BY MARK MORDUE
“We are heading towards 50 degrees summer days by mid-century. Before the mid-century if you look at temperatures being reached in places like Penrith last summer.”
The words of Abby Mellick Lopes, Senior Lecturer in Design and Researcher at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, were matter-of-fact.
But like much of the information at the Rethinking the Urban Forest conference in Marrickville on Friday 24 May, it came both as a wake-up warning and a call for solutions before it is too late.
Initiated and hosted by the Addison Road Community Centre Organisation, Rethinking the Urban Forest brought together all kinds of theorists and practitioners – from scientists through to arborists, from ecologists through to architects, artists, urban planners and politicians – mixing and uniting their visions for greener, better cities today.
Nearly 30 speakers and more than 180 delegates from all over the city, and indeed the country, arrived to share ideas and experiences in an innovative “cross-disciplinary conference,” the first of its kind ever held in Australia.
Climate crisis linked to inequality
The conference was opened by Rosanna Barbero, CEO of the Addison Road Community Centre Organisation. In her address, she said, “It’s important to answer the question I’ve been asked a few times when people have wondered why Addi Road has got behind creating and hosting this conference. The answer is we see the many links between climate crisis and social inequality. Models of unsustainable development can no longer continue.”
“We need a more civil society, and for government at every level to address community concerns,” Ms Barbero said. “This event and its ambitions are fundamental to our charter, namely ‘to help create lasting alternatives for social, economic and environmental justice’.”
On the first panel for the day, Abby Mellick Lopes noted that “Cooling happens in private spaces. This mostly means air-con and greenhouse emissions when it’s hot,” she said.
Using heat maps of the city, Lopes observed increasingly high temperatures in places like Penrith and western Sydney generally.
“What we are seeing… is an economic and spatial inequality emerging,” she said.
In other words, where you can afford to live will determine your capacity to move around as our summers get hotter and hotter. In the western suburbs of Sydney, that problem is going to become much worse without a concerted effort to “cool the commons,” as Lopes puts it.
More trees are desperately needed. And different approaches to planting them, including moving beyond “this habit we have of always planting trees in a single row,” Lopes added with comic exasperation. “We need copses of trees too.”
Councillor Jess Miller of the City of Sydney alerted people to “Local Planning Strategy” platforms being developed by many councils now. These plans will “effectively determine whether or not you get enough green space in your areas for the next 10 years!” she said.
What is your council’s “Local Planning Strategy” for trees and green spaces? Have you any concerns or suggestions? Miller said you had better start phoning your local council and enquire, or the next decade will be decided for your community before you even know it.
Dr Marco Amati, Associate Professor in International Planning at RMIT University, spoke about the possibility of trees having legal standing, even “legal personhood,” an idea inspired by indigenous views that could be incorporated into legislation.
“It gives trees a presence in the imagination of people and it gives trees a formal voice,” he said.
He noted how we have gone from “planted Australian suburbs” of the post-war period “to a different kind of Australian dream,” more built up and denser, “an unregulated death by 1,000 cuts to the urban forest”.
“It’s something that requires not only better planning and community engagement; it demands legal solutions as well.”
Peter Davies, Head of the Department of Environmental Sciences and an Executive Member of Macquarie University’s Smart Green Cities Research Centre, said, “Our cities are modified ecosystems. They’re fundamentally changed and changing on a day-to-day basis. Every day we are growing. In essence that just means we are clearing more land.”
He examined “the fragile premises” behind urban planning and what limited environmental thinking is present, which “really means we’re just losing habitat and green spaces at a slower rate. But we are still losing it.”
According to Davies, a big problem lies in “planning focussed on development as an asset, but very little thinking that is strategic. We’re not being very clever”.
A little green turf matters
Davies gave this example. “An architect might have a vision. Look at my wonderful green vision. They get permissions from councils and other bodies. Along the way to it being developed the money runs out. And suddenly the green bits fall off first. Eventually you have a non-green landscape. The notion of amenity has gone.”
But it’s not just large-scale developments that matter. The nature of our homes does count for something.
“Gardens matter. A little green turf matters. Turf is not the best thing, but it’s a far better proposition than concrete. Every little bit matters,” Davies said.
The bridge to this thinking lies in preserving small pockets of bushland and parkland in urban environments. As we lose those oases, Davies said, we get ourselves into deep trouble in our cities, destroying micro-habitats and affecting biodiversity in ways that cannot be healed.
This was reinforced by Jennifer Newman, a Wiradjuri woman and academic who read a poem called “Seasonal Revelations” by the Australian poet, Romain Norton, who wrote, “Great trees do not grow overnight”.