AECOM and Melbourne Water – Managing the Social Value (amenity) provided by waterways

Summary of the project, product, framework

Waterway amenity is measured by the often-intangible user experience of the asset, making it challenging to define asset performance in comparison to traditionally built assets. However, like traditional assets, management of waterways requires a clear articulation of the value gained from investment in maintenance and renewal activities, which is not possible unless their performance objectives can be defined and linked to tangible, measurable outcomes. To solve this, Melbourne Water’s asset management framework was adapted to waterways, focusing on defining service and technical objectives of amenity, developing measures and targets to monitor performance and inform evidence-based decisions for ongoing management.

2. Description of project or framework addressing the assessment criteria

The Port Phillip and Westernport region’s waterways are important community assets providing opportunities for recreation, to enjoy amenity and for people to connect with nature and each other. The benefits that waterways provide are described in Melbourne Water’s (MW) 2018 Healthy Waterways Strategy (HWS) as four values: environmental, social, cultural and economic. Of these four waterway values, there are nine key values, chosen on the basis of their importance to the community and ability to represent the range of environmental and social values. The amenity key value is defined as ‘the pleasantness of a waterway to visitors and the ability of the waterway to provide a restorative escape from the urban landscape’, and it is ‘diminished by the presence of unpleasant or intrusive development, odour, litter and noise’.

The overall state of the waterway and its key processes are assessed by a number of waterway conditions1, which are managed to support and improve the key values2.

The program of works that Melbourne Water undertakes to manage waterways for amenity outcomes is primarily funded through the Waterways and Drainage Investment Plan (WDIP) under the Community, Access, Involvement and Recreation Service. Some of these works include the on-ground activities of revegetation, weed control and litter collection.
Compared to environmental values, it has been acknowledged in the HWS that the waterway conditions influencing and contributing to social values are in their infancy and improvements are required ‘in the development of tools to support investment in waterways works for recreation and amenity.’3

As amenity is measured by often intangible user experience of the natural asset, defining the performance of waterway amenity can be more difficult than for traditionally built assets. For example, defining what it means for a waterway to be ‘pleasant’ or to ‘provide an escape from the urban landscape’ and then measuring this. For this reason, natural assets are often not adequately considered in the scope of an organisation’s asset management system. However, like traditional assets, management of these assets requires a clear articulation of the value gained from investment in maintenance and renewal activities, which is not possible unless the performance objectives can be defined and linked to tangible, measurable outcomes in the field.

To address this, MW’s existing Asset Management Framework was adapted and applied to waterways to explicitly define amenity social value, which includes assessing the waterway conditions: vegetation extent and litter absence. This involved the following six key steps:

  1. Defining the service objectives associated with amenity social value.

MW commissions surveys every two years to gain insight into the community’s knowledge and perception of MW’s waterways. The questions and responses to these surveys in addition to the definition of amenity in the HWS conceptual model, were used to define service objectives linked to the two amenity waterway conditions:

  1. Vegetation extent: Create a safe, aesthetically pleasing space where people escape the urban environment to relax and appreciate nature.
  2. Litter for amenity: Create a safe, aesthetically pleasing space that adds to the community’s enjoyment of the waterway environment and value.

2. Defining the technical objectives associated with amenity social value.

Key terms from the service objectives (underlined above) were developed further into technical objectives that could be measured by MW to record and monitor the performance of waterways. For example, translating ‘relax and appreciate nature’ into ‘creating and/or maintaining a cool and shaded space where people can relax’.

3. Defining performance measures and targets for each technical objective.

Performance measures were selected based on an assessment of their link to the technical and service objectives (i.e. how useful that information is for predicting whether or not an objective will or will not be met) and the ease of data collection. For example, ‘creating and/or maintaining a cool and shaded space where people can relax’ can be measured by calculating percentage of canopy cover within 200 m of the centreline of a waterway through aerial land surveys. Where possible, performance measures that could utilise existing MW data sources (e.g. customer complaints and survey results) were prioritised. However, many of the additional performance measures (e.g. visual condition of litter) focused on meeting the technical and service objectives had not been captured by MW in the past. As a result, the methodology to capture these, including specification and management of the data and its integration into MW’s asset management information system had to be considered and developed.

