Greening our cities

By Chris ThurmottNovember 23rd, 2021

The urban greening movement is looking at ways to make our urban environment cooler, more comfortable and more socially connected. We spoke to CSIRO Interdisciplinary ecologist Dr Brenda Lin about best-practice urban greening.

Climate change is having a significant impact, particularly when we look at rising temperatures in our urban areas. However, from challenge there often comes opportunity, and the urban greening movement is all about looking at ways to make our urban environment cooler, more comfortable and also more socially connected.

Urban Greening is essentially increasing the amount of green infrastructure in and around urban areas.

An artist's rendition of a green outdoor hub with trees between buildings - urban greening

In a great example of urban greening, City of Belmont’s Belmont Hub recently won the Excellence in Social and Community Infrastructure Award at the UDIA WA 2021 Awards for Excellence.

The many benefits of urban greening

CSIRO Interdisciplinary ecologist Dr Brenda Lin said increasing the level of green infrastructure and urban greenery in our towns and cities not only improves the environment but also increases social, economic and cultural value for our communities.

“There are a lot of benefits that come from urban greening, we see benefits such as cleaner air quality, a greater amount of pervious surface leads to less stormwater runoff, and another crucial improvement is reducing the urban heat effect,” Dr Lin said.

“Trees provide shade – providing a canopy for people to be able to spend time outside on hot days or to provide cooler walking paths. We have seen that trees can reduce the temperature under the canopy quite a bit.

“Being able to spend more time outside leads to mental health improvements, especially if green spaces provide areas for physical exercise for walking, biking and playing sport.

“Being able to be in a green space or walk in a green space for just a couple of minutes can start to help reduce stress, depression, anxiety. Even being able to see trees from a window can provide a mental break for your mind.”

Unfortunately, according to Dr Lin, in some areas green space is limited due to cities becoming more compact. This leads to less space for green infrastructure to be implemented. As a result, Dr Lin says that planners, governments and advisors need to be more creative and deliberate in the way they manage and plan for cities.

In providing an example of a dense city that is also providing excellent green infrastructure, Dr Lin pointed to Singapore. She said despite Singapore having a highly urbanised, dense built environment, it also features a high, even canopy coverage across the city.

“There has been a really deliberate decision by the government to ensure there is recovery and respite through green infrastructure because they recognise the benefits,” Dr Lin said.

Urban greening in Singapore - a path bordered by a green hedge and trees

Singapore is committed to urban greening. For instance Duxton Plain Park is a 700m linear green tract near Chinatown (Image: Ted McGrath via Flickr)

While Singapore has a government system that can mandate this type of green infrastructure on a broad scale, the different levels of government in Australia pose a challenge to achieving consistent outcomes.

“The issue in Australia comes through the number of different local councils within a single metropolitan area, with each council having different resources and community expectations to manage,” Dr Lin said.

“If you have a local council that doesn’t have the resources to maintain public trees, or a community that doesn’t want trees , it becomes difficult to implement large expanses of urban greenery.”

One jurisdiction in Australia that is committed to improving the level of greenery in our towns and cities is the New South Wales Government as part of the ‘Greening our City’ priority which aims to plant one million trees in Greater Sydney by 2022 and five million new trees by 2030.

Within this priority the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment initiated a Free Tree program with Bunnings whereby residents in LGAs within Sydney can access and plant a new tree.

The program was initially set up in 2020 to increase community involvement and tree planting on private land in NSW. To date 33,980 trees have been planted across all LGAs in Greater Sydney. This is expected to increase to over 55,000 by the end of the year.

“Trees are a fundamental element of healthy, thriving towns and cities,” New South Wales Minister for Planning and Public Spaces the Hon. Robert Stokes said when asked about the NSW Government’s decision to continue with its Free Tree program this year.

“More tree canopy means more shade, better air quality, cooler streets and more natural habitats for wildlife.”

Mr Stokes said the NSW Government has planted 600,000 new trees in Greater Sydney since 2019 and they are well on track to meet the one million mark by next year.

“The success of our Free Tree program with Bunnings has proven the community want to see more trees planted too,” Mr Stokes said. “It’s positive news for the environment that we are all working towards the same goal.”

Creativity at the forefront

Dr Lin says new developments provide the ideal opportunity to implement urban greenery designs into the blueprint as these projects are essentially starting from scratch, however with available land to build on becoming more limited as populations increase in density, it is potentially not a long-term solution.

In place of this and for already established communities, Dr Lin said creativity and community cohesion was required.

“One option is to increase community education and awareness of the benefits, which can then lead to really successful co-design and development of green space,” she said. “If you involve the community in the planning, you ask them what they want from their neighbourhood, they are far more likely to use and value the green spaces.

“The goal is to try and get a coordinated approach where governments are talking to communities or talking to developers and actually having a really good conversation about what’s going to happen with public space, what’s going to happen with private space and how it’s going to be funded.

“Anything we decide to do has to be funded and we have to have community buy-in and co-design.

The hope is to create space for a conversation across multiple different stakeholder groups to have those sometimes difficult conversations about what their goals are for the community.”

In this regard, the NSW Government are in the process of developing a ‘green grid’ whereby they are thinking about the configuration of parks and the diverse make up of parks across Sydney.

two people sitting on a bench overlooking the bay in Sydney - urban greening

Sydney has created a network of green space called the Sydney Green Grid (Image: Ikazmi via Wikimedia)

The Sydney Green Grid is a network of green space that connects town centres, public transport hubs, and major residential areas and is an integral part of the Greater Sydney Region and District Plans. It is designed to promote sustainable development while maximising quality of life and wellbeing.

The success of this initiative is reliant on good planning and coordination, according to Dr Lin who says it is looking at the make-up of the different types of parks in any given area.

“Not all parks will provide everything to everyone so it about looking at the mix and diversity of use,” she said. “One park might be the place to do picnics with friends, another could provide a water play area for kids.

“Then there are other parks where people want to feel like they are not in the city, feel a little bit lost in nature. So it’s about trying to develop that diversity of different parks, but the key is understanding what people want. And then trying to meet those needs in different ways.”

Space at a premium

As Dr Lin said, one of the issues with incorporating green infrastructure into towns and cities is the lack of useable space, however one solution could be found in ‘Miyawaki’, or Pocket Forests, a revolutionary concept developed by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki.

The concept was generated following Mr Miyawaki’s observation that the majority of woodland in Japan was largely non-native and led to him inspiring around 1,700 pocket forests in Asia and around the world.

The mini-forests are created by planting native species very close together which enables them to grow up to 10 times faster than conventional forests generating around 100 times more biodiversity and storing around 40 times more carbon.

The concept has become very popular in Europe with the Netherlands, Belgium and France already planting several of these pocket forests as they look to make the most of all available space.

Whether planting a new forest or retaining an old one, the benefits of increasing the level of urban greenery in our cities is clear to see. While it might not always be easy to see the woods from the trees when it comes to how best to implement these initiatives, what is abundantly clear is the need to take action now.

This article is republished from The Urbanist under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

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