Regenerative Adelaide

September 11, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Photo credit: Kevin Duffy. Cities must abandon historical linear metabolisms, in which resources are shipped in and waste shipped out, and instead adopt more natural and resource-efficient circular metabolisms, according to the author. Currently, train yards like this one represent the inefficient and unsustainable resource flow of urban centers.

In Brief An urbanizing world requires major policy initiatives to make urban resource use compatible with the world’s ecosystems. Metropolitan Adelaide has adopted this agenda and is well on its way to becoming a pioneering regenerative city region. New policies by the government of South Australia on energy efficiency, renewable energy, sustainable transport, zero waste, organic waste composting, water efficiency, wastewater irrigation of crops, peri-urban agriculture, and reforestation have taken Adelaide to the forefront of eco-friendly urban development. Working as a thinker in residence in Adelaide in 2003, I proposed linking policies to reduce urban eco-footprints and resource use with the challenge of building a green economy. Former premier Mike Rann is now encouraging his successor, Jay Weatherill, to take further policy initiatives towards making South Australia into a model city region for the rest of the world.

Key Concepts

  • Moving cities from environmentally sustainable to environmentally regenerative urban systems
  • Building a new, green economy in South Australia
  • Developing lasting urban policies for the benefit of both people and planet

If we do not take care in where we place our cities, how we grow our cities and how we live in our cities, then we will fail in our mission to protect biodiversity.”
Dr. Robert McDonald, The Nature Conservancy

In 2003, South Australia premier Mike Rann invited me to be a “Thinker in Residence” in Adelaide, South Australia, to explore options for greening this city region of 1.2 million people. My working premise was that a vigorous move towards environmental sustainability could greatly stimulate South Australia’s economy. The rationale for this was quite simple: I argued that a city region that takes active measures to improve the efficient use of its resources should also be able to reduce its reliance on imported resources—it could re-localize parts of its energy and food economy and bring a very substantial part of it back home.

During a nine-week period, my colleagues and I held innumerable seminars and events in which a wide cross-section of people were invited to discuss ways in which metropolitan Adelaide could benefit from becoming a sustainable city region. At the end of my residency I published a report called “Creating a Sustainable Adelaide” which was subsequently scrutinized and largely approved by a South Australia government committee.1

Over the last decade, both the government of South Australia and the City of Adelaide have shown remarkable foresight. They have taken many new initiatives on renewable energy, energy efficiency, public transport, waste recycling, peri-urban agriculture, and tree planting. (Peri-urban refers to the hinterland of cities.) Adelaide is well on its way to becoming not just a sustainable city but also a regenerative city: it has been working to build a new green economy while also actively contributing to the well-being and restoration of ecosystems in South Australia. In November 2011, I returned to Adelaide to document what had happened there regarding sustainable development in the last nine years. What I found was that the city has achieved a tremendous amount, but the large annual carbon emissions (around 20 tonnes of carbon per person) are a systemic problem that has yet to be seriously tackled.

A Future for Cities?

The rapidly urbanizing world we currently live in represents a fundamental, systemic change in the relationship between humans and nature. The move from living in villages and small towns to cities of millions of people is driven, to a significant extent, by the possibility of easy access to fossil fuel energy. The resource consumption patterns of urban populations define human environmental impact as never before and this has grave consequences for the health of the biosphere and the balance of gases in the atmosphere.

As cities become the predominant human habitat, urban development needs to undergo a profound paradigm shift. We must find ways for cities to minimize their systemic dependence on fossil fuels and their inefficient, unsustainable use of resources. The ecological, economic, and social externalities of our urban systems, in particular, need to be assessed and addressed in new ways. Rapid moves toward making our cities much more energy efficient and powering them with renewable energy are often cited as a crucially important issues, but we need to go beyond that: huge efforts must be made to enable cities to develop regenerative relationships with the world’s ecosystems.

The primary concept of relevance here is the metabolism of cities: cities need to move from using an inefficient linear metabolism to using a resource-efficient circular metabolism, modeling themselves on processes found in natural ecosystems. These differ from modern urban systems in that all wastes they produce are converted into nutrients for future growth. In contrast, current urban systems externalize their wastes in ways that undermine and damage the health and well-being of ecosystems locally, regionally, and globally.

