8 April 2021

Government must ensure all Canberrans can the share benefits of our urban forest

| Ian Bushnell
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Canberra street

A Canberra streetscape such as this is priceless. Photo: File.

It’s better late than never, but government moves to ensure blocks have enough land reserved for the trees that will shield homes from the scorching summer sun, cool backyards and provide relief to the eye is more than welcome.

Part of the recently released Urban Forest Strategy, the proposed 15 per cent minimum, championed, it must be said, by the ACT Greens, will go a long way to stopping the infamous building out of blocks in new suburbs such as Coombs and in inner areas where the demolish-and-rebuild is popular.

Standing cheek by jowl, some new homes occupy almost entire blocks with little room for greenery and a big dependence on air conditioning.

They may rack up the energy efficiency stars, but with more clever design to stop wasted space, proper orientation and green buffers, these Canberra castles could be more hospitable and environmentally friendly.

Home-owners should listen more to their architects and builders who often fail to convince them of the merits of less is more.

It’s a pity that the government, Labor that is, has taken so long to come to this view because the legacy will be a swag of new suburbs that will be less treed than they should be, which will have ramifications for how they will cope with a warming climate and the general amenity.

City Services Minister Chris Steel was very keen to shine the spotlight on developers, flagging measures to deter them from bulldozing trees, but the government, through the Suburban Land Agency, is also one of the city’s biggest developers.

Coombs and Wright

Coombs and Wright have the lowest tree cover in the ACT. Photo: File.

Coombs and Wright, for example, have the lowest coverage in the ACT at a mere 1 per cent. You would expect it to be low, being still in development, but the government will have to do a lot of planting on public land to get it up to at least the 30 per cent mark it is aiming for as an average across the Territory.

Nonetheless, putting a price or value on trees will make developers think twice about felling trees, particularly mature ones, and more about incorporating them into their plans and seeing them as assets, not liabilities.

While the established urban forest needs to be maintained, the government is right to prioritise areas of low coverage, for practical reasons and equity.

Every Canberran deserves to live in a leafy suburb, not just those fortunate to live in the inner south or north.

The Strategy calls for 450,000 trees to be planted across the ACT over the next quarter-century but says the urban forest will change as new, more resilient species are deployed and more diverse plantings are encouraged.

The themed streets of the past may not be repeated, and plantings will be more determined by the current climatic conditions rather than simply the seasons.

This will take a mind shift for many people used to the treed order of things in Canberra, but as long as plantings continue to be a mix of deciduous exotics, which provide the greatest shade in summer while allowing the winter sun to filter through the canopy, and natives, it should be a good result.

But the government is also hoping to recruit the community to the cause, calling the forest project a collaborative effort, with an eye on the sheer cost of it all. It wants residents to contribute more than they currently do to maintenance, such as watering.

This may be a challenge and something the government will have to work at. While understandable, it should not rely on it for a successful outcome because the urban forest is far too important to the capital.

It has to be said that the government is playing catch-up, being warned by ANU scientist Cris Brack in 2019 that a failure to act could see whole streetscapes dying.

The Greens’ Caroline Le Couteur said at the same time that the government needed to plant 7,000 trees a year for the next decade just to restore Canberra’s urban forest to its former state.

This year 9,000 trees will be planted, and it will be interesting to see what the appetite is in coming budgets.

If anybody is looking for the benefits of having the Greens in government, then the action on trees is proof.

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The simple fact is that the Greens/Labor policy of urban densification and apartmentalisation is totally incompatible with an urban forest. Can these people not understand that more buildings means less trees? Greens/Labor are either (1) dishonest, or (2) deluded, or (3) hypocritical, or (4) cynical, or (5) a combination of 1-4. They must assume their trusting and blinkered supporters will keep on voting for them without noticing that there are less and less trees to hug.

The alternative being more urban sprawl which has similar effects.

Ps suggest you take your own blinkers off, they would appear to be foggy or have damaged your eyes.

JC – it would not have a similar effect, because an expansion of housing area would be onto open denuded non-forested former farmland. In time, more trees would be planted in suburban gardens. The Greens/Labor policy of urban densification reduces the urban tree canopy, raises city temperatures by reducing shade, discourages birdlife, raises prices for new home buyers by withholding land for sale and condemns people to poorly build cramped apartments. Use facts and common sense instead of unquestioning loyalty to parties that act more in the interests of corporate developers than the citizenry.

What you’re saying is simply false.

It is perfectly achieveable to have both urban densification and an urban forest. You achieve this by building taller buildings which then require less ground area which can be used to plant more trees.

And that’s without even considering how you can use shared spaces and other areas to similarly increase tree coverage.

As for your claims about Urban Sprawl not increasing tree coverage, there’s nothing to stop the government similarly planting trees on that open farming land right now, so the point is moot.

Your claim that building more high rise apartments will create more trees is one if the most bizarre statements I have ever read and typical of the warped thinking of property developers. You seem unaware or unconcerned that under the hypocritical Greens/Labor government their policy of urban densification has coincided with a real drop in the Canberra urban tree canopy from 30% to 21%. Facts not fantasy. The evidence is all around you if you remove those ideological blinkers. More apartments = Less trees. Suburban gardens, leafy streets, parks and geen spaces are what we need and desire, not a concrete jungle of multi-storey apartments and high rises with a few token trees struggling to survive in compacted patches of gloom.

Suggest you reread my comment because you clearly didn’t grasp what I was saying.

I didn’t say the current government’s approach would lead to more tree coverage, we actually have very, very few high rise apartments and the planning laws are not adequate.

I said, it’s perfectly achievable to have urban densification and good tree coverage through more true high rise apartments rather than less. Because they can be built to take up less total ground area for the same density which would then be used for increased tree plantings around these buildings.

The problem isn’t densification, it’s how it’s being done.

I also note that you haven’t proposed a workable alternative, urban sprawl will not result in an increase in trees either.

This idea of a low density utopia simply doesn’t match with reality because Canberra is no longer the little country town of 30-40 years ago that you are seemingly pining for.

ChrisinTurner11:43 am 10 Apr 21

The government seem to be equalising the tree coverage by removing as many trees as possible from the inner suburbs. Hundreds of trees have been removed around Currong Street in Civic and it continues recently with street trees in Ainslie Ave being unnecessarily removed.

HiddenDragon7:27 pm 09 Apr 21

“Part of the recently released Urban Forest Strategy, the proposed 15 per cent minimum, championed, it must be said, by the ACT Greens, will go a long way to stopping the infamous building out of blocks in new suburbs…”

More likely, following Kriso Hadskini’s observation earlier today, it will go a long way to increasing the sales of fake grass in Canberra – a product which would be banned by a government that took this issue as seriously as it takes, for instance, the climate impact of gas appliances and plastic straws and cutlery.

A re-worked, re-badged (no one will notice….) version of the much scoffed at “million trees” policy might help, as might policies which recognise (e.g. through a rebate on annual rates) the considerable costs which some residents are bearing as a result of current tree policies. All we have at present are policies which give obsessive levels of protection to trees which meet arbitrary size criteria – with an obvious incentive for homeowners (who do not wish to be caught by such rules) to ensure that no tree on their block ever reaches the size to gain protection.

The tree strategy calls for 900,000 trees to be planted from the start of 2020 until the end of 2045. Half for replacements and half for new trees. That’s about 100 trees each for the foreseeable future. The 450,000 in this article is a gross underestimate.

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