Small Creek Restoration Program achieves big outcomes for the environment, but misses some community benefits

When the Bremer River Catchment consistently received poor ratings in waterway health and flood management as part of the annual SEQ Healthy Land and Water waterways assessment, the Ipswich City Council (ICC) set out to prioritise waterway improvement and water quality management in the shire using the principles of Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD).

Master of Integrated Water Management student Casey Macfarlane focused her applied research project on validating and quantifying community benefits of WSUD by analysing the assumed and actual impacts of the Small Creek Restoration Program – a pilot project initiated by ICC which aimed to restore a straight concrete channel back into its original state.

The project aimed to provide natural water treatment mechanisms to improve the quality of receiving water bodies, create habitat for native wildlife, develop active transport connections for communities, and provide an aesthetic public space for recreation and exercise.

The first two out of four stages were completed in 2018 but there was limited tangible evidence that the project delivered the assumed benefits proposed in the concept design and preliminary planning.

Casey’s research project reviewed these original assumptions and objectives and compared them to the actual community benefits yielded from the restoration project.

What is WSUD?

Communities across the world are struggling with challenges around rapid urbanisation, population growth and encroachment into native environments impacting on water security, water quality management, runoff control, environmental destruction, and infrastructure degradation.

Traditional methods of water management are no longer suitable to combat these threats, therefore a more holistic and innovative way of thinking must be applied.

“Water sensitive urban design (WSUD) is an approach that focuses on improving the sustainability of water management and the resilience of cities,” Casey explains.

“WSUD embraces the principles of integrated urban water management, implementing functional infrastructure that delivers multiple benefits. Under this banner sits ecosystem restoration which focuses on reverting a system back to close to its original state, reinstating the ecosystem services that it once provided and including modern technologies and methods to optimise services further for social, community and environmental benefit.”

Integrated Water Management (IWM) and WSUD are essential in the development of more liveable communities and ecosystem restoration is one approach that can promote longevity, resilience, and sustainability in modern communities.

The Small Creek Project

Small Creek used to be a meandering waterway lined with native grasses, rushes, and mature tree communities prior to any development. During settlement, the site was cleared to be used as grazing land and then, in its development as a “drained city” in the 1980s, the site was changed to a straight concrete channel surrounded by short, regularly mowed grass and some mature gum trees.

In restoring the site to near original state through WSUD ecosystem management, ICC was able to reinstate numerous services like wildlife habitat and food resources, cleaner water with deeper ponds providing habitat, aesthetic interest, and some water retention.

While the environmental benefits are obvious, ICC wanted to understand how valid the assumptions were that they made regarding the community benefits delivered by the Small Creek Restoration program. The assumptions made in the preliminary, concept and final project documentation were developed with extensive literature to support them but no ‘real data’.

Casey’s research project aimed to determine the extent of the amenity and social value provided to measure the benefits realised and positive unintended consequences to ultimately justify the expenditure.

The council expressed interest in this research as they rarely have the opportunity, funding, or resources to review project outcomes following delivery at this scale, and to gain objective feedback, learnings, and reflections.


As part of her research, Casey completed a literature review of existing WSUD approaches before spending eight sequential days from 6am to 6pm on site to observe people using the park.

“During my time on site, I took note of every person that used the corridor, how they used it, and the frequency with which they used it,” Casey said.

“I also conducted interviews to better understand the attitudes, values and behaviours of participants, providing a general direction for conversation but allowing participants to guide the discussion.”

Results indicated that a number of council-derived goals were achieved, from the successful delivery of amenities including equitable and connected bike paths and walkways, open lawns, and rocks, steppingstones and a bridge to add interest to the landscape. The program has also provided numerous ecosystem services that support and regulate the natural environment.

“There were however some community developed objectives that were either not included in the design, or not adequately realised and the lack of some critical elements has prevented the potential benefits from being fulfilled,” Casey said.

“This gap in amenity limited the opportunities for community education, social capacity building, and cultural inclusion, ultimately restricting the sense of community and civic engagement.”

“The main goal not achieved was indigenous representation and storytelling. None of the interviewees knew about the traditional owner values of the site. The original proposal for the site was to include artwork, storytelling, and education spaces, however these were not included in commissioning. The limited provision of shaded recreational areas has made it difficult to create a peaceful place that the community wants to spend time in.”

Casey’s research report concluded with some recommendations to improve the amenity value of the site including the engagement and education of custodians and ensuring equal distribution of benefits from the program.

Suggested improvements also include better lighting for security purposes, more bins to counter litter and dog waste issues, and more shade and seating for everyone in the community to enjoy the space. She notes that it would be beneficial for the council to continue monitoring the site and how the community uses it.

Given that Small Creek was a pilot project, ICC will be able to use the findings of Casey’s report to keep improving the site and to guide future rehabilitation projects.

About the Master of Integrated Water Management

We asked Casey why she decided to enrol in the Master of Integrated Water Management with the International WaterCentre, and here’s what she had to say:

I was always keen to go back to do post-graduate studies after being in the industry for a few years. My goal was to select a specialty and learn more about industry trends, technology advances, and new initiatives. In my previous role I had a strong focus on civil infrastructure, and I wanted to take a more integrated approach to how we manage water.

The course took 18 months to complete. The first year was course work and the last six months was my thesis. I really enjoyed all the topics that covered water sensitive urban design, emphasising new ways of local water management. It was great meeting likeminded people from all around the world, hearing about their experiences and backgrounds and how these influenced their water journeys.

This program has been instrumental in allowing me to gain new perspectives of water management from my lecturers and classmates alike, and the ability to build an international network of people pushing the boundaries of water science, engineering, research and community involvement.