The ecological footprints of cities cover much of the face of the Earth. We cannot allow a model of urbanization, which treats the unrestrained use of the world’s biological and mineral resources as non-negotiable and which uses nature as its waste dump, to proliferate across the planet. In the face of bio-diversity loss and climate change we need to be bold and imaginative. In my view the concept of sustainable urban development is no longer sufficient; only by assuring that cities continuously regenerate the ecosystems and soils from which they draw their resources can we assure a long-term future for an urbanizing world. We need to find ways to create regenerative cities.

We need not only local creativity and initiative, but also appropriate national policy frameworks to make useful things happen at the local level. Without national policy initiatives, driven by lively public debate, the necessary changes won’t happen fast enough, if at all. For example, feed-in tariffs for renewable energy in Denmark, Germany, and South Australia resulted from vigorous public demand; national policy was then implemented primarily at the local level.

The quest is now on for a new integrated model of urbanization that allows cities to be livable and economically viable, as well as environmentally regenerative. We want cities to shine brightly as places where much of human life is played out today, but also where a viable future for life on Earth is decided.

A City with a Future

“Cities must be part of the solution if an urbanizing world is to grapple successfully with ecological challenges such as climate change. In concentrated urban areas, it is possible for environmental economies of scale to reduce the impact of human beings on the earth.”
Siemens European Green City Index

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Photo credit: Roger Smith

Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide, where a Regent Parrot makes its home.

Adelaide is a city of parks, gardens, trees, and a remarkable architectural heritage. It is a place of prosperity, hospitality, cultural diversity, creativity, great food, and a high quality of life. Not surprisingly, it is widely recognized as one of the world’s most livable cities. This article examines whether it is also becoming a pioneering regenerative city.

Greater Adelaide is a medium-sized city region of 1.2 million people that has matured over a period of 160 years, growing by converting territories previously used by the aboriginal hunter-gatherer tribe, the Kaurna people, into farms and pastures. Today Adelaide still has a strong relationship to its rural regions, with the thriving horticultural, wine, and mining economy; manufacturing, services, and education are playing an important economic role, as well.

A decade ago, concern about uncertain water supplies and the threat of droughts started to stimulate a wider discussion about sustainable development. Since then, the tangible effects of climate change, and Greater Adelaide’s role in causing it, have been cited as proof that an overarching integrated urban systems design strategy, and a targeted program for implementing this, needs to be drawn up.

While in Adelaide in 2003, our goal was the greening of metropolitan Adelaide. Active moves towards environmental sustainability seemed to be an excellent basis for creating new businesses and jobs by internalizing resource flows. This approach anticipated many of the ideas recently developed under the label “Green New Deal” by think tanks such as the new economics foundation and the United Nations. These programs have since been widely adopted.

During a nine-week process, with many presentations and seminars, 32 strategies emerged. Of these, 31 were approved and integrated into government policy in 2004. (The 32nd, feed-in tariffs, was add in a 2008 speech by Premier Mike Rann.)

Mr. Rann explained the rationale of his government’s policies: “The logic of this is that the more we can preserve and improve the environment in which we live, the better positioned we are to build a stronger economy and healthier society. I also hope it will help change the attitudes of South Australians who don’t realize the full impact each of us have on the daily drain of our vital resources. These measures set a new pace for sustainable development, and set important new precedents for future decision makers.”
In recent years, Adelaide has become a world leader in developing an environmentally sustainable—indeed, regenerative city. The following is a summary of what has been done.

“Water Proofing” Adelaide

Adelaide is located near the mouth of the Murray River before it drains into the southeastern part of the Indian Ocean. The Murray is 3,000 kilometers long, yet it only carries a small fraction of the water of comparable-sized rivers in other parts of the world. The great annual variability of its flow makes it an unreliable source of water, and Greater Adelaide is water-challenged like few other urban regions across the world. After increasingly frequent droughts at the turn of the century, the South Australian government decided that it was time to develop new strategies for waterproofing Adelaide by focusing on the efficient use of water.

