WILDING THE CITY
BY JULIA CHAMPTALOUP. January 2017.
Renowned Australian author Don Watson gives an intriguing view of the history of the Australian landscape in his recent book The Bush (2014). While the majority of the population in Australia are coastal dwellers - we mostly view ourselves as living in the ‘bush’ or with the ‘bush’. However, what characterises the Australian landscape in the present and for the past half of a millennium is what Watson calls ‘deadscape.’ Vast open plains devoid of trees and bush, dotted with copses in cow paddocks and prescribed nature reserves define the modern Australian landscape. Where there is bush - it is mostly regrowth of common eucalypts. Hundreds of years of timbering and grazing left little ‘old growth’ and native flora and fauna in its wake. The story repeats itself in cities, with neatly mown ‘parklands’ and treeless promenades.
But what if we had a ‘vibrant-scape’, one full of flowering native trees, native grasses, flowers and butterflies, bees, birds, even weeds? The movement for regenerating native bush has been long lived but now the movement for creating urban green scape is growing, along with the call for pollinator pockets and increased biodiversity. This century has seen a sharp decrease in the variety of wild flowers and weeds in urban areas as well as in the Australian ‘bush’ or rural areas. Brought on by a desire to have a ‘tidy’ landscape, councils and landowners have embarked on a weed eradication mentality that has also taken wild flowers, meadows, welcome weeds and the diversity of beneficial birds and insects with it. The overuse of herbicides and ever growing urban sprawl are also to blame for our now lacklustre landscape. Farmers are proud of tidy home paddocks while urban areas are ribboned with prim nature strips, barren highway shoulders and built environments on every available space or empty lot.
The benefits of green space have been well documented. According to Horticulture Innovation Australia, 83% of Australians see green space as a place for relaxation and taking time out. 73% see their garden as a sanctuary for their mental wellbeing. Contact with nature is found to have health and psychological benefits as well, including reducing stress, improving focus and having a positive effect on overall physical health. Urban spaces and well designed buildings and the space around them work to create a more engaged community, where shared space also helps to encourage and foster human relationships.
It has also been found that those working in ‘green’ environments are more productive than those in barren spaces. And what about a naturally cool environment? Shade trees offer respite from heat but are also incredibly valuable in our urban environment. Trees drop temperatures by up to 8˚C, reducing air conditioner use and carbon emissions by an estimated 12-15% per annum. And trees are good for the planet too: they absorb carbon from the atmosphere and release oxygen.
While there is more demand from the community for trees on nature strips and reclaiming vacant spaces with urban meadows and wildflowers, some councils are still operating constant weed whacking and tidy landscape policies. In many places, people have taken up guerrilla gardening on abandoned spaces and nature strips to create lovely pockets of flowering, native and edible plants. Front and back lawns are returning to shade and fruit tree havens, attracting birds, bats and beneficial insects. Backyard beekeeping has fast become a popular trend in Australia’s major cities.
The provision of green space in urban environments in Australia is now an accepted part of urban planning. The City of Sydney’s Sustainable 2030 plan outlines goals to be a leader in environmental performance, with green infrastructure and green space. The award winning Goods Line in Ultimo near Railway Square is great example of an engaging greening project championed by the City of Sydney. A former railway line was transformed into an elevated pathway and park where free wifi draws workers and students to grassy spaces and study pods amongst trees and pockets of wild flowers and grasses. On Oxford Street in Paddington, Sydney the architecturally-designed Paddington Reservoir Gardens is a secluded urban oasis surrounded by lush vegetation with sunken gardens and a fishpond.
Sydney’s newest native bush reserve, Barangaroo Reserve, consists of six hectares of more than 75,000 native trees and shrubs set within a public parkland with bike routes, walking paths and open green space. Sydney has also announced the Green Grid program - a new program to link a network of open spaces, parks, bushland and waterways with tree-lined walkways and cycleways creating green connections from homes to workplaces and spaces in between.
Sydney notable local resident Wendy Whitely spent the past ten years ‘tending’ a patch of land in front of her house and received approval after lobbying the State Government to ensure her ‘Secret Garden’ will be maintained. Many other residents are following suit - guerrilla gardening empty patches of land and hoping the council will let it be. Wouldn’t it be great to formalise ‘guerrilla gardens’ into ‘community gardens’ or ‘creative gardens’ ?
Urban meadows and community gardens can be habitat pockets but social connectors too. Yes, there are ’parks’ but they are often neatly mown and give little opportunity for engagement. Urban designers and city planners are incorporating meandering walks through wildflower border gardens into public parks as a regular practice. Working to create positive environments that reinforce relationships between urban scape and our residents should be on the list of priorities for city planners.
Plantings and rethinking landscape can include the following:
- Native grasses, wildflowers and welcome weeds
- Flowering and fruiting trees that add a changing palate of colour and edibles throughout the seasons
- Flowering native trees and shrubs that attract birds, bees, (including native bees) and bats (all important pollinators)
- Native and European bee hives
The following benefits will flow from re-envisioning our landscape and green space:
- Plant diversity will attract a diverse range of insects, birds and small mammals
- Active involvement of the local community in managing new areas of planting encourages ownership values
- Community activities and engagement: mowing, collection of seeds for fostering regrowth, maintaining gardens
- Opportunities for education and recreation - nature studies, gardening workshops, art projects.
- Small plots of wildflower/weed/grasses/green scape planting can change the feel of a setting and give residents a space to contemplate nature.
In addition, local residents might lobby their council or property management to:
- Ensure no pesticide or herbicides are used - this also reduces chemical runoff into storm drains and local waterways
- Reduce stormwater runoff reduction through planting and varying landscape/designing runoff catchment areas
- Reduce mowing and weed whipping results in budget savings and more time for engaging activities for employees (who can be managing vegetable garden or bees)
Watson’s hypothesis is that the Australian bush is both real and imaginary but also an ecology that we have markedly and permanently altered. This applies to our urban landscape and previously ‘wild’ pockets in suburbs. Going forward, we need to be active in altering it for the better, for all living things, not only ourselves. The bush that Watson defines could also apply to any open space. The bush “… is by many accounts the source of the nation’s idea of itself. The bush is everything from a gum tree to any of the creatures that live in it or shelter beneath it, and it is the womb and inspiration of the national character.”
Julia is a writer, photographer, and arts supporter. She helped to establish Art Month Sydney, a contemporary art festival. Being a supporter of artists and their projects has taken her to many of the world’s art hot spots and exhibitions. She is currently working with several not-for-profit organisations to support art projects and artist residencies.