Can we have a greener future?
Although incredibly important, official and necessary, council documents are very rarely things you actually want to read, let alone find compelling, interesting and inspiring.
So it was with surprise and delight that I found myself thoroughly enjoying reading the City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy (especially the bits up front). And while its unlikely to hit the NY Time Bestseller List any time soon, there’s plenty of drama, intrigue and fascinating characters to keep the pages turning and the overwhelming need to ‘check your phone’, in…check.
In it you meet renegade botanists, urban designers and tree-obsessives. You begin to appreciate the planting legacy that remains to this day - looming elms on St Kilda Road, The Carlton Gardens, Plane Trees, promenades and Botanical Gardens. Sadly, you face the realisation that trees don't live forever, and that many of these grand dames are coming to the end of their lives.
Understanding why we have trees in cities invites you to reconsider what it means to act ‘long-term’ – the term being 100 years, not a paltry four year election or 24-hour media cycle. It’s makes you realise the worth of doing things you won’t ever be thanked for because it’s important to do, after all your beneficiaries are yet to be born.
Carlton Gardens, 1940's
There’s something incredibly romantic and noble (if not beautifully fastidious) about doing things 100 years in advance.
One of my favourite parts of the Urban Forestry Strategy/story describes the drivers for what we now consider Melbourne’s Urban Forest: health, and specifically tuberculosis.
At the time (1870s), 1 in 3 people died of Tuberculosis. The prevailing medical minds blamed bad smells or miasmas that wafted from the swamps, stagnant water and sewerage on the urban fringe as the culprit. In the modern-day equivalent of the Herald Sun, Argus reader The Father of a Family wrote of Melbourne “The existence of such a swamp on the margins of a populous city is a scandal and a disgrace and must be remedied by creating a health-giving and life-sustaining garden”.
The antidote then: more trees.
In 2016, we are experiencing the hottest year recorded in history; it isn’t tuberculosis we need to worry about but the health impacts of extreme heat. The CSIRO predicts that by 2070 there will be 15 – 26 days where the temperature is above 35 degrees, and the average annual rainfall will decrease by 11%.
If I live to experience this, I’ll be 86 years old. My ambition is to avoid becoming a cranky-as-hell elder woman who is perpetually hot and bothered, sitting in her air-conditioned apartment sucking up energy, alone (or annoying her kids) because it’s too bloody hot to go outside and do what I imagine I would want to do at that immaculate age – sip gin, potter in a garden and gossip with my neighbours.
Already many, particularly the most vulnerable members of our community are experiencing and dying from health issues related to extreme heat. And though the ship may well have sailed in terms of curbing emissions to avoid climate change, adapting to the consequence of it is impossible to ignore.
According to research commissioned as part of my role with the 202020 Vision (Where are all the Trees?) Melbourne had only 13% tree canopy coverage, followed by Sydney with 15%.
That means that 87% of greater Melbourne is without natural shade. Take into account that 20 years is required before a tree reaches the point at which it can throw shade. I think we can all agree (to quote the infamous Nelly) ‘it’s getting hot in here [sic]’ – and by extension removing ‘all of your clothes’ is probably not the best option, especially if you’re 86 and want to sip gin in the garden and gossip.
The antidote remains: More trees.
Which is easy to say, but trickier (though not impossible – *tips hat* at Singapore) to do. Things like roads, urban planning, irrigation, pests, disease, competition for space and some peoples’ disdain for leaves remain barriers that prevent there being more and better green space in our cities. We know this. In 2014 we went and asked more than 500 people in seven states (who are much better qualified than we) all about it as part of the Growing the Seeds Tour.
We learned that 20% more and better green space in cities is far from a lost cause. The solutions to overcoming these barriers already exist – in fact in the slightly less sexy part of the City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy they are clearly outlined precinct-by-precinct. There are more than 300 members of the 202020 Vision network and by the end of this year, we expect more than 700 people from local government will have attended one of our Urban Forestry Masterclasses based on the City of Melbourne’s efforts.
All over Australia and the world there are people planting out verges, transforming swimming pools into ponds, inserting large-scale vertical walls, using billboards to grow market gardens, writing love letters to trees (who then write them back), putting farms on roofs – even Minister Greg Hunt is talking to business people about increasing canopy levels in cities and “decade by decade goals out to 2050 for increased canopy targets”. Imagine, the Frankston of the future being known as ‘shady’ for all the right reasons.
Things are getting very exciting.
Increasingly the idea of dealing with the future is catching on. In fact, only last week I was given a 100-year calendar which now sits alongside my desk – reminding me of my own mortality, but also that what I, and what we decide to do, or not do has an effect well beyond the pages of our own calendars.
Making decisions with a 100-year calendar by your side can be daunting, and I get how seductive immediate gratification is, but it’s also an invitation to think creatively, with imagination, nobility and romance.
Besides the absolute urgency in planting now to cool our cities, clean our air, give our kids a place to play and indulge gin-sipping garden grannies. There is pure delight and comfort in the idea that something that you plant today will give shade, shelter and life to people you will never meet, and who might one day look up and with gratitude that all that time ago someone had imagination enough to plant some more trees.
City of Melbourne is already planting trees in the streets but what more can we do to cool our future city? Are there more novel ways of greening? Is there more that can be done? Share your ideas, whatever they are, for Future Melbourne.