The Nature of Melbourne

Melbourne is known for its culture, sport and coffee, but it's high time we became known for something else - biodiversity. Arguably, we are already renowned for this: think of the peregrine falcons nesting on a CBD skyscraper, the myriad of birds in our backyards, and the beautiful native gardens and parks featuring native vegetation. However, the potential to increase biodiversity and create more green spaces is endless and we need to encourage those with the ability to do so to help build a more sustainable future for Melbourne. 

Although Adelaide recently pulled ahead of Melbourne in the race to be Australia’s greenest city, let's not forget that we were the World’s Most Liveable City in 2015 for the FIFTH year in a row (but hey, who's counting?). So why not make it even more liveable through increased biodiversity and sustainable urban planning?

Melbourne City Council recently held an evening of talks on the matter, titled Nature in Our Liveable City. This provided an opportunity to various academics in the field of urban biodiversity to share their perspective on what Melbourne can start doing better. 

Kookaburras can still be found right across Melbourne.  Photo: Chris McCormack

Kookaburras can still be found right across Melbourne. Photo: Chris McCormack

Historian and author Dr Gary Presland was apt to start off the night with reference to Australia's indigenous heritage and the importance of understanding how biodiverse Melbourne once was. As Wild Melbourne has discussed previously, Presland argues that wetlands are one of the most biodiverse features of Melbourne's landscape - the question is whether we can ever see a return to this biodiversity as it was prior to European settlement.

Dr Mark Norman of Melbourne Museum continued to enforce the point that parts of Melbourne's biodiversity are more underrated than others. In his opinion, invertebrate species are often pushed to the side in favour of more 'conventional' Aussie critters, such as mammals and birds. He argued that the rarely noticed groups of animals need to be brought to people's attention in order to support increased biodiversity - after all, spiders, flies and moths are as much a part of our city as anything else (although some may not like the idea!). For Mark, it's all about 'tuning your see what is actually out there', and projects like the revegetation of Westgate Park (that was once considered an 'industrial dump') are vital in the fight to support species through green spaces.

Ringtail possums are a common sight throughout Melbourne. Photo: Emma Walsh

Ringtail possums are a common sight throughout Melbourne. Photo: Emma Walsh

An associate professor of Melbourne University, Kirsten Parris further demonstrated the importance of green spaces and appropriate habitat for increased biodiversity. She argued that habitat loss and fragmentation, noise and light pollution, and introduced species are all factors strongly implicating species across Melbourne, especially in a time of rapid population expansion.

Yet another professor in attendance that evening, Tim Entwisle of the Royal Botanic Gardens suggested that people need to learn from what they already love. Even though native plants are incredibly important in supporting higher biodiversity, Tim explained that some people need to be able to relate to the plants that they know. For example, if you plant roses, learn about the native spiders you might find on them. People's backyards can indeed become 'a part of that urban forest' (although we do highly recommend planting native!).  

Tim also provided one of the most interesting facts of the night, explaining that a study in Toronto recently showed that the planting of 10 trees in a city block provides the equivalent feeling to residents as a $10,000 increase in one's annual income would. If that's not a good enough reason to invest in greener spaces, then I don't know what is. 

This might make some of you wonder how us humans fit into biodiversity. Well, as Tim's example portrays, studies show that greener urban spaces (that intrinsically lead to higher biodiversity in many places) are actually good for us. It's a popular point currently being made by both nature and health lovers, and suggests that biodiversity may actually help us live longer. Associate Professor Sarah Bekessy of RMIT pushed this idea strongly, stating that greener cities can result in reduced stress, improved cognitive development in children, reduced mental fatigue and reduced crime - to name but a few of the many benefits. 

She believes that we need to 'start thinking differently about nature', as biodiversity is continuously seen as a problem by many city planners and urban developers. But if it brings so many health benefits, why should it be? As a teacher of sustainability and urban planning, Sarah knows that green spaces and biodiversity are 'not just about nature' - they're about people too. Considering we have falcons living side by side with office workers, it is hard to disagree.

Cover photo from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Cooka.

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human-other. She is the Arts and Philosophy Editor for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.