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.

Review: Vegetation of Australian Riverine Landscapes

The Book – Vegetation of Australian Riverine Landscapes (Biology, Ecology and Management)
The Editors – Samantha Capon, Cassandra James, and Michael Reid

Riverine ecosystems are dynamic and diverse, and are strongly influenced by the flora that inhabit them. However, not only it is important to acknowledge how riverine plants influence their environment, but also to appreciate the processes that sustain our riverine vegetation. Vegetation of Australian Riverine Landscapes aims to encourage this appreciation, and to inspire interest in these fascinating landscapes.

Split into four sections, this book discusses the natural processes and anthropogenic impacts that affect the riverine vegetation of Australia, while also describing key taxa and the adaptations and life histories that allow them to exist in riverine habitats. The editors of this book hope that their text ‘fosters awareness of the incredible diversity and dynamic nature of riverine vegetation across Australia both for its own sake and for its vital functional role.’

The first section explores the spatial and temporal characteristics of riverine landscapes in Australia, and describes the diverse habitats determined by those characteristics. The history of our riverine vegetation is described, taking the reader on a journey from Australia’s most recent glacial period, through the Holocene, and into the present. This section also discusses the anthropogenic effects that alter our riverine habitats.

Section Two, named ‘Riverine plants’, discusses the key plant groups that are found in riverine habitats. Inconspicuous yet widespread, the bryophytes, aquatic algae, and charophytes are emphasised as functionally significant taxa in riverine environments. The diversity of vascular aquatic macrophytes and riparian herbs is discussed in this section, as is the ecology and life history characteristics that allow these taxa to survive in dynamic riverine environments. The larger, most noticeable species - the trees and shrubs - are also described in this section.

The third section in this book describes the riverine habitats of five major regions of the Australian continent, and how the vegetation varies depending on each region’s geographic location and climate. The floodplains and wetlands along the south-east coast of Australia are explored, including mangrove communities, coastal salt marshes, and brackish meadows. In contrast, the chapter devoted to inland south-eastern Australia describes the floristic characteristics of the Murray-Darling Basin as being dominated by woodland, forest and shrubland communities. The riparian vegetation of treeless high country is also discussed, as is the riparian vegetation of tropical northern Australia and the vegetation of desert river landscapes.

Finally, the authors describe the main management concerns regarding the riverine ecosystems of Australia. These include the consideration of various threats to our riverine landscapes, including water management, salinisation, fire, grazing and weeds. For example, while reviewing this book I learnt that at present there are over 3000 invasive plant species growing wild in Australia. These weeds account for 13% of Australia’s flora.  Luckily, restoration practices and monitoring techniques are also examined in this section.

Vegetation of Australian Riverine Landscapes lives true to its name, and provides an in-depth description of the plants and processes that are found in our Australian freshwater environments. Written in a succinct manner and with concise graphs and maps, this text will serve anyone interested in learning more about our riverine landscapes.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you're a student studying riverine ecosystems, you're interested in plants and how they adapt to their environment or if you're involved in land management.

Not As We Know It: Melbourne City

This is a guest post by Mary Shuttleworth

If you find some spare time in these last few weeks of warmth, I highly recommend getting up early, heading into the city, and standing along Southbank to watch the sunrise. It’s one of my favourite views in the entire world. I love watching as Flinders Street Station bursts bright orange in the growing light, the skyline of the city perfectly reflected in the Yarra’s murky waters. There are almost always hot air balloons, it is almost always quiet, and (most importantly) it almost always smells of fresh doughnuts and coffee.  

Now a hub of expensive restaurants, hotels and boutiques, Southbank was once a riverbank, a mess of swampy scrubland that stretched on either side of the river from Boathouse Drive to the end of North Wharf Road. The soil along the Yarra was rich with nutrients, despite being often sodden due to poor drainage and frequent flooding. Swamp paperbark and woolly tea-tree dominated the area, making up about half of the canopy, with the understory a mix of grasses and shrubs such as common reed, soft twig-rush, and gristle fern. Parrots, possums, and bats would have found homes within the aged, hollowed trees scattered through the area. Though the smell of coffee and doughnuts is inviting, the scent of eucalyptus and damp soil would have been just as relaxing to come across in the early hours of the morning.

Just above North Wharf Road, moving into Docklands, the environment transformed from scrubland into a brackish grassland, with not a single tree in sight. The area was dominated by grasses such as chaffy saw-sedge, blue tussock-grass, and Australian salt-grass. The largest plant popping up among the grasses was the annual fireweed, and even that was very uncommon. Though now this area is often flooded with sports fans visiting Etihad Stadium, in the 1750s it was not uncommon to find it flooded by water, the soil almost always water-logged. The low-lying area we now know as the Docklands was then close to a large salt lake, which was located along what is now Footscray Road. This lake, and its surrounding saltmarshes, leeched salt into the soils, limiting the growth of trees and waterlogging the soils around the Docklands.

