Let The Concert Begin

This is a guest post by Bruna Costa.

Clive and Joan prepare for an evening under the stars in Kings Domain. Racing along the freeway towards the city at peak hour, they gradually approach their destination: the first of a series of summer concerts at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. On the opposite side of the median strip, queues of cars crawl out of the city at a snail’s pace. Clive and Joan share feelings of empathy for commuters trying to make their way home.

The couple reaches their destination and Clive is relieved to find a parking space beside the Royal Botanic Gardens. From there, it’s a short walk to the Bowl. He and Joan empty the boot of their paraphernalia. Joan carries a bag with the thermos, two cups and some nibbles. Clive carries the small esky filled with cold drinks and tucks the picnic rug under his arm. They wear their rain jackets. After all, this is Melbourne and threatening clouds hang in the sky – best to be safe on an evening like this.

Joggers on the Tan.  Image: Bruna Costa

Joggers on the Tan. Image: Bruna Costa

Clive and Joan hurry towards the Yarra River and turn left into the Tan along Alexandra Avenue. Small groups of two or three people, also carrying their picnic bits and pieces, stroll along in the same direction.

Joggers, wired up and clad in lycra shorts, race along the Tan going the opposite way to the couple. With brows covered in beads of sweat, the fitness fanatics pant in rhythm to their running feet in pursuit of an entirely different agenda for their evening.

Clive walks briskly. He wants to claim a spot on the hilltop, directly in front of centre stage. But Joan lags behind. She dallies, blissfully embracing the richness of the ambiance surrounding her. Like the Yarra. She likens it to a moat framing the south side of the city. It not only reflects the skyscrapers on its rippling water, but also the tranquility that comes at the end of a hectic day.

Oaks, elms and plane trees - their branches intertwine to form an archway over the road and the path on which drivers and pedestrians commute, offering dappling shade and oxygenated air throughout the day.

A sequence of succulents in shades of bottle green, light green, grey-green and silvery green, with a smattering of deep burgundy, line this section of the Tan. Joan marvels at their glossy colours and contrasting shapes. Round leaves, narrow leaves, and some thorny leaves, all line up in front of the wrought iron fence. The plants reach out, trying to connect with the passing parade.

In her absent-mindedness, Joan extends the gap between her and Clive. She needs to catch up to him and alternates her jogging with brisk walking until she’s by his side. Gasping for breath, she questions why he has to walk so fast.                       

‘We’re almost there! Can’t we slow down now?’  

Overflowing succulents on the path to the Music Bowl.  Image: Bruna Costa

Overflowing succulents on the path to the Music Bowl. Image: Bruna Costa

But Clive is on a mission, visualising his preferred spot on the lawn at the venue. They turn off the Tan onto the pathway into Kings Domain and cut across the grass to save time.

‘We have to reach the gates of the Music Bowl before the queues get too long,’ says Clive, dashing ahead as he speaks. 

But once again, Joan is mesmerised by the flowering shrubs that border the lawns, their lush foliage, wet and shiny from an earlier rainfall. After enduring weeks of hot, dry weather, the revived garden emanates a rich, earthy aroma. It rouses childhood memories of mushroom-picking days on foggy mornings in Werribee, where mushrooms that sprouted beside cow pats on fertile fields emitted that scent of fresh fungi. She glances down at the damp lawn, not looking for mushrooms, but instead noticing that the wet blades of grass have left dark smudges on her leather shoes.

Unperturbed, Joan walks on beneath tall trees, some hundreds of years old. She marvels at the array of trunks in various girths and contrasting textures. She gazes in wonder at the mighty magnolia, at its trunk and exposed roots. She slows, and admires their snake-like forms, curving and slithering beneath the grassy surface, anchoring the towering trunk to the ground.

She recalls the words of the famous artist, Sir Hans Heysen, who once said that trees were much like humans, each one bearing its own uniqueness. Joan had never looked at trees with such fascination before reading the artist’s sentiment. She thought Heysen an admirable artist who recognised the beauty and individualism of these stately natural monuments. She had read how he spent hours observing the trunks of eucalyptus trees at various stages of the day; how he recorded the hues and shifting shadows that played on a tree trunk as the sun altered its position in the sky; how he captured those colour variances in his artwork. Joan pictures the artist, seated away from his chosen tree, applying bold strokes to his canvas to create his masterpiece.

