Rethinking the Urban Forest

A cheesy forest metaphor seems appropriate when talking about how the inaugural ‘Rethinking the Urban Forest Conference’ came to be. Someone saw a need for greater conversation and collaboration if we are going to successfully green our urban areas, so they planted a seed. Addison Road Community Centre watered this seed, then gathered and planted other seedlings. The result was an excellent conference that brought together people from many different industries and specialities (in the metaphor these are represented by different tree species…see where I’m going with this?).

This metaphorical forest was set on Gadigal Land, and as Nathan Moran (CEO of Metro Land Council), land that has long been managed by and for its indigenous owners. Now it is a Crown Land Site with 167 trees managed as a community centre. In her opening remarks, Anna York from Inner West Council described the decked out hall as something out of Where the Wild Things Are. Andreasens Green Wholesale Nurseries had provided young trees that dotted the room, and that we got to take home (I got a Lilly Pilly, which I’m very pleased with). And to set the conceptual scene; Councillor Jess Miller from The City of Sydney summed the situation up nicely when she spoke of the health and environmental benefits of trees in urban areas, and yet there is “still no legislation recognising living architecture is essential architecture”, and while financial resources are being directed into it there are no plans on how to achieve greener urban areas.

Rethinking the Urban Forest Inaugural Conference (C.Simpson-Young)

Rethinking the Urban Forest Inaugural Conference (C.Simpson-Young)

Ok moving on from the metaphor, and let’s look at the conference itself.

I realise now I didn’t understand the perks of greener urban areas. I was aware of the benefits for wildlife, but that was really as far as I had thought it through.

What is the Urban Forest?

Jennifer Newman spoke poetically about the reality that underlies everything that the conferences attendees are trying to achieve: “people need Country- Country needs people”. Country is everything from the pollinators to the sky. She drew on beautiful words of Joe Anderson, Tony Birch and Deborah Rose, which I don’t have space for here, but you can follow the links to their work.

Abby Mellick Lopes spoke of the concept of ‘commoning’ or developing protocols for the access, use, benefits, care of and responsibility for spaces. Many of our public spaces are not designed to deal with the coming changes to the climate. Children are cooling off in fast food restaurants and chemically treated fountains. Children aren’t playing outside and are growing up scared of the natural world. Trees are going to be part of the solution, and Abby and her Colleagues are developing resources to help design urban areas to address these challenges.

Marco Amati spoke of how urban forests are declining by deaths of a thousand cuts. To combat this we have been putting a monetary value to trees, but he argues that we need to find a way to recognise their implicit values as well. A precedence has been set in cases such as the Ecuadorian government recognising the rights of nature in their constitution, and the Whanganui River in NZ having legal personhood. This may shift the way we value nature, give it a more formal voice and allow it to have a better chance in legal and political situations.

You may remember Jess Miller from the City of Sydney Council from the beginning of the blog post. Well in this session she returned but with a different hat on. She is also the program manager for 202020 Vision. They have been doing to very interesting research into the public’s, council’s and industries attitude toward green spaces. I could really go on for the rest of the blog post about the results, but instead, I’ll just put a link here to their work. One thing that the results will allow us to do is to recognise where communication of ideas and priorities are breaking down between the different groups of stakeholders.

Near the hall where the conference was held, there is a big, bare Sydney Blue Gum. It doesn’t have a crown anymore but through the use of ‘environmental arboriculture,’ it can continue providing homes for wildlife. Michael Sullings, now at the City of Sydney, is the man behind this tree. As the tree was getting older it was becoming a safety risk, but instead of chopping it down hollows were chainsawed out. About 15% of Australia’s vertebrates need hollows, but they only form in older trees, and urban trees are rarely allowed to get this old. Now Addison Road garden has a lovely Hollow Tree specifically designed to accommodate various bird species, possums and microbats. It is also decked out with cameras so we can see who is using it. This project has been accompanied by a children’s book (which I bought my son…sadly he is only 8 months old and doesn’t appreciate it yet!) More details here.

The Hollow Tree at Addison Road Community Centre (C.Simpson-Young)

The Hollow Tree at Addison Road Community Centre (C.Simpson-Young)

On the Ground

It was at this point that we split into two sessions, so I’m afraid I missed Laura Hamilton-O’Hara, Graham Chalcroft and Warren Roberts speaking about the use of design and art in increasing support for, and use of, green urban spaces. The session I attended was kicked off by Charles Casuscelli, CEO of the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, who drew on his experience working with and on local councils in discussing the role of different levels of government in addressing urban heating. While “the challenge of urban heating sits across all level of government”, there is no decent policy framework in place. He also sees a role for council in making cooling building materials more affordable by driving up demand through setting certain requirements.