The scenery changed moving from Docklands into the CBD. Trees began to emerge on the landscape, narrow-leaf peppermint and drooping sheoak dotted across the expanse of grasses such as tall sundew and variable sword-sedge. The soil of this area was often waterlogged, likely due to the frequent flooding of the Yarra River. This extended from Village Street to Queen Street and up to North Melbourne, encompassing what is now the Queen Victoria Market. Now hustling and bustling with stalls, buskers and coffee shops, it was once an expanse of grassland dotted with eucalyptus trees that stretched up to fifteen metres in height. This area would also have been full of a range of mammals and marsupials: the eastern-barred bandicoot, all but extinct on mainland Australia now, would likely have found a home in these grassy woodlands.  

Crossing what we now call Queen Street, the trees became sparser, including species such as river red gum and swamp gum. A few bushes and shrubs would have been scattered across the grassy landscape, species such as black wattle, golden wattle and tree everlasting poking out among the tussock grasses and sedge. In periods of high rainfall, it’s likely that this area would have been transformed into an almost-wetland: a series of interconnected pools of water providing habitats for various wildlife, such as birds and amphibians.  

At Spencer Street, the environment transitioned into a drier system. Where the Town Hall and Flinders Street now stand, the landscape was significantly flatter 300 years ago. Trees and shrubs were rare. Of the few that were in the area, Gippsland red-gum would have been the most prominent, with blackwood and burgan making up the understory. This landscape was dominated by grasses and herbs, with species such as veined spear-grass, wattle mat-rush, kangaroo grass and kidney-weed covering the ground and sweeping throughout the city and across to the suburbs of North Melbourne, Collingwood, Richmond, and Fitzroy. Skinks and snakes would have found their way easily throughout the grassy landscape, catching rays of sun in the patches of soil left bare by the abundant grasses.

Is this what the entirety of the Yarra River originally looked like? Photo: Glenn Guy

Is this what the entirety of the Yarra River originally looked like? Photo: Glenn Guy

It is difficult to imagine the Yarra as it was before European colonisation, with banks of sloping soil instead of hardened cement walls. It is perhaps even harder to imagine the city without the distinctive Flinders Street Station, the Bourke Street Mall, Etihad Stadium and the famous Queen Victoria Market. Try to imagine the sweeping grasslands that covered the city as you walk down Bourke Street, or when you take the tram along Collins Street. Instead of coffee, there was eucalyptus; instead of the sound of trams, there was birdsong and wind rustling the grasses. I love the view of Flinders Street in the mornings, but a few hundred years ago, this very different landscape would have been beautiful to see as well. 

Inside the fence: conservation on private land with Australian Wildlife Conservancy

As I make my way down to one of Melbourne’s many trendy cafes to meet Zac Lewis, a Development Executive at Australian Wildlife Conservancy, one thing strikes me more than anything else – this is not the typical stomping ground of an employee of Australia’s largest private conservation land holder.

The modus operandi of AWC is one of on-ground action, and it’s clearly working for them. The not-for-profit conservation group manages 3.15 million hectares of land in Australia and are nearly solely responsible for the continued persistence of a number of threatened species that call our Outback home.  

A mulgara (Photo by J. Schofield, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

A mulgara (Photo by J. Schofield, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

As we chat, Zac’s passion for private land conservation quickly becomes clear: “I come from a marine ecology background, so a lot of the work at AWC was very new to me, particularly the idea of private conservation. It really does have a place though, I think, as the AWC estate protects 86% of Australia’s terrestrial bird species and over 70% of our native [terrestrial] mammal species.” As Zac points out, despite the incredible network of national parks across Australia, places like AWC’s sanctuaries are the last stronghold for a number of threatened species. Zac elaborates: “So that’s really why AWC was formed , to try and drive a new model for conservation, one that’s focused on effective conservation.”

Part of that effective conservation is ensuring as many dollars as possible that AWC spends are contributing directly to on-ground conservation. In order to achieve this, AWC’s sanctuary managers are accountable for every dollar they spend, with every action rooted in driving an ecological return. As Zac describes, “science is a critical part of that accountability. Really, we want to measure what we do, to see if it’s working and if it’s not working how we can adapt so it does.” Obvious things, really, but difficult on a shoestring budget.  

Despite the absolutely pivotal role AWC play in protecting and restoring Australia’s biodiversity, they have some challenges of their own.

I talk to a lot of people and, despite us being the largest private landowner for conservation in Australia, some people have never heard of us.

Part of this is a factor of the Conservancy’s business model. As Zac explains; “we spend 85% of our funding in the field and… [comparably] very little on marketing.” As a result, word-of-mouth is their major tool for garnering support and awareness for their work across the country. This can be challenging for AWC, given the vast majority of their fundraising is spent on direct conservation action.

