There are plenty of positive benefits increased green canopies can bring to our cities, highlighting the federal government commitment to increase the urban tree canopies across our cities by 2050.

Governments at all levels across Australia are recognising the benefits that green infrastructure can bring to our cities, a leading agency being the City of Melbourne. The city’s Urban Forest Strategy, released in 2012, is internationally recognised as being at the forefront of green infrastructure planning and delivery.

Fellow AILA National Council member Ashley Sheldrick and I recently discussed the Greening the West Strategy, which was produced by a coalition of local councils from the west of Melbourne together with City West Water, Melbourne Water and other state government agencies. It is a regional strategy with the aims of increasing urban greening and improving the quality of open spaces across the western Melbourne region.

Greening the Pipeline, a major project supported by Greening the West, was recently launched by Creative Suburbs and Wyndham City Council, City West Water, Melbourne Water and VicRoads which plans to create a 27-kilometre long linear parkland along a disused and heritage listed main outfall sewer. Once complete, the linear park will connect communities, education facilities, and commercial and arts precincts between Brooklyn and Werribee.

While these strategies are to be lauded, particularly when they inform policy and on-the-ground action like both the CoM Urban Forest Strategy and the Greening the West Strategy, policies and actions from a range of agencies continue to compromise these strategies.

Three recent examples from Victoria highlight these issues in different ways.

Melbourne Water will soon be replacing a major pipeline along St Georges Road in Northcote. The pipeline sits within a wide reserve which features an avenue of 400 mature deciduous trees which will be removed as part of the pipe replacement works. Melbourne Water had no plans to replace the trees until the activism of local residents through a public campaign and petition forced the replacement of lost trees into the project scope.

Given that Melbourne Water is a key agency in the Greening the West project (and has a strong track record of delivering quality passive open space associated with their waterway and wetland assets), there is an opportunity for the agency to have the same commitment to delivering positive urban and landscape design outcomes for asset renewal located in urban environments on this project, which they are not currently considering.

In November 2015 Citipower and Powercor, who own the poles and wires that distribute electricity throughout Victoria, released a new ‘Distribution Construction Standard’ which includes new guidelines regarding the separation of electricity assets from street trees. These guidelines include a range of restrictive requirements for street tree spacing and offsets from underground services.

Since the introduction of these guidelines, which were developed with limited industry consultation, Powercor has, on a number of occasions, refused to grant statements of compliance for new assets, where they deem that street trees are planted too close to their assets. This has resulted in the removal of newly planted street trees along entire streets in order to achieve the statement of compliance as required from the power authorities.

These actions, resulting from limited consultation as well as a poorly drafted and administered set of guidelines, have the potential to undermine street tree plantings across Victoria, including those identified in the Greening the West Strategy, which covers the fastest growing residential growth zones in Australia.

These guidelines would be vastly improved if revisited in partnership with all stakeholders involved in the design of new streets and roads. This would enable positive planning and design outcomes such as potentially co-locating services in a common trench that will provide adequate space for quality street trees of an appropriate scale.

The examples from Melbourne Water and Citipower/Powercor show a major disconnect between the aims of high-level policies and strategies and guidelines and requirements at the design and delivery phase. This disconnect is resulting in unnecessarily poor outcomes that could be avoided through inclusive planning and guideline development.

In contrast to these examples, details are emerging of the proposed works associated with the Melbourne Metro Rail. The construction will require the removal of over 900 trees in and around the Melbourne CBD, together with the temporary annexation of a number of open spaces as works zones for the tunnel construction. The project is in public consultation phase and the proposals need to be interrogated in detail, however there are positive signs that quality urban design and green infrastructure outcomes are being embedded in the planning and design process. The inclusion of the City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy as a key reference document is a positive sign that green infrastructure outcomes will be central to the design of the project.

The landscape and visual assessment for Melbourne Metro Rail includes a range of principles in the urban design vision, including:

  • Prioritisation of integrated, safe and high quality pedestrian routes
  • Enhancement and increase of green open space
  • Incorporation of water sensitive urban design initiatives and energy efficient technologies

These principles, combined with commitments such as “adopting opportunities for structures to provide other benefits or act as catalysts for activities, such as the narrowing of roads to allow improvements to pedestrian routes, spaces and facilities, greening of streets” provide an opportunity for this major infrastructure project to leave a positive legacy by considering and embedding green infrastructure elements and quality urban design in the delivered built form.

The above examples provide a contrast in the ways in which different agencies are responding to important strategies that promote green infrastructure in order to deliver a range of positive benefits, including climate change resilience, mitigation of the urban heat island effect, higher quality open space, and improved community health outcomes.

Further engagement with authorities across all levels of government is required to ensure high level strategies positively inform design and construction guidelines to deliver quality green infrastructure and community assets.