The Federal government is getting more involved with town planning and the design of cities. This is an excellent move!

But can the feds convince local government to change their archaic thinking on neighbourhood character, which defines how we design our buildings and develop property for future subdivision?

Are local councils in Victoria prepared to move forward with the new order in neighbourhood character, which calls for more compact, sustainable and practical designs for a land poor city crying out for more subdivision in urbanised areas? Or are we to be strangled by the character of brick veneer houses with double garages and hipped roofs which carpenters and non-professional designers built in our suburbs in the 1950s and which still dominate the typical suburban streets? The New Residential Zones in Victoria were to free us up from the concept of neighbourhood chacater and allow more medium density residential development, but the reverse has occurred and what was prescribed in good faith has been turned upside-down by loopholes in the Planning and Environmental Act.

Neighbourhood character is universally respected in heritage streets where grand or simple Victorian homes create a sense of culture, pride in workmanship and history we respect, love and want to preserve as much as practical. No argument there.

But brick veneer homes of the 1960s not only lack in culture, they are an energy inefficient type of construction, while hipped roofs are totally underutilised space. Neither of them create a sense of belonging in the modern age.

The Federal government recently announced it will establish goals for increasing the urban tree canopy cover in Australia’s cities, in an effort to reduce the heat island effect.

“We will work with Australian cities to set decade by decade goals out to 2050 for increased overall tree coverage,” said Minister for Environment and Acting Minister for Cities, Greg Hunt.

“Green cities — cities with high levels of trees, foliage and green spaces — provide enormous benefits to their residents. Increasing urban canopy coverage decreases heat, which improves health and quality of life.”

This initiative by the Government could spark the new order for neighbourhood character. Green cities need not only be trees planted on the ground. A large canopy tree can freeze out 100 square metres of space on ground which cannot be developed by a structure. A smaller tree may require 25 square metres of space. That land is very precious in suburbia, where human beings are scrambling to get a foothold in urbanised areas, where investment has been made in infrastructure, and yet we will have to sacrifice large amounts of ground to trees and shut out property subdivision where they should occur.

One balanced solution is encouraging more green roofs and green walls. Green roof in suburbia – that is the conflict we face. The local council prefers to cling to the neighbourhood character of hipped roofs whereas flat green roofs can be utilised as recreational space and provide excellent insulation. Green roofs and walls offset the increased heat generated by concrete, steel and reflective glazing.

Green roofs on large factory buildings would offset the heat generated by large hardstand used for driveways and car parking. Green roofs in office space with interlinking sky bridges could create a sense of community in the commercial world.

Green travel – not total reliance on the motor vehicle – is another initiative local councils talk about but are reluctant to apply in development for medium density housing. Parking chews up space, as do the driveways and turning circles we need to provide.

Coming back to green roofs, one has to look at the open space requirement to be provided for medium density housing in several greater metropolitan councils. These councils have currently specified that recreational open space can be provided as 75 square metres of open space on ground, or eight square metres on a balcony, or 10 square metres on a roof garden. That is the formula they relied on. A 10 square metre roof garden initiated in 2001 was a brave and bold vision.

Lately, the same councils are undertaking initiatives to delete the eight square metre balcony or 10 square metre roof garden option and replace them by one chunk of 80 square metres on the ground. That 80 square metres could be the footprint of a new home for a young Victorian family.

This new move will shut out many young Victorian families from living and owning a property in urbanised areas where schools, public transport and shops exist and move out to regional areas where investment in infrastructure is lacking.

So much for the Federal Government’s vision of greening Australia with roof gardens.