Impressive eucalypts dominate the lawns of Kings Domain.  Image: Bruna Costa

Impressive eucalypts dominate the lawns of Kings Domain. Image: Bruna Costa

Again, she hurries through the park to catch up to Clive who has arrived at the gates of the Bowl’s entrance. She lines up beside him. They wait to be counted and for their bags to be checked, a necessary routine.

Already, the crowd is larger than they expected. Although rain threatens to spoil the evening, free concerts are becoming more popular. The couple makes their way through the crowd, reaching the top of the hill to find a patch of grass big enough for their rug. Making themselves comfortable, Clive adjusts his hat. Joan checks her watch. There’s plenty of time before the concert begins so she takes her binoculars and casually spies on the multitude to see if anyone she knows is out there. The nibbles, the dip, the water bottles can wait.

The sun slowly drifts towards the west, smudging the amassing clouds with shades of purple and orange. One by one, the musicians clad in black cross the stage and take their seat. They tinker with their instruments. A cacophony of discord arises from beneath the canopy of the Bowl as the fine tuning begins. Spectators continue to file in, meeting and greeting friends, squeezing into dwindling spaces on the lawn. 

People continue their friendly chatter while the presenter thanks the sponsors for making these concerts possible. Joan mumbles to Clive about how rude some people can be. Then the presenter proudly introduces the conductor who is of international calibre. He marches onto the stage. The spectators applaud. He bows to the audience, turns to face the orchestra and raises his baton. A hushed silence descends over the crowd. The musicians are poised, ready to strike, strum, or blow their instruments.

In the distance, lightning slashes across the sky. Thunder rumbles through a dark grey cloud mass. The audience gasps - but the clouds are too distant to dampen the enthusiasm of spectators and conductor. He turns to face the crowd and their applause is encouraging. Like Clive and Joan, most have come prepared with umbrellas and rain jackets. A spot of Melbourne rain won’t last and definitely will not deter the audience. They sit back and wait for the conductor to lead the orchestra into the first piece of the evening.

The Sidney Myer Music Bowl is a spectacular location to spend a Melbourne evening.  Image: Tirin / Wikimedia Commons

The Sidney Myer Music Bowl is a spectacular location to spend a Melbourne evening. Image: Tirin / Wikimedia Commons

And so the concert begins.

By interval, lights from tall city buildings speckle the darkening sky. Clouds drifting overhead have dispersed, leaving a semblance of tatty cotton balls that temporarily conceal the stars. One by one, flying foxes take to the air and fly east, away from the setting sun.  

After the finale, the orchestra is rewarded with loud applause, cheers and whistles until they submit to an encore. Joan applauds enthusiastically after the finale. Clive collects their paraphernalia. The audience leaves satisfied, relaxed and reinvigorated with the fresh night air. The couple strolls back along the Tan, grateful to have been able to attend a pleasant evening in their beautiful city.

Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group. She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.

Urban growth: the plan for a forest metropolis

Artificial: it’s a word that comes loaded with meaning. When we call things artificial – colours, flavours, flowers – we’re often saying, just quietly, that it’s not as good as the real thing. To be artificial is a substitute, a compromise. It’s a lot of weight to bear for a term that originally described something simply as human-made, rather than naturally occurring.

In the category of artificial landscapes, a modern city is about as brazen a creation as is possible to find. The office buildings amassing to form mirror-sided canyons; the precisely parallel layouts of street, gutter, footpath and riverside; often softened only by plantings of identical trees, with a single species marching along streets in cookie-cutter repetition. It will surprise very few people that in Melbourne’s CBD, the distinctive London Plane trees account for 75% of the existing timber (interestingly, our plane trees are themselves most likely a human-made species – a hybrid of Eurasian and American parents).