Street Trees! I was looking forward to this bit! Being an ecologist and a property owner in Sydney, I have a complex relationship with street trees. Gwilym Griffiths, the Urban Forest Manager for Inner West Council highlighted that one of the big challenges to urban greening is managing it in relation to physical infrastructure. Street trees come second to physical infrastructure like paths, water mains and powerlines. Councils are dealing with complications from inappropriate trees planted in inappropriate places decades ago. Local governments are pushing to keep existing trees and establishing new ones, but there is room for improvement in managing trees as assets, social empowerment, integrating capital works delivery, and working around the small spaces and volumes of soil in the urban environment.

Karen Sweeney, the Urban Forest Manager for the City of Sydney Council, spoke of the wonderful developments in ‘smart urban forestry’ that will help manage infrastructure and greening as population increases and there is more competition for space in the streetscape. And as all suitable public spaces are greened, councils are going to need to find ways to help green the private property that takes up a large area of city council footprints.

David Callow, from the City of Melbourne, presented on what they are doing to achieve this. Firstly, they have the Urban Forest Fund, a matching grant fund for greening projects, usually retrofitting existing buildings. So far they have had a 4:1 return in investment. Secondly, there is the Greening Our City Strategic Action Plan, a regulation meant to raise the bar of greening in development. Finally the Exceptional Tree Register, which protects about 1% of trees and engages the community.

As Michael Sullings said of trees: they are keystone structures, but currently they are managed as static individuals.


I was particularly excited about the next session…because we got to chat science! If we are going to continue greening our urban areas in the face of increasing development and climate change, we need to be strategic about which plants are planted where. This is the question that Michelle Leishman from Macquarie University is addressing in her Which Plant Where Project, with the help of Hort Innovations Green Cities Fund. They are testing horticultural species for their ability to deal with high temperatures and drought. And they are bridging that gap between academia and the real world by developing a plant selection tool which will help practitioners chose plants that will succeed in our changing environment.

One of the other barriers to continued urban greening is the ability to engage the public. While Michelle doesn’t seem to have this problem, I and other researchers can struggle to appreciate that what matters to us isn’t necessarily what matters to the public. Peter Daviesresearch suggests that we are failing by not allowing for the complexity of urban spaces; focussing on development assessment rather than strategic planning. There is also a disconnect between what researchers, councils and the general public value. He demonstrated this issue with the Pigeon Paradox. As an ecologist, I see pigeons as a pest. But many people in urban areas enjoy them, and removing them would have an impact on these people. Peter’s work has shown that to engage people we need to provide experiences that can be enjoyed first hand, focused on the local context and recognising that what is pleasing is not necessarily ecologically important. We have also been failing in achieving good governance. We need more accountability and clearer allocation of responsibilities, flexible objectives and the ability to quantify the benefits.

Caragh Threlfall in her work for the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub found that there was a large knowledge gap in what we know about how decisions (e.g. in terms of processes and governance) about urban greening are being made and data on the direct benefit of trees. While there are many studies on canopy cover, we don’t actually know what’s happening on a local scale. She is leading research to address these questions by collecting ecological data such as wildlife visitation and herbivory, as well as surveying people, around parks that have been cleared and those that haven’t in Melbourne. So far they have seen reductions in possum and bird visitation at the clear sites, despite the measures put into place to compensate, like possum boxes.

Fraser Torpy ended the session with a bit of a bang with his Rockstar vibe and endless enthusiasm for his topic. He was also very quotable. He and his colleagues have been developing active green wall technologies that filter particulate pollution out of the air, act as a barrier to sound pollution and have a cooling effect. In their research, they “went Mythbusters on this thing” exposing the system to really high pollution levels. And it could take everything they threw at it. While they “can’t create habitat for a swamp wallaby in a green wall” this technology addresses many of the challenges facing urban areas.

It was at this point I had to leave to go home to my 8-month-old. So sadly I missed the sessions on unifying planners, ecologists and arborists, and how to engage the community. Arguably these would have been the most important sessions if we are going to achieve anything that the other presenters had spoken about earlier in the day! So I am bummed.

Final Words

Charles Casuscellis drove home the benefits of urban greening by describing the alternative: on a visit to Seoul, he found that everything was happening below street level, while the open, stinking-hot streets above were empty. He said we need more than “energy intensive survival spaces”. Instead, we need to increase green spaces, street trees and clever technology. These are the tools we have to make our urban spaces more comfortable, reduce the need for resources like electricity, and assist societal, animal and plant adaption to climate change. To successfully achieve this we need to bridge the gap between stakeholders by better understanding what it is that each group values and to embrace the complexity of urban spaces.

This was the metaphorical forest that we had the good fortune to explore. It was lush and diverse and dynamic. But there is still room for more connectivity and coordination, and this conference was a very good start.

Big thanks to Stephanie Creer for proof-reading this post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s