Alan Hoban

Director Civil & Water

Social leadership is important for a STEM career if you want to make change.

Q. Below many old cities, London and Rome for example, are large sewage systems. What systems are below Queensland cities? (Allegra, Stanthorpe SHS)

A.We normally have three sets of pipes: small water supply pipes that provide our drinking water, larger sewer pipes that take wastewater from our houses to a wastewater treatment plant, and the largest pipes for conveying stormwater to help minimise minor flood events when it rains. Engineers help work out where those pipes are needed and how large those pipes should be.

Q.If you were interested in a career in chemical or petroleum engineering, what subjects what would you suggest to do to advance your knowledge in these areas that would help towards the transition between high school and university? (Darcie, Lowood SHS)

A. Chemistry is the major one you’d need, physics is a big help, and biology can really help too.

Q.What do you think Australia’s biggest problem is in regards to urban water management? (Bernice, Southport SHS)

A. We’ve got some key challenges because our population is growing so we need more and more water to supply our cities’ needs. People are becoming more aware of the problems caused by dams and so we’re unlikely to see many more being built. Droughts are more frequent and more severe due to climate change. Desalination is one option but it’s expensive and uses lots of energy when we really need to reduce our energy consumption. Recycling our wastewater can be a really neat solution as it also reduces how much wastewater we release into our waterways, but there are lots of people in the community who don’t understand the science of water recycling and are scared by the ‘yuck factor’. So we need some great new water scientists who can build the trust of the community.

Q. Does your work include a lot of digital modelling to predict future outcomes using programming and computer-based technology? (Emma, Babinda State School)

A. Yes, there are lots of computer models we use. Flood models are very common. In a flood model, we create a digital terrain model of our cities (think Minecraft) and then make it rain in the model and it can show us where the flood water goes and how fast and deep it is. The models are changing all the time as computers get faster and faster. We are now starting to use models that tell us how hot urban areas are, and help us design new types of cities that are shadier and won’t get as hot in summer.

Q. What environment policies and sustainable planning strategies do you use in your work? (Emma, Babinda State School)

A. The major planning policy I refer to in my work is the Queensland State Planning Policy which includes targets for protecting water quality and dealing with climate change. The Environmental Protection Act is also very important and effectively says that all of us must take all reasonable and practical steps to avoid environmental harm.

Q. Why do you think water sensitive urban design (WSUD) matters so much in today’s world? In what ways can people help manage our urban water use better in our own homes and yards?

A. Most of the world’s population live in cities. If we can make our cities cleaner and greener than we not only protect the environment but create much nicer and happier places to live. There are lots of studies showing that mental health improves when we have access to nature, and so we should be doing as much as we can to get more greenery into our cities. In our own homes, we can capture and use rainwater (tip: garden plants prefer rainwater to tapwater), direct downpipes on to garden beds to create ‘raingardens’ and try and minimise the amount of impervious concrete surfaces. There is a lot of research into permeable pavements which is quite exciting.

Q. Car-sharing schemes are very different to water management – how did you get involved in both? Why is social leadership important in a STEM career?

A. Engineering is really about problem solving and can allow you to have a diverse career. I’ve been passionate about doing something about climate change for a long time, and so promoting car-sharing seemed like a practical way to go about that. Most cars sit stationary for 98% of the time in driveways or carparks so it’s a pretty inefficient use of resources. I saw car-sharing starting to take off in Europe and the US, and wanted to make it work here in Australia. My interest in water is mostly related to creating better cities, so I see an interest in transport and water as being related.

Social leadership is important for a STEM career if you want to make change. Because you’ll need not only good technical arguments, but also strategies to work with people. Think about climate change as an example—having great climate scientists isn’t enough; we need a social movement to go with it.

Q. You won the World Best New School by Learning Environments International for a design at Noosa. What aspects of this design made it stand out?

A. It’s a school for kids who are falling through the cracks of the traditional schooling system. Often they’re sleeping rough or going through tough times at home, or who have had run-ins with the cops. So the school needed to feel friendly and welcoming. Most of the materials are recycled or sustainably sourced. It’s modelled on a beach house style, and sits lightly on the landscape and is built on raised stumps to avoid the typical concrete slab on ground construction and protect tree roots close to the building. We captured the rainwater for reuse, and directed all overflow water into infiltration trenches so that there is no stormwater runoff from the site, which is good for the health of the local waterways.

Q. How did you use your environmental engineering skills working on the solar farm project?

A. We needed to understand how the site flooded and ensure all the solar panels would be protected during floods. We also did a lot of work on erosion, to make sure that the drip line from the panels did not erode the soils over time.

Q. How could we use stormwater and manage the water cycle in our schools?

A. There are a few things you can do in schools. First, you can capture it from roofs and reuse it. You can minimise littering so less plastic gets washed into drains and waterways. Litter traps can be installed in some drains to help this as well. Where possible, surface water should be directed onto garden beds to both keep plants healthy but also reduce runoff. Some places are digging up stormwater pipes and recreating natural creek beds. Ideally, any new development within the school should use permeable paving and raingardens to manage its runoff.

Alan is the Director of Civil and Water at Bligh Tanner Pty Ltd. He is a civil and environmental engineer who has worked closely with government and industry to establish policy, planning frameworks and technical standards for better urban water management. Alan is a progressive, award-winning engineer, skilled in facilitating, training and capacity building. In 2014 Alan was named one of the most influential contributors to the Australian stormwater sector by Stormwater Australia.

His awards include the Gilbert Vasey Award in Agricultural Engineering, the Queensland Medal for Landscape Architecture (for the ‘Flood of Ideas’ community resilience-building project), and ‘The AILA’ for his leadership of the Water by Design program. Alan also cofounded Victoria’s Flexicar car-share scheme and is a graduate of Social Leadership Australia.

Most recently, Alan’s work has included a range of projects including restoration of a concrete drain into a healthy functioning waterway, Australia’s largest solar farm, water recycling systems and mountain bike parks.