As I sit and write this in my tiny cupboard of a home office, I have the pleasure to look out of my window at a large stand of native trees.
I can hear the call of many birds. If I’m lucky, there may be a Tawny Frogmouth resting in one of the branches overhead.
My family and I chose to live in this suburb because of the trees and the walking proximity to the train station. My office is in the city. The commute on train is around 50 minutes – far less stressful than being stuck in traffic.
But I’m not in the office that much these days. I am lucky enough to work for a firm that offers genuine flexibility and embraces part time staff who have commitments beyond work and who seek richer past-times than commuting!
Before COVID, I seemed to always feel that I was in a race, or at least frantically moving to keep my chin above water. With all the pressure of working to deadlines, running to pickups, and crazy weekend commitments, I became glued to one form of screen or another. I couldn’t find time to breathe.
The lockdown in Victoria, Australia, became everything, and nothing. For me, it ended the race. It shrank my bubble down to one suburban block with a TV and a laptop. I still loved my work, but I lost my job. My husband worked in a hospital doing insane hours. Our conversations, like everyone’s, became speculation about numbers, food shopping and masks.
But there were silver linings. During the first lockdown I took to the Shared Use Paths (SUPs) close to my house as a daily ritual. I couldn’t believe how I’d forgotten about nature, how I’d missed the wind rustling in the trees, fresh air in my lungs and sun on my face. As someone who is passionate about green infrastructure, I’d forgotten how personal the connection was.
And I wasn’t the only one to enjoy the river, the trees and the birds. I saw parents out riding bikes with their kids, paired neighbours, friends taking calls or walking meetings. And it seemed that everyone remembered why it was that we live in the suburbs instead of cramped flats in the city to be closer to work.
The Australian suburb is a complex thing. It has that nostalgic undercurrent of free-range childhood memories, dreams of owning your own patch and of knowing your neighbours. Whilst a lot of things have changed, or whilst everything is changing, there is still the genuine need to be connected to community and connected to nature.
There are so many lessons coming out of the pandemic and for me as a designer concerned with how we live and how our environment is cared for. Calls for reinvestment in our local open spaces (because the community needs this infrastructure to be healthy) inspire me to continue.
If we are able to embrace living and working more locally for the long term (remember the 20-minute city dream?), the new hybrid home-office may offer more benefits than pure convenience.
Lockdown has truly broken the ‘bludging-from-home’ stigma. In fact, the Productivity Commission reported that people would be prepared to take a pay cut in order to work from home. Although not everybody wants to work from home (at least full time), and not everybody can, depending on the type of work, the interesting point is: why do people want to work from home?
Whilst waste generated in response to curbing the pandemic (think masks, rapid tests, PPE) is gargantuan, the overall environment fared better than well: air pollution was improved with observances of fewer airborne particles (23% less;) and less carbon dioxide (-39% according to one study) due to less travel; fewer wildlife injuries; less noise (50% drop in global median high-frequency seismic ambient noise); and cleaner water.
Air pollution is being tackled through batteries and renewable energy targets, but we are not doing near enough to stop our trajectory to climate disaster. In Australia, the 2021 State of the Environment Report changes its language from talking about impacts of climate change in the future tense to documenting wide scale climate harm across the country. Overall, the state and trend of the environments of Australia are poor and deteriorating as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction. The number of listed species grew by 8% between 2016 and 2021, and numbers will have substantially increased following the 2019-2020 bushfires. Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem condition. This in turn will reduce the environmental capital on which current and future economies depend.
And what of our liveable city? Our city glued together by vibrancy. It seems to me that the path forward is to remember what sustains us. We must strive for integrated design that does more than green facades and shade pavements. We must aim for interwoven biodiversity in our city. We must aim for a future where we can breath clean air, hear birds singing and feel sunshine on our faces.
Enter Nature Positive
‘Nature Positive’ is a term used to describe circumstances where nature – species and ecosystems – is being repaired and is regenerating rather than being in decline. Our current methods of managing the environment in development settings focus on maintaining or offsetting effects of the proposed development. This means that we are not addressing environmental decline but rather maintaining decline on its current trajectory. This is not good enough.
Nature Positive Plan: better environment, better for business (2022) sets out a case of change to environmental laws to start addressing repair and regeneration. The agenda outlined in the Plan presents the most comprehensive remaking of national environmental law since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) was first introduced.
The Australian Government Policies include:
- Commitment to protect 30% of Australia’s land and seas by 2030
- Create a nature positive repair market
- Establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Work in partnership with First Nations people, including developing standalone cultural heritage legislation; and
- Work towards zero new extensions.
But we must act now with thoughtful decisions to create a positive environmental legacy as part of every development vision.
We must move beyond reductive economic valuations such as offsets, as they undermine the complexity of biodiversity, ecosystem services, health and well-being benefits and importantly as living entities and cultural landscape for Traditional Owners of Country.
Key strategies that must be considered for every project include:
- Include local biodiversity that provides meaningful contribution and benefits to the local ecosystems
- Repair and care for threatened ecosystems
- Ensure connectivity and adjacencies to create green-blue infrastructure corridors that connect to waterways and parks (macro systems);
- Involve Traditional Owners and Caring for Country Practice in managing landscapes and cultural practice
- Improve grey water quality on site, at source, and passively release to improve networks of blue infrastructure
- Understand tree canopy targets and urban heat island with an improved biodiversity target; and
- Create access to nature.
Everybody has a responsibility to care for our Country. Doing the right thing is often hard. But if we are all singing from the same songbook, or at least being guided by the right policy, we have every chance to create a beautiful and lasting legacy that moves us away from the brink of collapse.
I’d like to think that as a professional designer in the built environment, I’m able to positively contribute and collaborate with other disciplines and the community to repair biodiversity across this amazing country of ours. To bring connection to nature into our daily lives – not just for our sakes, but for the fragile Australian plants and animals that have no voice.
Together we can make nature positive change and have the ability for birdsong to be the backing track for our lives.
Productivity Commission, ‘Working from Home’, Commission research paper, (16 Sept 2021), Working from Home – Commission Research Paper – Productivity Commission (pc.gov.au).
 Mahdi Boroujeni et. al, ‘Environmental impacts of COVID-19 on Victoria, Australia, witnessed two waves of Coronavirus’, Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. (28 Jan 2021), Environmental impacts of COVID-19 on Victoria, Australia, witnessed two waves of Coronavirus – PMC (nih.gov)
 Ian Cresswell et.al., ‘Australia State of the Environment 2021’, (dcceew.gov.au) (2021)
 Australian Government, Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, ‘2021 State of the Environment report Overview pre-release session, Video description and transcript’, 19 July 2022, soe-overview-briefing-transcript.docx (live.com)
Ian Cresswell et.al., ‘Australia State of the Environment 2021’, (2021)Key findings | Australia state of the environment 2021 (dcceew.gov.au)
Rhiannon Saward is Principal Design Integrator at Aurecon
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