Image: Visit Victoria

Image: Visit Victoria

In 2012, the Melbourne City Council began developing a plan that would change the face of the city, with a raft of environmental, cultural and economic benefits. The Urban Forest Strategy sets six targets for the city; primarily aimed at tree canopy density, diversity and health, it also focuses on water, soil, and changes to urban planning that involve the community and ensure ongoing function.

As a social need, the inclusion of green spaces in urban planning has been long established. The Urban Forest Strategy draws attention to a statement made by Melbourne’s emerging Town Council in 1839: ‘It is of vital importance to the health of the inhabitants that there should be parks within a distance of the town.’ In Europe during the same century, a similar shift was seeing the development of gardens for public use instead of the more cloistered spaces owned and policed by the very rich. Social observers were seeing that the Industrial Revolution, leading people away from rural environments to the dense labour markets of cities, had also brought about many mental and physical health issues. Neuroscience research in recent years has supported this, finding that spending time in a natural environment reduces activity in parts of the brain associated with mental illness.

The benefits of urban trees. Source: City of Melbourne Urban Forest Strategy

The benefits of urban trees. Source: City of Melbourne Urban Forest Strategy

In modern Melbourne, incorporating trees into the central streetscape as well as our parks has brought with it additional advantages. Urban trees provide natural shade, detectably lowering temperatures on footpaths; they sequester carbon, offsetting urban emissions; they have been found to reduce nitrogen dioxide, a component of urban pollution linked to respiratory disease. This all translates into economic gains – tree-lined streets see a higher amount of pedestrians, generating more passersby for local shops.

When it comes to revegetation programs, one of the most admirable components is restoration. The Australian landscape has been drastically changed since the arrival of Europeans, with the greatest shifts occurring in the oldest colonies and capital cities – recent research has been at pains to discover what the land looked like before settlement began. Nevertheless, this research has helped create rehabilitation programs in the Benalla region, throughout Gippsland and the Yarra Ranges, and other places around Australia, often giving wonderful results. In these locations, returning the countryside to its pre-industrialised condition has seen the return of threatened birds and mammals, with remnant pockets beginning to thrive.

For cities, the reality is unfortunately different. Infrastructure and landscape changes make it almost impossible to return the land to its pre-colonised condition, while dense populations with diverse requirements mean we can’t leave things untouched like we can in our National Parks. In order to maintain quality of life for all residents, intervention and reshaping is a necessary process. But for Melbourne’s urban forest, this doesn’t have to be a problem.

Urban trees provide habitat for apex predators like the powerful owl. Image: CSIRO

Urban trees provide habitat for apex predators like the powerful owl. Image: CSIRO

Before Europeans arrived, the landscape at the mouths of the Yarra and Maribyrnong was a gentle, open grassland with denser woods only around the rivers – even then, the rising salt from the bay meant that few tree species could thrive close to the coast. Restoring this landscape around the infrastructure of Melbourne would allow a return of endemic ecosystems, but it would not be sufficient to achieve the necessary goals of cooling and shading Melbourne’s streets. The current vegetation, although limited by a lack of diversity and native flora, is quite likely to be the most densely forested this landscape has ever been.

In addressing diversity, the Urban Forest Strategy has set an ambitious target with the 5-10-20 plan. At the strategy’s completion, Melbourne’s vegetation will feature single species to only a maximum of 5%, a single genus to 10%, and a single family to 20%. It’s wonderful to imagine – at least 20 different tree species will be present in our streetscapes, competing for our attention with changing shape and colour. The plan also makes sense from a biological angle; the climate is varying in greater degrees of temperature and water availability, while pathogens like myrtle rust and cinnamon fungus are appearing in outbreaks throughout Australia. Myrtle rust has been detected around Melbourne in plant nurseries, and has so far been found to affect 350 native species from the Myrtaceae family – in the event of a future outbreak, the risk of losing only 20% of our cover is a much less severe possibility than losing the majority.

Embracing the chance to truly design our landscape and shape Melbourne for the future has the potential to create a beautiful and strong home for ourselves. Long-term planning and informed decisions can protect us from changing conditions, whilst leaving behind limitations of conventional ideas opens amazing possibilities in architecture and vegetation.

A city is always artificial. But it can also be a place of artistry.

Paul Jones

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.