Green roofs and vertical gardens are a growing area of investment for property developers and urban planners across Australia.

The increasing demand for this type of green infrastructure is evident in the high number of planning applications that include vertical gardens and green roofs. Yet despite the rapid development of the industry and the increasing demand and support for these designs, many green infrastructure projects never get off the ground.

What are the conditions that hold these projects back? And how can we enable more effective and successful green infrastructure projects at a city scale? There are many complex factors at play here, from technology and industry standards, to finance, governance, and planning. So what are the ideal conditions to facilitate green infrastructure development in planning and local government?

Green infrastructure can have many benefits that often align with local governments’ strategic priorities. These include increasing amenity, improving stormwater management, reducing the urban heat island effect, improving the energy efficiency of buildings, increasing biodiversity and habitat connectivity, reducing noise, and encouraging local food production.

Many local governments recognise the different ways in which green infrastructure can contribute to the social and environmental performance of their municipality, and are therefore supportive of these solutions in principle. However, when it comes to establishing planning requirements and policy, the diversity of the potential applications and designs of green infrastructure presents a challenge that few councils are yet to overcome effectively.

Local government has the capacity to create overarching plans that connect, facilitate and maximise the benefits of green infrastructure on a city-scale, to create standards and requirements that ensure best-practice in design, and to lead by example and educate the public. The flip side of their opportunities is that where local government does not participate, it can also create roadblocks which effectively hinder green infrastructure development.

One of the advantages of the comparative youth of the Australian green infrastructure industry on the world stage is that we can learn from the experience of others. A review of experiences of local governments in other countries reveals that there are six key ways in which local governments can foster and support the development of effective green infrastructure.

  1. Create policy
  2. Establish planning requirements and mandate green infrastructure in set conditions
  3. Create incentives
  4. Lead by example
  5. Recognise and remove barriers
  6. Provide education and resources

There are a number of examples of government leaders, both local and international, who have used these methods with good effect.

Create policy

Creating a green infrastructure policy provides the framework for planning requirements for green infrastructure, and provides guidance to design professionals, property developers and the public. Both the City of Sydney and City of Adelaide have developed policies which relate specifically to green roofs and vertical gardens.

Establish planning requirements and mandate green infrastructure in set conditions

To ensure that governance systems are equipped to support the uptake of green infrastructure, it is important that local government first develop clear planning requirements for installing green infrastructure. Such requirements provide a consistent reference for the public, and assist planning staff in assessing building and planning applications that include green infrastructure.

Legislation also plays a crucial role in creating green infrastructure. Cities such as Paris and Toronto have specific bylaws which require that all new building developments include a proportion of green roof. In Toronto, green roofs are a requirement for all new developments above 200 square metres, with coverage requirements ranging from 20 to 60 per cent of the available roof space.

Create incentives

Another effective way of stimulating uptake of green infrastructure is to provide funding. The City of Adelaide recently launched its Green City Grant, which provides matched funding for projects that create visible greenery within the city. The City of Melbourne also provide opportunities for city laneways to access funding through their ‘Green Your Laneway’ program, announcing four winning laneways late last year. In 2016, the City of Greater Geelong launched a competition for commercial buildings, with the winners to receive the first stage of design for free.

In the District of Columbia, the District Department of the Environment encourages the uptake of green roofs through a rebate program, taking this step as a means of managing storm water. Rebates are available for residential, commercial and institutional roofs with funding ranging from $10 per square foot to $15 per square foot. There are also funds available for buildings that are 2,500 square feet or less, to cover the cost of a structural assessment.

Similarly, in Portland, Oregon, Mayor Sam Adams launched the Grey to Green Initiative in 2008, which provides funding for green roof outreach and construction, offering $5 per square foot of new green roof.

Lead by example

Installing green infrastructure on government buildings is an effective way of both educating the public and inspiring the uptake of green infrastructure. Where this green infrastructure is accessible to the public, the potential for public education and engagement is magnified.

Local governments across Australia have shown strong leadership in this area by installing green roofs and vertical gardens across council buildings. Examples include the City of Stonnington’s TH King Building green roof and vertical garden, the City of Boroondara, the City of Melbourne with the CH2 green roof, the City of Sydney, and many others. And of course, Parliament House in Canberra sports an impressive green roof.

In other cities, such as Toronto, green roofs are, in fact, a requirement on all new government buildings.

Recognise and remove barriers

Lack of clear planning requirements creates a hurdle for green infrastructure projects. One of the reasons many green infrastructure projects never break ground is that delays in planning applications result in significant loss of money and time. One way that governments can address this issue is to expedite the planning process for green infrastructure projects. For example, the City of Chicago encourages green roofs and sustainable building design through a priority review process that expedites building permits for projects that incorporate green building techniques.

Another barrier for green infrastructure projects, particularly in dense urban areas, is the ongoing costs associated with maintenance and green waste removal. Local government can help to reduce these costs by facilitating a smooth process for granting maintenance access where work permits are required, and by providing green waste removal services.

Develop tools and resources

Tools and resources for the public and the community can assist in supporting green infrastructure.

For example, a collection of local councils in inner Melbourne, including the Cities of Melbourne, Yarra, Stonnington and Port Phillip developed the Growing Green Guide as an educational tool to provide advice on green roofs and green walls. Last year, the City of Melbourne also commissioned and released a Rooftop Mapping Tool, which identified rooftops within the city that were suitable for green roof or solar projects.

green roof

rooftop mapping

The City of Port Phillip, City of Geelong and City of Whitehorse have also developed fact sheets on green roofs including examples of suitable native species that perform well at height, and the City of Stonnington have run vertical garden workshops for their community members on how to design and install a vertical garden. The Cities of Manningham and Whitehorse have also run education sessions on green infrastructure for their communities.

These collective actions and resources show both leadership and commitment to green infrastructure across Australia. The next step is to integrate these actions to develop a stronger, more cohesive approach that supports quality, lasting green infrastructure.