4. Defining the criticality of assets in meeting amenity social value.

To set performance targets to prioritise investment in waterways to meet the service objectives for amenity the criticality/importance needed to be defined. MW has established an asset criticality method that utilises its corporate consequence matrix to define criticality as synonymous with the consequence of asset failure. Using this approach amenity failure was primarily the result of customer levels of service and reputation. It was further determined that criticality could be defined by the total number of visitors to the waterway, the population density of the area surrounding the waterway and the level of redundancy (i.e. presence of absence of other parks in the area).

5. Assessing the risk of assets not meeting objectives.

A risk assessment tool was developed to calculate the risk of not meeting performance targets on the technical objectives and service objectives.

6. Developing a decision-making framework.

A decision-making framework is not currently in place at MW that can be used to systematically convert risk associated with not meeting social value objectives into management actions. For example, at what risk level intervention actions are to be taken, and what those interventions should be. This framework is currently under development and will function as an extension of the risk assessment tool to allow development of (and updating existing) transparent and defensible Asset Management Plans (AMPs). These AMPs summarise and contextualise the output of the decision-making framework (preventative, corrective and inspection activity schedules) and allow for the development of funding submissions for the maintenance of amenity social value across MW’s waterways.

3. Opinion as to specific contribution made by the nominated individual/team/organisation

Natural assets such as waterways are often not adequately considered in the scope of an organisation’s asset management system as their value is often intangible or hard to define and measure, especially as they are linear in nature. As a result, application of asset management principles to these assets is a novel undertaking. It also requires consideration of alternate failure modes and measures that are not considered for more standard built assets. This makes this project unique and gives it the ability to set a benchmark and framework for increasing the scope of asset management to natural assets. As the manager of a number of natural assets, this project has already generated considerable interest throughout the rest of MW, as well as other organisations involved in the work. Upon its completion the successes and lessons learnt from this process are expected to be applied to other waterway classes such as wetlands and on-ground delivery programs that achieve social value outcomes, such as grass cutting.

The approach and learnings from this project will be applied to other natural assets across MW, changing the way we value and maintain our natural assets based on their role in amenity. This will allow MW to make evidence-based decisions on investments across its entire portfolio with consideration given to impacts to all its values. The outcomes of this project are also expected to act as a case study for other organisations with similar challenges associated with defining community focused value from natural assets.

The project team comprised of members from MW, AECOM, RMIT and Jacobs. The team was led by Kylie Swingler at MW, with project management support from Julie-Anne Latham at AECOM. AECOM also acted as the asset management lead, led by Frédéric Blin with support from Julie-Anne Latham. Expertise in natural assets provided by Simon Treadwell from Jacobs and research support from Jackie Myers at RMIT.

A positive and open working relationship between all parties allowed ideas to be freely shared and discussed to address a challenge that is unique in the field of asset management. This collaborative approach allowed the team to leverage each individual’s strengths in asset management and environmental science to consider and develop practical and useful levels of service and performance measures for these assets.

General Comments

The following figures help provide further context to the project description. Figure 1 lists each of the nine key values of waterways that sit under the four waterways values, including their definition according to this strategy that was used to inform the development of the service and technical objectives. The waterway conditions associated with social value are listed in Figure 2. As this work is focused on amenity social value, the conditions specifically applicable are Vegetation Extent and Litter Absence, whose definitions are provided. Figure 3 provides a simplified view of MW’s level of service framework and the relationship between service objectives, technical objectives, performance measures and performance targets. The relationship between the waterways conditions and amenity in the Waterways and Drainage Investment Plan (WDIP) and MW’s overall Asset Management System are shown in Figure 4 and Figure 5, respectively. 

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