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Putting People First by Romilly Madew

Last week, Australia's sustainability leaders met in Melbourne for the eighth annual Green Cities conference.

If I could distill the lessons from two days down to two sentences it would be these: Our buildings, our communities and our cities are built by people for people. People are at the centre of all that we do.

"Start with people first," keynote speaker Kent Larson told the audience. "Cities are for people, not machines." Kent inspired us with urban interventions that can create 'microcities' where 80 per cent of everything we need is within 20 minutes' walk; where alternatives to the car are convenient, affordable and even pleasurable; where vertical agriculture delivers high-quality produce; where micro apartments are liveable, affordable and fun; and where people can "live large in a small footprint".

We were encouraged by projects that are making new, exciting places for people. Lend Lease has not only dismantled the Brutalist concrete fortress in London's Elephant & Castle to create a sustainable and liveable precinct - but is also changing people's values so they want to live in a green way.

Closer to home, we heard about how the people of Newcastle, the Sunshine Coast, Karratha, Melbourne and Ipswich are investing in regeneration projects to create jobs, reduce environmental impacts and improve the liveability of their communities. As Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, said: "at a time we are worried about job security, the 1200 Buildings retrofit program has created an uplift of 8,000 high-value, high-skill jobs and about $2 billion in economic activity." The timely launch of the new Green Star - Communities Guide for Local Government gives councils the knowledge, resources and benchmarks they need to place sustainability front-and-centre.

It's clear that the mood has shifted and organisations are taking sustainability to the heart of their businesses - not only because it makes business sense, but because it's better for people. For sustainability specialists, the current challenge is to "take our technical conversation around green buildings and link it to people" as CEO of the World Green Building Council Jane Henley said.

All of our CEO speakers were concerned with how the built environment and their businesses would address some of the great looming challenges for people - from an ageing population to resilience in healthcare to achieving greater productivity in office workers. Panellists on a number of sessions acknowledged the need to get better at measuring the previously unmeasurable - productivity, wellbeing and levels of stress. The WorldGBC's new report, which will provide best practice guidance on the type of green building features that enhance productivity and performance, will be a valuable resource.

In the streamed sessions on Day Two, we heard about a variety of sustainability-savvy efforts to make the Great Australian Dream more efficient, resilient and liveable - such as the University of Wollongong's award-winning transformation of a fibro shack into a net-zero energy home. We heard about the tall timber building revolution, growing the green roof industry and how big data is meeting big buildings. And we heard about the need to get better at engaging with people. As Aurecon's Quentin Jackson said: "We think we are designing for people, but we don't actually talk to them." So, let's talk to them.

It's clear that the language of science and technology does not change opinion alone - values do. In the breaks, many people agreed that we must start talking about building "great places to live" instead of communicating the technical solutions that reduce carbon emissions.

That's our next challenge to the industry - put people at the centre of all that you do. And do it fast. As the SwedishGBC's Ann-Kristen Karlsson said: "It's too late to walk the talk - we must start running."