Angela Crossland, Kaylie Salvatori, Jess Miller and Jefa Greenaway. / The Fifth Estate / Photography: Túlio Carneiro

Australia’s leading developers (but just a handful so far) are embracing urban greening to unlock long-term opportunities, and are engaging more deeply with Indigenous design principles. 

Those were just two of the vital take-home messages attendees heard from experts during the panel discussions at The Fifth Estate’s Urban Greening event last Thursday.

Urban Greening was held in front of a sold-out crowd at UTS on Thursday, as the built environment sector increasingly grapples with the challenges of creating cooler, greener places.  

The Fifth Estate’s partners for the event were Tensile, Mulpha and WaterUps, with event collaboration from Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, University of Technology Sydney and the Living Future Institute of Australia.

We will bring you a long form edited transcript of the event plus additional feature articles in our ebook around this topic. 

Meanwhile here are just seven nuggets of wisdom from a day jam packed with great insights that the experts shared during the panel discussions at Urban Greening: 

1. The real GWS: Greening Western Sydney

Western Sydney faces some of the biggest challenges when it comes to managing the urban heat island effect. But it’s also creating some of the most innovative solutions.

In his keynote, Sebastian Pfautsch, associate professor in Urban Studies at Western Sydney University, shared a thought-provoking case study on his recent work at Bicentennial Park, which is part of Western Sydney’s Olympic Park precinct.

Pfautsch revealed the cutting-edge technology his team has set up to monitor temperatures and soil conditions at the park in real time, including wireless sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and digital twin models.

Through an innovative smart technology platform his team developed, called SIMPaCT, the data is used to control irrigation systems in real time, which also allows patrons to find the coolest places to sit through an easy-to-use app.

Now Pfaustsch’s team is making its innovations available to anyone who wants it, anywhere around the world.

2. Leading developers are now deepening their engagement with Indigenous design principles

Applying Indigenous Knowledge to the built environment is no longer a theoretical idea. Australia’s Indigenous planners and architects are having a vital, practical impact on urban planning and creating a greener built environment.

During a panel discussion on the topic, Urban Greening attendees heard from two of Australia’s top Indigenous architects: Jefa Greenaway from Greenaway Architects, and COLA Studio director Kaylie Salvatori. 

They were joined on stage by The GPT Group’s national social sustainability manager, Angela Crossland.

Greenaway made the important point that it’s important to engage with Culture at projects at every scale, from small intimate-scale interventions at individual buildings through to major state infrastructure projects.

On a small scale, Greenaway gave the example of his work with Crossland and GPT at Queen and Collins in Melbourne. 

Created in close collaboration with Traditional Elders, Custodians and Knowledge Keepers from the Wurundjeri people of Eastern Kulin nation, the commercial building’s design embeds Truth Telling, while helping people to orient themselves to Country.

At a larger scale, Greenaway discussed how he used canopy cover, anchored in Indigenous design principles, to help manage the urban heat island effect along the state government’s multi-billion-dollar North East Link project.

Salvatori added that there’s not too much point in just adding an additional layer to a business as usual approach, and that we need to change the frameworks in which we operate in to create better outcomes for Indigenous communities.

“The approach is evolving, and there is no hard and fast way of going about things,” Salvatori said.

Meanwhile, Crossland highlighted the importance of developers moving beyond tokenistic box-ticking exercises or transactional relationships, and instead to build meaningful and reciprocal partnerships with Indigenous designers and communities.  

3. Green buildings are more than just aesthetic choices, and need to be maintained for the long term 

Australia’s leading green building experts shared their insights into how to successfully create greener buildings and public spaces:

  • Dr John Rayner, University of Melbourne
  • Peter Bottero, Tensile
  • Professor Sara Wilkinson, UTS School of Built Environment

Rayner highlighted a number of examples of green walls and buildings that failed to make the critical point that maintaining a successful green space requires planning and ongoing work. You can’t just put some trees and shrubs in too-small pots and expect them to thrive over the long term. 

Another interesting take-home message from the panellists was that we’re now past the beginning of the journey of designing green buildings. 

“We’re now at the point of it becoming about more than just looking pretty. And that’s the step that we need to take: that [plants aren’t] purely an aesthetic thing to sell an apartment, they now become a functional part of the building,” Bottero said.