Like many other charities, AWC are exploring more innovative sources of fundraising, which is proving to be successful. One particularly successful event, says Zac, was an attempt to bring science and art together called ‘Five artists, Seven days’: “[We sent] five prominent Australian artists up to our Pungalina-Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary in the Gulf of Carpentaria. They were there seven days for some inspiration and did a lot of painting and sculpting. We held an exhibition in Sydney in collaboration with the artists and their galleries and a proportion of the proceeds was donated to AWC.”

The Mala (Photo taken by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

The Mala (Photo taken by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

Zac reiterates throughout our conversation that AWC prides itself on measuring everything it does. It’s their point of difference and, according to Zac, part of what makes them so successful. “We’re in a resource-limited industry,” Zac explains, so they need to keep focused on ensuring their money is being used to deliver outcomes. That is, being able to show people that their support is making a difference. Zac reiterates that “the onus really is on us to be able to show what’s being achieved and demonstrate we are making a tangible, measurable difference to our endangered wildlife. For example AWC conducts annual biodiversity surveys across our sanctuaries to monitor the populations of many endangered species and ensure the graphs are heading in the right direction”.

Part of showing the work achieved by AWC, Zac says, is framing conservation challenges and progress in an effective manner: “People talk about conservation as, kind of, this problem that’s bigger than Ben Hur. For AWC, we focus our work on the key threats that are driving the extinction of many endangered native animals in Australia. Feral cats, for example, kill tens of millions of native animals per day across Australia. Our work focuses on integrating the management of these threats to our native wildlife like feral cats, wildfire and invasive weeds so that we can have the greatest impact.” Otherwise, according to Zac, you’re taking a scattergun approach to management.

Towards the end of our lunch, the conversation steers toward the future direction of AWC. Zac’s eyes light up noticeably as he excitedly describes some of the organization’s next steps, including the expansion of an existing sanctuary and an exciting partnership with the NSW Government. 

A numbat from Yookamurra Sanctuary (Photo by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

A numbat from Yookamurra Sanctuary
(Photo by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

Some may be disappointed to hear that Victoria doesn’t feature in AWC’s plans in the near future, but it’s for very good reason: “I think a lot of [donors and supporters] want to see a presence in Victoria. But it’s very hard. There’s two reasons why we’re not here [in Victoria]; the first is that land’s very expensive. We want to make landscape-scale changes and we can buy vast tracks of land in northern Australia for the price of a small property in Victoria. So that sense of scale [is important]. But also, we choose the land we acquire very carefully based on its biodiversity values so that we can get the best ecological return from our investment. A lot of the key conservation areas in Victoria are found on public land and are not up for sale.”

In those situations, partnerships with governments, like NSW, can be more effective. AWC have formed an historic partnership with the NSW Government to deliver land management and science in two NSW National Parks; the Mallee Cliffs National Park and Pilliga National Park. Despite the finer details still being settled on, AWC is planning to establish large feral predator-free areas in each park and reintroduce 10 of Australia’s most endangered native mammal species back in to these parks.

For the first time, regionally extinct animals that have not been seen for over 100 years will be returned to NSW National Parks.

The new arrangement between the NSW government and AWC is incredibly exciting. However, Zac thinks AWC’s other major focus for the short-term is just as impressive: “The big project for us over the next three years is the Newhaven project… It’s sort of a game-changing project”

AWC’s plans are simple – put in an enormous fenced exclosure at their Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Central Australia. This might sound simple, given AWC’s previous success with feral predator-free areas but, in reality, it’s a mammoth task: “At the moment, our largest feral predator-free area on the mainland is Scotia at 8000 Ha. We want to put in a 65, 000 Ha feral cat-free area at Newhaven, which is really exciting.”

Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, which was previously owned by Birdlife Australia, is an area of global biodiversity significance. “Many species that originally occurred there have been lost; much of central Australia is a marsupial ghost town” says Zac. So once the fence is up and the foxes, cats and rabbits are removed, the next step is perhaps the most exciting: “We’re restoring nine endangered native mammal species to their homeland in central Australia at Newhaven, including the Greater Bilby, the Golden Bandicoot and the beautiful Mala, of which the mainland sub-species is extinct in the wild on mainland Australia.”

Apart from the prospect of reintroducing a number of locally extinct species, the Newhaven expansion is remarkable for other reasons, too. “It’s really taking the model we use now around feral cat eradication to a scale never before seen” Zac explains. Upon completion, Newhaven will be the largest feral predator-free area on mainland Australia. But, as Zac points out, this obviously doesn’t come cheap. “The first stage of the project will be to establish an 8-15,000 Ha fenced feral-free area, which will cost $3 million to put in place. The federal government has recognized the global significance of this project and have already committed $750, 000 to that first stage, so it is up to us now to raise the remaining funds.”

Zac acknowledges the enormity of the task ahead, but is optimistic given AWC’s success in Australia so far in conserving our flora and fauna.

We know we can do it, we just need to get the word out.

Cover image taken by W. Lawler at Newhaven Sanctuary, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy


Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary