Greed is Good for Greener Cities

Under powerlines, the tree on the left is silly and the one on the right sensible. This is just one thing we can do to improve the urban landscape, and to encourage more planting of more plants. Another is to give people money...

I've been invited by the History Council of New South Wales to participate in a series of public events celebrating the bicentenary of Lachlan Macquarie's arrival, and start of his governship, in Australia. It's just one of many events this year to celebrate Macquarie - we started with a tree planting on Bennelong Lawn by the Premier.

The History Council and Historic Houses Trust are running a set of talks called 'Visions of Sydney'. Each event will include two speakers, one presenting an 'historical' perspective, the other a 'contemporary' view.

I'm to provide a contemporary view on 'Greening Sydney', sometime in September 2010. Plenty of time to think about my presentation and the points I might make, but the invitation has got me thinking about what we might do is cities to make them 'greener'.

I'm aware of the 'urban forest' concept and how trees cool buildings, extend the life of paths, extract nasty chemicals, and generally make us feel better. Greg Moore has a nice article in the latest issue of Australian Garden History (volume 21, number 4, pp. 13-17; 2010) arguing that urban trees 'more than pay their way during climate change'.

There have been some nice articles in gardening magazines recently (I seem to remember one in the Royal Horticultural Society's The Garden, or perhaps on their website) about connecting our backyards to help provide better habitat and corridors for wildlife.

Here are some initial thoughts on what might green-up Sydney a little.

Get over Trees

While I'm fond of books and websites about remarkable trees, and of trees themselves, we need to learn to love and celebrate the humble shrub, and small trees. As I've tried to illustrate in the picture above, we need to plant sensibly under powerlines and not always a 'majestic tree'. We should also prune trees for beauty and good tree/bush structure, not just to avoid the wires. And best of all, of course, put the powerlines underground!

I should stress that I have nothing against trees, I just think we sometimes overlook the less woody plants around us. The Green Streets program in Sydney run by Housing NSW, with help from the Botanic Gardens Trust, is fantastic. As long as we have the right tree, or shrub, the more the merrier.

Put nature back in the nature strip...and walls, roofs, sea-walls...

Lots of people are already reclaiming their nature strip - it's fun and good for the local environment (generally). It's worth checking with your local council but there are lots of possiblities out there for adding some nature to the nature strip. Of course green walls and roofs are all the rage and are to be encouraged. I am also exciting by the prospect of gardening on the Royal Botanic Gardens sea walls to grow algae (seaweeds) and provide homes for crabs and other sea animals - it's our 'nature strip'.

Backyard bonding

As mentioned already, our backyards can provide lots of wildlife habitat and maintain plenty of trees, shrubs and ground flora. Together they can create corridors for animals, cool the city, store carbon, etc., etc. And you don't need to necessarily grow only local plants - all sorts of plantings can be good for wildlife and can provide the benefits we expect from our greenish friends. Just make sure the plants can't escape into the bush (or breed with plants in the bush), don't need much extra water once established, and don't need chemicals that might be toxic to the environment (e.g. pesticides or bulk fertilisers).

Local parks can be a part of this vaste, interconnected, urban forest, but they are also an opportunity to express our local cultures - we might plants particular plants that mean something to the neighbouring communities, grow food, be arty, and so on.

Give people more money

A team of researchers led by Jamie Kirkpatrick of the University of Tasmania surveyed garden owners around Australia and found that the higher your income the more trees you plant in your front garden. Its as simple as that. More money = more trees. The results of this three-year study were reported on ABC News online yesterday.

Professor Kirkpatrick said they found no relationship between how close you were to your neighbours or what kind of garden you liked - "dramatically different gardens can be right next door to each other".

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These are just a few thoughts. Nothing too startling or shocking. There must be some more dramatic ideas out there. Do let me know if you've got a clever or creative way to 'green' our cities.


Great post Tim, thanks. To legitimise what you have in mind, perhaps we should appoint local "beautification officers" at local council level. There job would be to make their part of the world a beautiful place to live in. I would much rather have, say, a "beautification planner" on-board at my local council than a "development planner".
Tim Entwisle said…
That's true. Most 'Planning Officer' positions are clearly about hard landscapes and not the aesthetics and planning of an 'urban forest'. Good councils have Environmental Officers and sometimes Wildlife Officers, but we need to bring all this expertise together, along with a dollop of aesthetic sensibilities, to plan for nature in a suburb.