4. The top developers see urban greening as a long-term investment

The attendees at Urban Greening heard from three leading developers who are ahead of the curve in putting nature first, and why it’s a great business strategy:

  • Jan Van der Bergh, Mulpha
  • Nikos Kalogeropolous, Molonglo
  • Steve Liaros, Polis plan

During the discussion, Kalogeropolous made the important point that there are two approaches people can take to development. The first is to take a short-term approach to projects that seeks to extract the maximum value uplift on the day of completion.

“There’s a second pathway, which is where developers are long term owners who have a vested interest. That vested interest means that I can spend more upfront, because I’m going to get a long term return,” Kalogeropolous said.

He added that an underlying issue is that people are told they’re a failure if they don’t own their own home.

Liaros discussed his work advocating for connected small eco villages in regional areas with 60 to 70 per cent open green space, with many ideas that borrow from Indigenous design principles. Among the financial approaches that address equity issues in housing could be build-to-rent models or community land trusts.

“In the shift from the build to sell to build to rent model, you’re creating an incentive where the developer is building durable, low-maintenance buildings that can be maintained for a long time, at a lower cost, and therefore lower living costs for the residents,” Liaros said.

5. Trees and plants are closely tied to social equity

In the session on Trees, plants and equity, specialists discussed how trees and plants can help to create more socially equitable communities: 

  • Laura Hamilton-O’Hara, chief executive, Living Future Institute
  • Belinda Bean, Greener Spaces, Better Places
  • Ben Smith, Darebin Council
  • Eric Sturman, Waterups

A common theme across all the speakers is that, from Johannesburg in South Africa to Darebin in Melbourne’s north there is a correlation between where wealthier people choose to live, and how green the local landscape is.

After all, there’s a good reason why Australia’s richest neighbourhoods are referred to as “leafy green suburbs”.

The good news is that local councils and communities are increasingly turning their attention to rewilding as a way of creating greener, more equitable and liveable neighbourhoods. And starting that change can be as simple as local residents planting some trees and plants in their local parks and laneways.

6. How do we pay for what we want?

Green infrastructure is long term. So who will pay for it and how? What is the nature positive movement and how and why will the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosure (TFND) be more disruptive than net zero? 

These big financial questions were tackled by three of the top experts in the field:

  • Laura Waterford, Pollination
  • Greg Ingleton, Green Adelaide Board
  • Beck Dawson, Resilient Sydney

Just one underlying message from this session is that the finance, superannuation and insurance sectors are increasingly looking to reduce their exposure to nature-related financial risks.

“The big push is to start to actually grapple with how the private sector contributes to that risk? And on an individual company level, what is your exposure? What’s your risk profile?” Waterford said.

“On the flip side of that, what are the opportunities that you have, in this world where we’re going to have to transition to a nature positive future, to rethink your business model and to get ahead of that curve?”

7. Local council politics (and puppies) can get in the way

One of the most memorable and fun parts of the day came at the end, when event MC and the former deputy lord mayor from the City of Sydney, Jess Miller, held a mock local council meeting to illustrate the challenges urban greening face.

In the light-hearted session, Professor Martin Bryant, from the UTS School of Architecture, put forward his hypothetical proposal to rewild Moore Park. 

Then the councillors debated the merits of the proposal, with contributions from the audience who spoke up for different segments of the community. The two teams of “counsellors” were:

In favour:

  • Martin Bryant, UTS
  • Eric Sturman, WaterUps


  • Jennifer Kent, University of Sydney
  • Gwilym Griffiths, Good Canopy Company

The most hilarious moment came when “councillor” Kent raised the plight of poor Mrs Porter, whose beloved dachshund Olive had inspired her to organise a petition of local residents to organise a petition against the proposal.

It seems even the most enlightened urban greening proposals face an uphill battle once the NIMBYs get involved!

Don’t miss the deeper dive details from the event in the ebook, the recordings of the day and pre-event long form interviews, coming soon.

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  1. Fascinating. Developers can be active in providing solutions for humanity while supporting species, instead of contributing to their decline. A good example is the Koala Beach housing estate at Pottsvile, northern NSW. It was designed in a collaboration between the developer and the National Koala Foundation. A biologist I spoke to described it as a “koala refuge” because it has a density of koala trees and, unlike the surrounding bushland, it has no dogs. This is proof that development does not have to be exploitative and destructive. Unfortunately much development is just that and we need apprpriate policy frameworks in local and state governments.