The streets can’t keep us down – Melbourne’s green thumbs

If there’s one idea that drives our confused understanding of the environment, it may be that the ‘natural world’ begins where our cities end.

From far above, this seems to hold true. You can see it clearly on Google Earth, or when travelling over a city – our urban areas announce themselves as colourless pockmarks on otherwise green or orange earth.

Things begin to change, though, when you look more closely. Between the grids of streets, and the roofs of our buildings, tiny pockets of green emerge. There may be less green space in our cities, but what we are liable to miss is the unique nature of what is there – the density and variety of the flora we consciously decide to surround ourselves with. Our urban gardens and parks are so tightly-packed that, according to new research conducted across several Australian universities, Australian cities actually support more threatened plant species, on a square metre basis, than the rest of the continent.

crawling plant growing across a concrete wall

There’s a counterintuitive appeal to recognising that, far from being ‘dead zones’, our cities are unique biological hotspots. By learning to identify and celebrate urban greenery, we can benefit from the acute recognition that our decisions have environmental impacts that manifest in ways that can be felt at close quarters. It may be hard to grapple with the implications of climate change as a macrocosmic phenomenon, for example, but our bodies can readily identify how green spaces work to drive down temperatures in parklands close to city centres. If our cities are spaces for the protection of threatened plant species, the reverse may come to be true: those species, in creating heat-dispelling micro-climates, may save the most vulnerable of us as heat waves increase in frequency and intensity.

The practical implication of all of this, of course, is that if cities are sites for botanical conservation, improvement of the urban environment must be treated as just as important as protecting the most remote tracts of untouched wilderness.

Good technology can help. One of the most fascinating tools for understanding urban greenery is an open source software package called i-Tree. The data it generates focusses on ‘canopy cover’ – the proportion of an urban area covered by trees and shrubs – in order to ballpark the environmental health of your particular inner-city ecosystem. The most striking revelation, once an area is assessed, is usually the sheer amount of ‘potentially plantable’ space – surfaces that could support rich flora, but are currently underutilised. If cities are already biological hotspots, it follows that there is a huge amount to gain from directing close attention to how these areas could be greened.

The 202020 Vision project, an initiative of the Nursery & Garden Industry of Australia, is designed to support those looking to act on making use of this newly-discovered fertile space. Their goal, since launching in 2014, has been to increase overall green space in Australian cities by 20 percent by the end of the decade – an achievable aim, considering that almost half of our urban land is potentially plantable. In some areas, more ambitious plans have been floated. The City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy, for example, offers a blueprint for the doubling of canopy cover in Melbourne’s public spaces to 40 percent by 2040.

urban wall garden

Creativity – and a willingness to shirk convention – tends to be key to urban greening initiatives. After all, one reason we’ve ended up with so much unutilised fertile space in our cities has been our rigid understanding of what ‘gardens’ can look like, and legal or cultural barriers to incorporating plants into unorthodox spaces.

Melbourne-based botany student Julianna Rozek runs an Instagram account called @plantsgo_up, a space for her to catalogue the city’s vertical greenery. ‘The economic benefits of an office tower are obvious; the value of a grassy meadow is less tangible,’ she noted in an article for Lateral Magazine. Even so, one doesn’t necessarily need to come at the expense of the other. After all, ‘One thing there is plenty of in cities is blank walls.’ The simple act of reconceptualising sunny walls as untapped fertile spaces draws attention to the huge capacity for cities to support plant life.

Sometimes local greening projects are only apparent if you know where to look. At the University of Melbourne’s Burnley Campus, the heritage-listed Campus Hall appear relatively unassuming. On the roof, however, researchers have constructed a garden with 3000 plants – of several hundred different taxa – as a testing ground for demonstrating effective irrigation and planting techniques that may be appropriated by architects and property owners. Information gleaned through such experiments filters into publicly-available – and eminently practical – resources like the Growing Green Guide, which acts as a repository of lessons learned by those who participate in urban greening projects.

Illustration of green laneway in Melbourne

Initiatives like the City of Melbourne’s Green Your Laneway project, meanwhile, are working to complete the loop, by implementing multiple urban greening techniques in compact spaces within the CBD. When it comes to urban greening, there is a benefit to density: a laneway with a plethora of window boxes, street trees, green walls and ’dumpster gardens’ may come close to reaching the critical mass of plant life required for a space to act as a small-scale sanctuary for birds, bees and other wildlife. Of course, there’s another benefit, too: visibility.

Spaces that are highly greened are their own best advertisements: in the very process of moving through them, and being inspired by them, our thumbs grow greener.

To learn more about the power of Urban Green check out this event at MKW17, tickets booking fast!

Written by @Connor Tomas O’Brien