Water Proofing Adelaide of 2005, The Water for the Future, and The SA Water for Good strategies have been drawn up since 2003 to define appropriate actions for the management, conservation, and development of Adelaide’s water resources up to 2025. They encompass demand management, water savings, use of storm water and recycled water, balancing local development, and metropolitan water supply with ecologically sustainable use. The strategies enable residents of the region to play an active role in shaping the future of the Murray-Darling River Basin. Efficient water management can enable Greater Adelaide to become a net contributor to the regional water cycle through improved water use and diversified water supplies:

  • Water sensitive urban design will assure that 50 million fewer liters of water will be used per year by 2050;
  • At least 60 million liters per year of storm water and 75 million of urban wastewater will be recycled for non-drinking purposes.

Further measures include the use of roof water collection systems on public buildings. To this effect, detailed information is being provided to assist councils, businesses and householders.

New approaches to water management are making Greater Adelaide into a highly water-efficient city. Wastewater recycling and reuse is a particularly innovative and important feature of this approach. South Australia now recycles 30 percent of its wastewater, compared to the national Australian average of about 17 percent. Particularly significant is the Glenelg Wastewater Reuse Project, which produces irrigation water for 750 hectares of Adelaide’s famous Parklands in the heart of the city.

But perhaps the most remarkable achievement towards becoming a regenerative city region is the pipeline that transports 30 million liters per year of treated and recycled wastewater from the Bolivar treatment plant to irrigate 20,000 hectares of fruits and vegetables in Virginia, north of Adelaide. The “Virginia Pipeline Scheme” supplies recycled wastewater from Greater Adelaide to 230 horticultural enterprises. Much of their produce ends up in Adelaide’s famous Central Market. The pipeline scheme is thought to be the largest of its kind in the world. Where most cities discharge their wastewater via sewage systems, Adelaide uses it to regenerate the fertility of its local farmland.

Adelaide 2012

  • Over 26 percent of electricity produced by wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels
  • Photovoltaic roofs on 120,000 (of 600,000) houses, and on most public buildings
  • The world‘s first bus running on solar energy
  • Solar hot water systems mandated for new buildings
  • Large scale building tune-up programs across the city region
  • 60 percent carbon emissions reduction by municipal buildings since 2003
  • Construction of Lochiel Park Solar Village with 106 eco-homes
  • 15 percent reduction of C02 emissions since 2000
  • Water sensitive urban development
  • Three million trees planted on 2,000 hectares for C02 absorption and biodiversity
  • An ambitious zero-waste strategy
  • 180,000 tonnes of compost a year made from urban organic waste
  • 20,000 hectares of land near Adelaide used for vegetable and fruit crops
  • Reclaimed waste water and urban compost used to cultivate this cropland
  • Thousands of new green jobs

Toward Zero Waste

In 1978, South Australia introduced container deposit legislation, pioneering the recycling of most glass, metal, and plastic drink containers. However, most household, commercial, and municipal waste (apart from drink containers) was still dumped at the huge Wingfield landfill site. Then, remarkably, in 2004 the government of South Australia decided to make rapid moves toward becoming a zero-waste economy. By creating Zero Waste SA (South Australia) and introducing progressive taxation to move away from land filling, incentives for recycling have increased every year. By 2011, South Australia had reached a recycling rate of around 60 percent for household and company wastes, and 85 percent for demolition wastes. These figures are among the highest in the world.

Adelaide (and South Australia) has taken many strategic measures toward becoming a zero waste region. It has awarded recycling grants to a number of government and industry bodies. Resource recovery in buildings and the public realm is encouraged through specific guidelines. By 2012, all major events in the City of Adelaide were zero waste events by providing permanent public recycling facilities. Its Central Market has taken the lead, recycling a remarkable 85 percent of all waste. Paper, glass, and cardboard are recycled at the site of the old Wingfield landfill site. Several of Greater Adelaide’s local governments have e-waste recycling initiatives.

Notably, the composting of organic waste since 2004 has made particularly rapid strides. Most of Adelaide’s organic wastes are composted by one company, Jeffries. It collects this waste across the region and processes it at Wingfield and at another site near the city. The matured compost is then returned to farms, vineyards, and gardens as soil enhancers. Jeffries has more than tripled its production of compost from some 50,000 to over 170,000 tonnes per year in the last few years.

