Viral Green Space Renaissance

In this time of COVID-19, Sydneysiders are flocking to our green spaces for exercise and mental relaxation.  It can be numbing staying indoors and certainly, is not a healthy lifestyle. Young parents are pushing prams; older couples are strolling;  there’s lots of dog walking; teenagers chat as they stride; cyclists discovering bike paths; informal games with the kids; solo walkers plugged into ipods. 

The city is exploring its parks and tree lined streets.  These green spaces are even more valuable than ever.  Urban planning studies of community values have always shown green spaces to have a high priority, but sadly the spread of ill-thought urban development and infrastructure has eroded this vital asset.  Over the last few years, Total Environment Centre has recorded more than 70 parks and green canopies destroyed or threatened.  Dozens of local community groups have mobilised to fend off developers and the weakening of tree protection rules.  Success has been patchy.

The situation could be exacerbated as the property industry pushes for a rapid take-off of so-called ‘stalled developments’  to stimulate economic activity, that could bypass good urban planning and lead to a rash of bad development.  They can’t be allowed to maximise lots at the expense of remaining bushland, parks and mature trees.

Now we are experiencing an explosion of green space use -  it’s time to turn the tide.  State and local governments need to lift their game.  While it is welcome that Rob Stokes Minister for Planning and Public Spaces is lauding the importance of green spaces in this time of COVID-19 restrictions – we need to do more than invest in new, skinny linkages between larger areas.  It’s vital those bigger areas are protected into the future and nature rehabilitated.  The Inner suburbs are particularly poor in open space and its tree canopy was massacred by the government’s West Connex with more to come for the Sydenham to Bankstown Metro (over 500 trees).   

I have some suggestions for Premier Berejiklian and Rob Stokes, who have as one of their key priorities, ‘creating better and green public spaces.’

First, green spaces and our tree canopy need strong legislative protection.  It should not be so easy to override zoning classifications or indulge in ‘offsetting’ when areas are proposed to be removed – it is virtually impossible to replace them.  

Second, new development precincts must put large green spaces (including remnant bushland) and linking corridors at the heart of planning. A key example is the Greater Macarthur region slated for tens of thousands of new homes.  Located in a prime urban heat area, trees and parks will be essential to cooling, physical and mental health and protecting remnant wildlife.  At this very time, Lend Lease are trying to bypass the regional planning and conservation process with its Gilead development that contains major koala corridors linking the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers.  Rob Stokes is the decision maker.

In the Hornsby and Hills Shires, two areas nominated for priority management under the government’s Save Our Species program are slated for removal, including rare Blue Gum forest the Urban Taskforce wants cleared and fast tracked for Mirvac’s development.

It’s essential that the planning process explicitly recognise the ecological, aesthetic, recreational and health values and quantify the value of green spaces and trees.  Previous studies by other cities, including Melbourne and London have found they are worth many millions of dollars in perpetuity. Protect and expand these places first before any development.

There’s a lot we can do to upgrade the natural values of our green spaces.  Wildlife corridors at least 450mwide (good for koalas and other wildlife) should be regenerated.  Green space managers can replace the understory of mowed grass in parts of parks, with native grasslands.  Naturalised banks can be returned to urban streams (locked in concrete or steel sheet piling) as is occurring along the Cooks River creating habitat and a far more pleasant experience for walkers, bird and fish life.  And of course, plant more trees in streets, parks and backyards.

Governments are looking for ideas for economic stimulus after the COVID shut down.  We can come out of this with a renewed appreciation for our green spaces and importantly a political commitment to not marginalise parks and trees in development decisions – instead investing in their future permanent and improved place in our expanding city.

Jeff Angel, Director

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