecoPOPs are multifunctional bits of technology: they store rainwater and can be used grow ornamental or food-producing plants. Essentially a hydroponic system, the captured rainwater irrigates the plantings by using capillary action to moisten the soil in the planter units, a design also known as a 'wicking garden' because as the soil dries, water is wicked into it from the reservoir below. The Bondi Ecopop features a wormfarm composter to provide nutrients for the garden.

Ecopopping councils

Michael has tried to introduce ecoPOPs into the City of Sydney local government area, but without success so far. Waverley Council has proven more amenable, installing on a temporary basis the ecoPOP adjacent to Chapel by the Sea and discussing their installation in schools and the Bondi Beach area.

Michael's vision is of ecoPOPs spilling vegetables and hosting fruit trees lining the centre of our roads, however ecoPOPs would be equally at home in city parks and even on sufficiently-strong rooftops. 

ecoPOPs , seen as a technology, are fitting installations in the city because cities are essentially technological constructs. As an industrial designer — I forgot who it was — once said, when you walk out the door in the city you walk into a designed environment. Design is all-pervasive, it surrounds us, we live in and by it. So it is we invent machines like the ecoPOP to grow the plants that cool our streets and feed us. I guess it's an example of how we can use design and technology to work with nature.

Transition Bondi's evening rounded out a week of Fair Food Week events in Sydney that started with the PermaBee in Randwick's Permaculture Interpretive Garden, progressed to the Paddock To Plate food workshop at the Barrett House sustainability education centre, moved onto the Seeding Our Food Future Cafe Conversation at the Randwick Sustainability Hub and, yesterday, extended Fair Food Week into the idea of the ecoPOP.

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Story and photos by Russ Grayson, 29 August 2013

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