There is a myth that pervades both at home and around the world that Australia is a country of wide open spaces, including the outback and the bush, and that the country has a unique collection of wildlife.

The extension of this myth may be that the places in which we live, study and work are imbued with an abundance of the natural world.

The reality, as many people know only too well, is often far removed from this bucolic imagining.

With nearly 90 per cent of the Australia’s population living on two per cent of our land mass, our cities are getting denser and expanding both horizontally and vertically. Despite the mythology of wide open spaces, Australians live in highly urbanised, and densely populated cities.

We are drawn to nature, and positively respond to it in measurable ways, but nature is absent from much of the development that is rippling through our cities.

Finding relief from the built elements of concrete, glass and steel is key to making our cities more liveable. There is a limited supply of ‘green space’ in our city centres, and it is often very challenging to create more. The financial and economic drivers of development prioritise spaces that have direct commercial value. This means the green elements that do not generate income (such as trees and gardens) are often squeezed out.

This situation is gradually changing as people realise the importance of green spaces and the central role they have in making places that uplift health and well-being. Developers are becoming increasingly aware that green spaces can activate an area, articulating the surrounding buildings and urban infrastructure. These spaces are aesthetically and sociologically appealing environments which attract people to them and encourage them to stay longer.

There are some recent examples where the inclusion of substantial amounts of green space has had not only a positive impact on the quality of a development, but also a noticeable influence on the people who interact with it.

The recently completed Alumni Green at the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney is a great example of these principles. Effectively a giant urban roof garden, the Alumni Green stretches over the university’s underground sports hall and library retrieval system which houses up to a million books.

This formerly barren pedestrian space surrounded by brutalist architecture has been ‘humanised’ and transformed into a vibrant, social and active green heart.

Students engage, relax and enjoy the landscape experiences: The Green – a large, raised sun-filled turf platform with a variety of seating edges; The Heart – a paved amphitheatre; and The Garden – a series of abundantly planted ‘pods’ catering for both active and passive recreation. The location of each area responds directly to circulation patterns, intended uses and building interfaces.

UTS Alumni Green

UTS Alumni Green
Images: Florian Groehn

One Central Park in Sydney is a landmark mixed use project which forms a significant architectural gateway to Sydney’s downtown. This high profile project comprises two residential towers and a lower retail podium addressing the site’s Broadway frontage.

The built form is veiled by a combination of vertical gardens (green walls), as well as the largest green facade in Australia. Other key garden spaces are the residential lobby, ground floor planting, podium garden, sunken courtyard and atrium planting for the retail levels. Whilst it faces considerable microclimatic challenges, the plant life is thriving. To ensure planting success, the planting design and technical development was tested through a rigorous process.

The significant density of the apartments is mitigated by the tapestry of planting cloaking the buildings, while the ground plane is punctuated by large feature trees and massed planting to soften the surrounding buildings and paved expanses.

One Central Park

One Central Park
Images: Simon Wood

Urban renewal and reclamation projects are starting to gain momentum, where disused infrastructure and poorly utilised public space are revitalised, reborn as active and interpretive social hubs and corridors. Clever design, materiality and interpretive wayfinding allow these formerly derelict structures and spaces to be given a new purpose. They are reactivated into places where people want to be.

New York’s High Line is a case study in revitalising a piece of derelict urban infrastructure. What once was a neglected elevated railway has been repurposed – transformed into a city park that has become one of New York’s most visited and loved urban spaces. Inspired by the Promenade Plantee in Paris, the High Line project has been credited with revitalising the city’s former meat-packing district and is now an immensely and beloved popular social hub.

New York’s ‘High Line’

New York’s High Line

The High Line is proving a catalyst for change in other countries. Sydney’s The Goods Line similarly transforms a disused elevated railway line into a 500-metre long elevated park running from Railway Square to Darling Harbour. A NSW Government Initiative, this former disused railway corridor has been reimagined as a leafy, engaging civic spine in the heart of Sydney’s most densely populated area.

The Goods Line connects from the Devonshire Tunnel under Central Station through to Darling Harbour and taps into institutions such as the University of Technology, the ABC and Sydney TAFE which border the park. The Goods Line is a key strategic link and an important green space for this burgeoning part of the city.

Beyond its primary connectivity function, The Goods Line is filled with ‘social infrastructure’ from bleachers, bench seats and an amphitheatre to fully-enabled WiFi, a children’s play area, table tennis tables and raised lawns. It has been designed to promote opportunities for pausing, occupying and using the corridor in ways beyond merely passing through.

This new platform for public engagement provides a transformative social and environmental role in the precinct. The space also serves as a powerful metaphor for the city’s move from an industrial past to a modern knowledge economy.

The Goods Line Images: Michelle Farley

The Goods Line
Images: Michelle Farley

The City of Melbourne has a similar, if somewhat less ambitious vision for Melbourne’s Sandridge Bridge.

A proposed "High Line" for Melbourne: Sandridge Bridge

A proposed “High Line” for Melbourne: Sandridge Bridge

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle supports a proposal which could see the bridge transformed into a tree-lined public park. Still in its early proposal phase, it is unclear of how much this project could cost and whether the former Port Melbourne rail line bridge is sufficient to support such a vision.

The 178-metre long pedestrian bridge and cycleway connects Flinders Street station to Southbank, a key link in the city’s infrastructure chain. While both practical and functional, it is widely considered to be uninspiring and stark. Should this proposal go forward, we could see this bustling city bridge transformed into a green space and revitalised.

We understand that aside from their aesthetic benefits, trees and plants mitigate pollution, provide us with oxygen and assist in cooling and regulating temperature. We also know that these are crucial reliefs for our dense urban environments, but unfortunately there is not enough calculable research to ensure an adequate hard/soft ratio is reached in most cities.

Aside from council policies regarding green space ratios, and rather than being an afterthought, it is encouraging to see a steady increase of new developments incorporating green place making. Standalone urban reclamation projects such as the ones listed above are also gaining publicity as people become more acutely aware of the social, health and well-being benefits they offer.

The momentum of these projects and an increasing awareness of green place making is set to continue as we are drawn to green spaces as relief from congested urban density.