The Melbourne CBD could soon become host to its very own rainforest canal if one of Australia’s leading experts on sustainable urban development has his way.
Gilbert Rochecouste, founder and managing director of Village Well, has mooted an ambitious proposal for converting one of the central thoroughfares running through the heart of downtown Melbourne into a stretch of urban rainforest by taking advantage of its underlying natural waterway.
At present, Elizabeth Street is a largely nondescript downtown avenue, equipped with little to distinguish it from myriad other similar thoroughfares in major cities around the world.
It nonetheless serves as one of the primary routes through the city, running along a diagonal north-south slant from the Haymarket to Flinders St. Station, stopping just short of the Yarra River itself. Elizabeth Street traverses all of the Melbourne CBD's main east-west thoroughfares and hosts or is situated in close proximity to key downtown locations including the Queen Victoria Markets, Melbourne Central Railway Station, the Emporium and Capitol Theatre.
Rochecouste envisages the conversion of Elizabeth Street into a rainforest nature strip with a canal of running water at its core - a radical transformation which would entail completely tearing up the conventional tarmac and paving that comprises the roadway at present.
While the creation of an artificial river in the centre of downtown Melbourne is at first glance a concept so fantastic it abuts upon the implausible, if not the absurd, the geographical conditions underlying Elizabeth Street make it ripe for conversion into a canal, given that it is situated along the course of a natural waterway.
It's this geographical underpinning that has long made Elizabeth Street highly susceptible to heavy flooding during torrential weather - especially when Williams Creek is overwhelmed by rain.
The overhaul as envisaged by Rochecouste would see Elizabeth Street become a lush, tree-lined, reed-filled canal placing rainforest flora directly adjacent to the pre-existing street features and skyscrapers of Melbourne's inner city.
The rainforest canal would include decks that provide ample space for pedestrians, as well as seating areas, cafes or even restaurants.
The project is expected to invigorate that part of CBD by serving as a highly appealing area for both tourists as well as the city's residents and workers, given the natural affinity that most people feel for green spaces and nature strips. The presence of such a sizeable clump of biomass in the city will also improve air quality by serving as a sink and filter for small particle air pollution.
These benefits are likely to boost the prices of properties - in particular residential apartments - within its immediate vicinity, while adding a highly distinctive tourist attraction to the CBD, which at present has little to distinguish itself from other major cities in Australia or other parts of the world.
Rochecouste is already an old hand at successful urban renewal in Melbourne, and was responsible for the transformation of many of the city's formerly seedy and squalid laneways into thriving commercial and tourist spots.
Despite their extravagant nature, his plans for Elizabeth Street are not without precedent, and their potential benefits are already well reflected in other similar projects.
In the South Korean capital of Seoul the Cheonggyecheon project saw the restoration of an urban creek that had been covered with transportation infrastructure, converting it into an 11-kilometre tract of riverine green space which has proved immensely popular with local residents.
In the case of the Cheonggyecheon the rate of increase in the prices of properties within 50 metres of the project was twice that of other parts of Seoul, with gains of between 30 to 50 per cent. Business in the area also benefited, with numbers increasing by 3.5 per cent during the period from 2002 to 2003 - twice the rate of business growth in downtown Seoul.
The Cheonggyecheon area also saw an increase of 0.8 per cent in the number of its working period, during a period when the figure for downtown Seoul fell by 2.6 per cent.
The project itself has become a winning tourist attraction, drawing 64,000 visitors on average each day, of whom 1,408 are foreign tourists. This means that Cheonggyecheon brings as much as US$1.9 million in additional spending by foreign tourists to Seoul each day.
Cheonggyecheon also achieved significant improvements in air quality - cutting down small particle atmospheric pollution by 35 per cent from 74 to 48 micrograms per cubic metre, in an area where residents were previously more than twice as likely to suffer from respiratory ailments compared to other parts of the city.