Sustainable journeys: Melbourne Skyfarm and Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre forge new paths

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Sustainable journeys: Melbourne Skyfarm and Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre forge new paths

A spectacular new space in Melbourne, alongside Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s renewed focus on sustainability, make Australia’s second largest city a strong choice for socially conscious event organisers.

If you’ve visited Melbourne, Australia in the last two decades, there’s a good chance your experience of the city was positively influenced by the work of sustainability innovator Brendan Condon.

Since the late nineties, Condon has been at the helm of several environmentally focused businesses, from cultivating and planting tens of millions of wetland plants to remove pollutants from Melbourne’s waterways, to harvesting stormwater to drought-proof several of Melbourne’s landmark inner city parks and even producing carbon offset coffee beans to fuel Melbourne’s enduring obsession with coffee.

His latest – and most eye-catching – venture has him in partnership with Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) – also on their own sustainability journey – to give Melbourne’s skyline a spectacular burst of green in the form of Melbourne Skyfarm, an urban farm including an orchard and working beehives, a research and education centre, and a bar, restaurant and event space on the roof of an MCEC-owned car park across the Yarra River from the venue in Melbourne’s city centre.

The 2,000sqm project came about thanks to Condon’s other latest venture, Biofilta which, after four years of development, started producing its signature Foodcubes in Melbourne last August. Made from 80% recycled plastic, Foodcubes are raised self-watering garden beds featuring Biofilta’s injection molded advanced wicking system – a new spin on another Australian invention – which hold between 120 to 130 litres of water in the base for each square metre of vegetation and are extremely efficient at producing food in an urban setting.

“They’re ideal for cities where you can raise food growing up off the ground, because often in cities we have polluted ground water and contaminated soils, or paved surfaces. You can build out these advanced wicking beds, they’re modular, they all click together,” says Condon.

“We’ve designed a system now that can build urban farms very rapidly so that you can be building a big farm in days and then producing lots of food within weeks.”

“If you look at cities, we actually have huge amounts of space with rooftops and carparks, schools, backyards, that could be repurposed for food production and generating a huge amount of food from our urban form,” says Condon

“We developed the whole business for climate resilience – we see that there’s going to be increasing challenges with food production in future in a heating climate so we wanted cities to become more climate adapted, climate resilient and food secure.

“The same resilience is very relevant in a time of Covid where people need arms-length food; where they’re income challenged and [during] lockdown have really been yearning for a bit of green space. Our sales really skyrocketed during Covid.”

Condon says the Foodcubes are also proving useful in non-urban environments such as remote Aboriginal communities under food and water stress and in the Pacific Islands, where rising sea levels are compromising the soil.

Stage 1 of Melbourne Skyfarm is set to be completed by the end of 2020, with the full project set to open to the public and for events by November 2021.

With the development of their Foodcubes well on the way, Melbourne Skyfarm came about after Condon and his business started looking for a site in Melbourne to build a high profile, productive urban farm and MCEC’s carpark made the list of options.

“We approached them and said, ‘We’d like to build a really innovative rooftop farm with a whole range of elements,’ and they just loved the idea from the start,” says Condon.

The project, also supported by the City of Melbourne with a AUD$300,000 grant from its Urban Forestry Fund, will produce five tonnes of food each year from approximately 200sqm of Foodcubes, with most of the produce going to support OzHarvest, MCEC’s food rescue charity of choice, which feeds Australian communities in need. Skyfarm’s café menu will also be infused by ingredients from the rooftop farm.

MCEC already has 36 of Biofilta’s Foodcubes in one of their interior courtyards, with the herbs grown there being used at the onsite Goldfields Café.

Hiring a Sustainability Manager for the first time in 2020, Australia’s largest convention and exhibition centre is also beginning the next chapter of its sustainability mission, supported by a suite of strong existing initiatives, making it a good choice for sustainable minded meeting planners.

In 2019, MCEC donated 25 tonnes of food to OzHarvest, put a further 44 tonnes of organic waste through an onsite dehydrator to kickstart the process of converting it back into enough energy to power 20 residential homes for a year, and, between July 2018 and June 2019, diverted 62% of its waste from landfill, using 17 different waste streams.

The Centre’s 100-mile menu, sourcing fresh produce from within a 100-mile radius of the venue is also popular with clients.

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre has 36 of Biofilta’s Foodcubes in an internal courtyard.

Through a novel group power purchase agreement, the centre also offsets 15% of its total energy usage through the Melbourne Renewable Energy Project, a collaboration with 13 other Melbourne organisations to contribute to the building of a wind farm in regional Victoria. In addition, through a mixture of energy efficiency measures, MCEC reduced its CO2 emissions by 22% between 2015 and 2019.

As they look to the future, Sam Ferrier, the Centre’s new sustainability manager, has several projects in the works from solar power to “exploring opportunities that might not necessarily be conventional”.

“We’re about to embark on a new journey to develop a new sustainability strategy,” she says.

“It’s really about aligning our plan with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, [and] the City of Melbourne has an ambitious zero waste and zero carbon targets for the future, so we really want to make sure that we’re aligning with that as well.

“We’ve focused a lot on environmental initiatives in the past, and [we’re] hoping to open that up a bit more to the social aspects of sustainability, too.

“Our business is bringing people together and by default that has an impact on the environment so [it] is our responsibility to try and reduce that impact as much as possible. There’s local benefits to that but there’s also much larger benefits – if we can really get our renewable energy transition plan off the ground and start powering our building with renewable energy, reducing our CO2 emissions, that really has global impacts.”

Produce from the Foodcubes installed in MCEC’s courtyard are used onsite at the centre at the Goldfields Cafe and Bar.

As a result of the pause to business due to the pandemic, Ferrier says MCEC is taking a different approach to putting together the plan that will guide them until the middle of the decade.

“Rather than me just going ahead and writing the plan and saying, ‘Here’s the sustainability plan, this is what we’re going to do for the next five years,’ we are taking a different approach – and the same is happening for all the ideas that we’re working on across the business.

“We allocate a very small team with employees from departments all across the business – a really diverse mix of people – and we spend a really short and intense period of time exploring that idea – doing the research, figuring out what our targets need to be, what other strategies we need to align with, what is the scope of our sustainability plan, and coming to the end of that process with a draft,” explains Ferrier, adding that the pandemic has allowed them to give single-minded focus to important issues and consult more with external stakeholders.

Melbourne Skyfarm is progressing a little differently thanks to the pandemic too, with Stage One of the project now focussed on getting the urban farm part of the project up and running by the end of 2020 and delivering food to OzHarvest by February 2021, to make up for the shortfall in supply due to restaurants trading differently to usual.

The full project is anticipated to be complete, open to the public and available for educational visits and exclusive use for events of up to 500 people, by November 2021.

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