In 2009-2010, Zero Waste SA also started curbside collections of household food waste, with the purpose of producing high-quality compost by anaerobic digestion techniques. In addition to composting this waste, there is also a campaign to reduce food waste disposal. Using a financial perspective, each person in South Australia currently dumps food waste worth US$213 per year.

Food Production at Virginia

Development of “peri-urban” food production is very much part of the idea of a regenerative city. The horticultural enterprises in the Virginia District of the Adelaide Plains, 30 kilometers north of the city, are a model of regenerative peri-urban agriculture using large amounts of urban-generated compost.

Compost from organic waste is essential for creating regenerative cities. Its incorporation in local soils is of particular importance for regions with poor soil quality and limited rainfall. The compost enhances the soil’s inherent fertility and also greatly improves its water storage capacity.

Virginia is the food bowl of South Australia. On its 20,000 hectares, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and vines are cultivated. The regions financial contribution to South Australia’s economy includes US$92 million of farm gate production, US$500 million of food processing, and US$474 million of interstate income from food trade. There are currently some 2,500 jobs in the industry. A doubling of horticultural output and associated jobs is envisaged over the next 20 years.

Tree Planting and Biodiversity

Healthy regional ecosystems and biological diversity are vital for the well-being of cities. Because ecosystems around the world are under great pressure from urban demands, action by cities is essential. Recognizing this, cities have started to undertake initiatives far beyond their boundaries, helping to protect and regenerate ecosystems on a regional, and even global, scale.

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Photo credit: South Australia Water Corporation

As an intensely water-stressed region faced with increasingly frequent drought, Adelaide has encouraged long-term water efficiency and recycling measures that look to 2025 and beyond.

In Greater Adelaide, one of the responses has been to initiate large-scale tree planting for biodiversity enhancement and erosion control. In 2003, Premier Mike Rann initiated a program to plant three million trees. By 2012 two thirds of this plan had been implemented and 1,300 hectares had been planted. When completed in a few years, some 2,000 hectares of woodland habitat will have been created. Over their lifetime, these trees will absorb millions of tonnes of CO₂.

Part of the Landscape Master Plan of Adelaide itself is to unify the city’s Parklands, conserving their biodiversity and establishing additional plantings on the city’s streets for shade, cooling, and connectivity with the Parklands.

Energy Efficiency

Under the SA Strategic Plan of 2007, energy efficiency of residential dwellings is targeted to increase by 10 percent by 2014. South Australia gas and electricity retailers are required to install energy saving measures to wealthier households, and undertake home energy audits to low-income households.

In 2009, nearly 380,000 square meters (m2) of ceiling insulation was installed (100 m2 per benefiting household); 490,000 energy saving light bulbs had been installed (7.5 per benefiting household); 10,000 water efficient showerheads were exchanged or installed (1.2 per benefiting household); and 590 solar water heaters were installed or replaced (one per benefiting household). Some 75,000 households benefited from the scheme.

The South Australia government supports the transition to a low carbon economy by developing smarter and more efficient energy and communication networks. In the City of Adelaide, options for the development of a smart grid that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions are being explored.

The Government of South Australia has been leading the country in the efficient use of energy in commercial buildings. Since October 2004, all newly constructed office buildings that are used by the state government must achieve a five-star rating under the Green Star rating tool. There has been a significant improvement in the energy standards of commercial developments since this time, actively involving many property developers.

South Australia’s Business Energy Efficiency Program offers small, medium, and large businesses, organizations, building occupiers, and institutions a targeted cost effective program to cut power consumption, increase profitability, and reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

The government is also evaluating the benefits of low heat absorption roofs, otherwise known as cool roofs, for the region. Cool, white roofs are designed to reflect more of the sun’s energy away from the roof structure, reducing both the roof’s temperature and the heat transfer into the building. This results in reductions in the building’s cooling load and energy consumption in summer. There is also a reduction on the heating of surrounding outside air, and therefore a reduced urban heat island effect.

