The urban patchwork loses its green, making our cities vulnerable
One of the pleasures of flying is seeing our familiar landscapes in a new way from above. At low altitude most of us know where things are, but as we go up it becomes difficult to determine local details and we begin to see the big picture. Sometimes this big picture can be scary.
After nearly three years of not being able to fly, I’ve had a few recent opportunities to get some fresh air. My first observation was that in many once leafy suburbs, the green hue is disappearing under a tsunami of development. You can see this new development on the outskirts of towns and cities, as well as redevelopment and infilling in older places. The familiar rows of roadside trees and tall old trees that were once suburban landmarks are gone.
Seen from above, it is not surprising that the last State of the Environment Report delivered damning findings this week. Vegetation cover in cities is decreasing. The same goes for the wildlife corridors that once connected now isolated communities of plants and animals.
Most of you have heard people describe the view we get from above like a patchwork of different colors and land uses, or perhaps like an indigenous painting that gives us a bird’s eye view of the world below. It shows us a puzzle of the disturbed and fragmented environments in which we live.
However, as we ascend higher, we are reminded that there is only one space, that everything is connected. Each piece of the puzzle has its place in the big picture.
Cities can’t afford to lose their green cover
Not all green covers have disappeared in recent years, but the losses are notable. And unless something is done quickly, they will continue. We will reach the point where so many trees will be lost that it will jeopardize the ability of our cities and towns to be resilient, livable and sustainable in the face of climate change.
No local government can cope with this situation. It is a matter of development planning and regulatory policy at the state and federal levels.
In most states, for example, developers adopt a scorched earth policy of removing most, if not all, mature trees from a site before construction begins. State government agencies help provide tree-free sites for development. Expensive government legal teams often battle local community groups who oppose tree cutting through courts and tribunals.
Vegetation must be valued both for the habitat it provides and for the many services it provides to city dwellers. As heat waves become more intense and frequentit makes you think to think that loss of urban trees will lead to greater urban heat island effects and more heatwave-related illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.
Lockdowns have reminded us of the value of these spaces
It was fascinating to watch the use of open public spaces during the COVID-19 closures. Concerns about people’s physical health, their abilities to cope with stressful situations, increased risks of self-harm and domestic violence, and children’s learning and developmental environments have caused people to flock to their local parksgardens and riverside reserves.
From the air, however, it becomes painfully clear that not every suburb or region has many such spaces. It is well known around the world that people living in low socioeconomic status (SES) areas are disadvantaged by lack of access to an open space with trees.
This is the case with Australian cities, regional centers and many country towns where some of the pieces of the puzzle appear to be devoid of green. The lack of tree-lined green spaces is associated with problems such as obesity, poor physical and mental health and social disadvantage.
It is highly likely that people in these areas were further disadvantaged and placed under greater stress during the closures due to the lack of accessible treed open space. This may partly explain why some urban areas had lower levels of lockdown compliance than others. There are evidence that the health benefits of access to treed open space are greatest for low SES communities.
Public parks and gardens served their purpose admirably during the closures. With good planning, they will start again in enable cities to cope with climate change. However, if cities and suburbs continue to lose green space and trees, their ability to adapt will be limited. Society as a whole will lose.
The mosaic quilt we see from the air reveals how disconnected the green patches and corridors of our landscapes and urban environments have become. It is amazing to see developments of large houses on small blocks, which could have been ripped from the new suburbs of any major Australian city, bordering hot inland towns. There appears to have been no acknowledgment of the effects of a hot Australian summer.
The rapid expansion of Australian cities and towns presents planning challenges in the face of demands to subdivide undeveloped land for housing, countered by demands for connected, treed and public green spaces. The provision of large and well-connected green spaces will be essential urban infrastructure for increasing urban populations facing climate change. It is not a luxury for a privileged minority, but a vital component of a sustainable economy and environment for all.
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