Australia’s federal government has announced a plan to increase urban tree canopy cover in our cities by 2050.
This welcome move will not only enable our cities to be cooler as global temperatures continue to rise but will also provide the necessary restructuring of our streets in order to connect between existing green areas of parks and schools.
It is well documented that increased green canopy cover provides more opportunities to spend outdoors, further increasing rates of physical activity and improving mental health within our communities. It is also worth noting the substantial benefits increased green canopy has on our youngest population – our kids.
It is that time of year in Australia, where summer holidays are over, and 3.7 million children will begin to return to our streets as they make the daily trek to and from the schoolyard. However, in Australia, more and more parents opt to drive their children to and from school. This is a significant change from 15 to 20 years ago when local neighbourhood streets became repopulated with kids heading to school on foot or bike.
Acknowledging the myriad reasons why this change has occurred, one of them must also be because our streets have become less and less green. This has meant the impacts of diminishing urban tree cover have made it less desirable to walk to school for aesthetic reasons and because it is now hotter to do so.
As our urban population increases and cities continue to grow outward, the production of new suburban estates results in minimal established tree cover within these new neighbourhoods. This is in fact repeated in the middle ring suburbs, where urban tree canopy cover has rapidly declined due to urban consolidation and densification.
In addition, the sizes of backyards - once the child’s wonderland - are decreasing. Therefore, our streets are not only an essential part of the green tree network, but in cities they are vital in connecting children to the attributes of the natural world and for restructuring the local communities informal play and learning spaces. For my children, one of the larger trees in our street brings squeals of delight daily as we take the time to look up into its branches and reminisce of the adventures found in Enid Blyton’s joyful book The Magic Faraway Tree.
For some, the daily task of walking to and from school might appear small and insignificant. However, it makes an invaluable contribution to a child’s health and well-being. For a nation that has one of the highest levels of childhood obesity in the world, encouraging physical activity by walking to school is an essential component of tackling this growing public health issue. Further, with increasing screen time occurring amongst our youngest, taking the time out to walk to and from school gives them essential time to be outdoors. Walking along shaded green streets gives them the time to disconnect from the programming of daily life and to regain a valuable 15 to 30 minutes each day outside.
Greener streets encourage walkability, and with this comes a growing sense of community as children and parents have the opportunity to converse with neighbours and school friends alike. A greater sense of community builds confidence in young children and provides a sense of belonging. Children also begin to know who is at home and can begin to build their own ‘safety map’ in the event of stranger danger. As a parent, I’m constantly bewildered by the number of children that are deprived of even learning how to cross a local street or road. Children need to develop the experience to walk and learn about various traffic scenarios and road safety so they are empowered to make their own decisions and to practice these basic life skills.
While our politicians and community leaders continue to campaign for increases in urban tree canopy cover, our role as community members is to get out there and use these spaces and to make our voices for greener streets heard within our local communities. This combined effort should not just be about planting new trees to increase green cover, but about significantly reassessing the value of trees in our streetscapes so we dramatically reduce the removal of established trees.
Make this year the year that you help your children walk to school, walk your street often, and teach them the benefit of utilising their streets. This might not mean every day, but a concerted effort to even drop your children a few blocks from the school gate will go far in helping build a more resilient, engaged, healthy and happy future generation.