Energy Generation

In 2009, the South Australia government established the Renewables SA Board, along with a Commissioner for Renewable Energy and a US$20 million fund to accelerate investment in the sector by fostering innovation and creating green jobs.

At present, 34 percent of South Australia’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power, less than half the national average. Gas accounts for almost half of the electricity generation, while some 24 percent of electricity now comes from wind and solar power generation. This target has been achieved primarily in the wind energy sector and puts South Australia on a level with Denmark in terms of renewable energy production.

Wind is the primary component in the region’s renewable energy development. The government has provided regulatory certainty for wind farms, and it implemented land use planning policies that represent a national best practice for accommodating wind farms.

South Australia is particularly well suited to wind farms, due to its proximity to the Roaring Forties, strong westerly winds prevalent in the Southern Hemisphere. South Australia has half of Australia’s installed wind power capacity, despite only having 8 percent of the country’s population. By December 2011, South Australia had 15 operational wind farms, with an installed capacity of 1,065 megawatts. The load factor for South Australian wind farms is in the range 32-38 percent which means that a wind farm could typically produce between 32 and 38 percent of its nameplate capacity, averaged over a year.

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Photo credit: Jono Haysom

Much of the fresh produce in Adelaide’s Central Market, pictured here, is grown in the Virginia District of South Australia, 20-30 miles outside of town. This agricultural land also capitalizes on Adelaide’s recycled water for irrigation.

Following several court cases about wind farm developments, the South Australian government announced a renewable energy plan in October 2011 which will keep wind farm developments away from populated areas and provide more certainty for the industry.

The recent increase in the installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) roofs in South Australia has been particularly spectacular. By early 2012, there were around 120,000 solar roofs installed or in the process of being installed. This achievement is the direct result of the 2008 introduction of feed-in tariffs.

The popular uptake of PV has exceeded all expectations. Within a few months, a large new solar economy was created that employed thousands of people at its peak. The feed-in scheme was so successful that, in October 2010, the government felt obliged to scale back the price paid from 46 cents to 16 cents per kilowatt-hour, though electricity companies are still paying a premium of six cents above this.

Many major buildings in Adelaide have been “solarized” including the Central Market, the Adelaide Central Bus Station, the Convention Centre, the South Australian Museum, Parliament House, the State Library, and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Solar PV panels will also be installed at 250 schools by 2014.

The world’s first solar powered bus—Tindo—is powered using solar PV cells installed on the roof of the Adelaide Central Bus Station. The system generates some 70,000 kilowatt-hours of zero carbon emissions electricity each year to offset the total energy required to charge Tindo’s batteries. It is the world’s only pure electric bus, recharged by 100 percent solar PV electricity.

Lochiel Park Solar Village

This pioneering solar village of 106 dwellings was constructed over the last six years. The purpose of the project is to demonstrate a compact-urban-layout building design standard that can be replicated in other new developments across Australia. It was established as an example of low-carbon design that also makes very efficient use of water. The village, eight miles from the center of Adelaide, is walkable and in a pleasant park setting; it also features its own vegetable gardens. All houses have PV panels and solar hot water systems mounted on their roofs, minimizing dependence on fossil fuels. The buildings have a minimum 7.5 star thermal performance rating, with a target of reducing potable water supply by 78 percent, greenhouse gas emissions by 74 percent, and energy use by 66 percent compared with regional averages. Construction was completed in early 2012.

The initiatives I have summarized are major achievements and among the most advanced in the world. Nevertheless, there are also some major challenges that have yet to be actively addressed.

Adelaide’s Ecological Footprint

The ecological footprints of modern cities stretch across the world. The challenge now is for cities to regenerate resources based on sustainable local economies.

In Adelaide, the starting point is not very promising. In 2006, Greater Adelaide’s ecological footprint was measured as 7.0 global hectares (gha) per person, a little lower than the Australian average of 7.7 gha per person. The world average is 2.2 gha per person. South Australians thus use 3.2 times more resources than the average person on our home planet.

Consumption of food represents 36 percent of South Australia’s total ecological footprint. The consumption of other goods and services adds a further 35 percent. However, since the use of energy is embedded in everything that people do and consume—from food to housing and transport to manufactured goods—the release of greenhouse gases through the use of fossil fuel energy represents over 50 percent of the total ecological footprint. What is not clear at present is whether this has been reduced in the last few years, in conjunction with the many measures listed above.

