Without rethinking the way we create, repurpose and use the streets and our existing open space, and in turn reflecting this in planning and policy change, we will never realise the full suite of benefits that we stand to gain from greening our cities.

The positive impacts of greening Australian cities extend well beyond creating a more handsome city – its contributions to the health of residents and workers, to ecologies and surrounding environments, and to our street economies are all major positive impacts that greener cities stand to deliver.

Open space in our cities accounts for between 40 and 45 per cent of a city footprint. Our streets account for between 30 to 35 per cent of the city footprint, meaning at best 10 per cent of a city is made up of useable open space. Changes to city planning and how we think about space and its use could increase the useable open space exponentially leading to a suite of positive impacts on a city and its residents. Removing parked cars from our streets is one example of how space can be created and be productively repurposed for pedestrian and economic benefit.

Higher density cities make for increased opportunity and potentially amenity, especially in cities like Melbourne and Sydney where populations are set to grow at exponential rates through to 2050. Though higher density living is sometimes seen as a threat to the Australian quality of life and our love of open space, it’s not density that is the issue, rather its inadequate governance and policy. Some of the densest cities in the world are also the most desirable – just look at Amsterdam, New York City and Paris, to name a few. Adequately planning for open space and infrastructure plays a big part in what makes these cities desirable.

Urban sprawl has always been a factor for growing Australian cities and cities globally. What we are now seeing in Australia is a new density on the edges that represents an in-between state of development – these areas are no longer peri-urban. As our cities have continued to sprawl and increase in density we have seen the loss of the “great Australian backyard” – an icon that is hard to find even on the fringes of our cities as houses get bigger and blocks of land get smaller. But this loss isn’t something that particularly needs to be mourned if adequate policy and planning for useable and well-planned public and open space and streetscape provides the amenity and resources that communities are looking for.

In the inner city one only has to look to Melbourne to see how growth is exploding along linear transport corridors outward from the city resulting in long lines of medium density housing. This contributes to more population and vehicles in local areas leading to increased congestion. This development approach is also fundamentally lacking in providing adequate amenity in the form of useable recreation areas and areas for food production, such as community gardens.

How many trams do you have to miss because they are over capacity before you don’t catch the tram anymore? How many times do you ride your bike into vulnerable territory because the bike lane diminishes to 300mm or drops out before you don’t ride your bike anymore? Who wants to live in an inner or middle ring environment that is gridlocked every morning, evening and weekend, and that suffers from noise and air pollution as a result? Who wants to hear the traffic all night on the arterial roads that are packed? Who wants to live in an area that is lifeless and without good recreation facilities? Where are we allowing for adequate amenity where increased development is occurring? And where we are allowing for it, are we allowing for the right type of amenity that will actually be used by the community that surrounds it?

We need to think differently about how we create and use open space

The great Australian backyard is now a political imaginary place. For most Australians it is non-existent. The new backyard is the street and the park, places which make provision for friendship, engagement, play, productivity, forest and ecologies. What is required is a re-crafting of the public realm that will recreate this urban frontier and make it more amenable to the new style of living in our cities.

We need to provide green, verdant, productive places that are also socially rich and this amenity can be included in our existing streetscapes by thinking about how we use space differently.

In order to enhance and maintain liveability in Australian cities we don’t have to forego our love of space, rather we need to think about how we are currently using the space we have and whether it is an ideal and effective use.

There are three key areas that we need to rethink in order to maximise open space within our cities to create greener, healthier and more productive environments: our streets, our parks and the overall urban form.

Our streets need to be reconsidered as movement conduits for people. By removing the parked cars from our streets we allow a significant amount of space to be repurposed as meeting points and places to sit and recreate. We can then shift focus to pedestrian prioritised pavements that are wide, safe and shaded. Tree shaded places will reduce the urban heat island effect and reduce heat stress on buildings while increasing street economy and property values. A key challenge of greening our cities is ensuring sufficient water catchment resources for stormwater that will sustain tree growth and other non-potable needs.

The Australian tradition of trees in grass for streets and parks is outmoded and creates open spaces that are unused and uncared for. We need to rethink our parks as intergenerational social engagement places by providing amenity that we identify with, which could include rotating pop-up structures and events. Our parks need to include forested places for shade and ecologies, not just on the borders of the park but throughout the landscape, while we also need to ensure adequate water catchment and reuse to keep them green and verdant. Community gardens can be incorporated to make them productive places that can foster local food production.

We also need to rethink our basic urban form, which we can do for all development moving forward by implementing policy and regulation requiring change. Part of every development should be providing urban green and potential food producing and ecological zones at upper levels and useable communal space as part of every development. Planning of our cities should also take in to account maintaining winter sunlight to at least one side of the street by considering sun angles to maintain sun in winter and shade in summer.

Greening our cities and creating more open space does not require an expansion of a city footprint or necessarily compromising planning and development. Through prioritising people and considering the requirements for amenity in particular areas we can reconsider how existing space is used and create more social and productive open spaces.

Jon Shinkfield is senior research fellow at Monash University as part of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, and founding director of REALMstudios. He will be giving a seminar, Asleep at the wheel – Melbourne; the not so liveable city, at this year’s DesignBUILD expo.

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  1. Tell me about it. The amount of “green space” out there that is really just big open lawn area with a handful spindly trees thrown in is appalling. “look, we have parks in our LGA!” Me: “looks like a heatwave away from becoming a mini Simpson Desert” #amiright