There is no doubt that despite many of the exciting initiatives from recent years, much more needs to be done.

Adelaide’s Carbon Emissions

Tackling Climate Change: South Australia’s Greenhouse Strategy was developed after wide ranging consultations with industry, community, academia, local councils, and government. Subsequently, the South Australia government set pioneering carbon limits for new electricity production. So far, there are no clearly defined limits on per capita emissions.

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Photo credit: Sheng Han

South Australia derives nearly 25 percent of its power from renewable sources like wind and solar energy. Pictured here is a wind farm just north of Alice Springs.

A major unsolved problem for Greater Adelaide is its very large carbon emissions. At over 20 tonnes per capita, they are among the highest in the world and this is due to two primary factors: use of electricity in air conditioning during the summer months and the dependence of hundreds of thousands of people on commuting from the suburbs to their downtown offices most working days.

Currently, people have few viable alternatives. Low-density suburbs, as built in Greater Adelaide, are a recipe for reliance on motor cars. Public transport does not tend to be cost effective under these circumstances. In the years to come, a switch to using electric vehicles powered by regenerative electricity supplies, from the sun and the wind, could be very significant in minimizing carbon emissions from commuting.

Integrated Planning for Regenerative Land Use and Resource Use

As suggested above, planners seeking to create regenerative urban systems should start by studying the ecology of natural systems. On a predominantly urban planet, cities will need to adopt circular metabolic systems to assure their own long-term viability as well as that of the rural environments on which they depend. Waste outputs will need to become inputs into the urban production system.

Today, we live in a sort of urban euphoria that implies cities are the only plausible home for humanity in the 21st century. Mention any problem facing humanity and the future can be found in some vision of the city. This euphoria needs to be tempered by a new sense of realism. Cities need to get a new sense of their dependence on the well-being of natural ecosystems that can be far outside urban boundaries.

Creating not just sustainable but environmentally regenerative cities is a challenge that urban politicians, administrators, and educators have so far rarely had to deal with. However, there are major benefits: the awareness is growing that integrated, restorative planning and management of cities presents major new opportunities for reviving regional economies and creating new businesses and job opportunities.

The remarkable changes that have occurred in Adelaide in recent years were brought about by a combination of policy measures and vigorous public participation. Urban communities harbor a huge variety of talents and experiences that are essential for giving substance to the democratic process. In an age of resource depletion and climate change democracy needs new content. I would submit that regenerative, integrated urban systems thinking can bring people together in the understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Assuring the health of forests, soils, and aquatic ecosystems that have been damaged by urban resource demands certainly goes beyond conventional urban decision making parameters. Strategies for regenerative urbanism will involve politicians, the general public, as well as all levels of business.

The modern city is a complex system that blurs traditional boundaries of responsibility, including transport, planning, architecture, health, education, sustainability, and finance. New multidisciplinary approaches are required to respond to global and local challenges. It is essential that well-informed decisions are made today to define the heritage of tomorrow.

The new task facing urban communities, politicians, planners, civil engineers, and managers is to create spatial structures that satisfy the needs of city people, whilst also assuring their ecological and economic resilience. We need to provide secure habitats that allow us to move about our cities efficiently, and we want them to provide pleasant spaces for work, recreation, and human interaction. We want urban environments that are free from pollution and waste accumulation, but we also need to get to grips with the impacts of cities beyond their boundaries.

Greater Adelaide already has many attributes of a regenerative city—wastewater irrigation, waste recycling, organic waste composting, peri-urban agriculture, large scale tree planting, biodiversity protection, and rapid renewable energy development. An excellent start, and much more needs to be done.


  1. Girardet, H. Creating a Sustainable Adelaide. Department of the Premier and Cabinet [online] (2004).

Herbert Girardet

Professor Herbert Girardet is a co-founder of the World Future Council, and a member of The Club of Rome. His most recent book is Creating Regenerative Cities (Routledge). Professor Girardet is also a trustee at the Resurgence Trust, which owns and publishes The Ecologist.

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