Why we need to make Melbourne a greener city

Living Well | Story: Lucy Cleeve | Photos: Matt Harvey | Posted on 02 April 2020

Make Melbourne green again. Here's why we need more urban parks and gardens. 

Victorian number plates once boasted of our ‘Garden State’, until a 1994 revamp insisted we get ‘On the Move’. It was a slogan we fulfilled, becoming Australia’s fastest-growing state. Victoria’s current population of six million is projected to grow to 10 million by 2050, with a staggering eight million in Melbourne alone. 

But the rapid expansion of our city has led to the loss of green spaces. With the iconic Aussie backyard shrinking, and more of us living in apartments, access to a patch of the great outdoors is more important than ever before. 

“Population growth and the densification of our inner suburbs over the past few decades has increased the demand on our public spaces, and one of the major challenges is that they need to play a range of roles,” says Heath Gledhill, Victorian president of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.  

“Shared spaces should be appropriate for use by different groups of people – families and various community groups – as well as responding to climate change,” he says. 

Melbourne needs to come alive again, literally. And climate experts are prescribing a healthy dose of greenery, water and shade to help cool and adapt cities like ours for rising temperatures to come. 

Feeling the heat 

Melbourne’s city centre is suffering from the Urban Heat Island Effect, a phenomenon that boosts temperatures in built-up areas lacking in vegetation. The phenomenon has been linked to health risks for all inhabitants, human and otherwise, as well as rising costs, energy-use blowouts and impacts on community infrastructure such as transport. 

“The Heat Island Effect is significantly impacting our overall quality of life across many areas,” says Heath. “It is crucial that we protect our existing green spaces and tree canopies, but to truly future proof our city we need to innovate.”

Native plants next to timber boardwalk
Spiral staircase to the sky
Native plants on rooftop garden

Building resilience

Many municipal councils are tackling urban-heat issues through planning initiatives such as purchasing car parks or under-utilised road spaces, Heath points out. The City of Stonnington recently bought up houses that will be demolished to make way for ‘Pocket Parks’, complete with garden beds, shelters and grassed play areas. 

Creating public open space by elevating rail lines is another good-news story for Melbourne. The recently completed Caulfield-to-Dandenong sky rail project has created 22 hectares – the equivalent of 11 MCGs – of new parkland for Melburnians. 

And despite the city’s recent construction boom, there are plans to move towards a greener CBD, too. The City of Melbourne has embarked on the first urban park in the city centre since the City Square was developed in 1980. The 1900-square-metre park – bound by Collins Street and Flinders Lane – features large lawn areas, a variety of trees, wide bluestone paths and seating. 

Elizabeth Street is also earmarked for an extreme makeover, with plans for a greener, healthier and more pedestrian-friendly space. Works will also include structural changes to reduce the risk of flooding – a particular concern given that Elizabeth Street was once a creek flowing into the Yarra. 

The only way is up

Faced with a finite amount of space, it makes sense to look to the sky for inspiration. And right now, local planners are doing exactly that. 

Ten metres above Collins Street, the Sky Park is part of the larger Melbourne Quarter project by Lendlease. This landscaped space is publicly accessible and offers a lush lawn – and, naturally, wifi and charging outlets. 

In other sky-high news, 1 Treasury Place will be retrofitted with a ‘living’ green roof by mid-2020, demonstrating another way in which Melbourne is rising to the climate-change challenge. 

“This type of design thinking not only seamlessly integrates the built form into the surrounding landscape, but offers multiple benefits to the performance of the building, along with the ability for employees to access the roof space,” says Heath. 

“The works at 1 Treasury Place will continue to show that green roofs and living walls are not only for new build projects, they can be retrofitted.”

Garden on a balcony
Spiral staircase at base of city building
Native fern against mirboo timber fence

Natural wonders 

Research has shown that biophilic design – bringing natural elements to man-made spaces – can reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and improve our overall health and wellbeing. Through elements such as water, natural light and airflow, and patterns inspired by the environment, we can better connect with the outside world and reap the rewards. 

In a first for public infrastructure in Australia, biophilic design will be applied to the five new underground rail stations being built as part of Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel Project. ‘Creating Healthy Places’ is a set of biophilic design guidelines developed by Deakin University researchers for architects, engineers and landscapers working on the new railway stations.

There are certainly challenges ahead for Melbourne’s public open spaces, but there’s also a great opportunity to protect our environment, and our wellbeing. And there’s much we can learn about creating greener, more resilient cities from our forward-thinking friends around the globe.  

“We may be a little behind some parts of the world, but we’re investing considerable energy into the research and development of green spaces, walls, roofs and the like, to improve liveability and the performance of our city as a holistic system,” says Heath. “In many ways, Melbourne is a blank canvas, ready for a rich tapestry of a new living ecology.”

Fancy some forest therapy?

Developed in Japan in the 1980s, shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, has become a popular form of preventive health care in parts of Asia and Europe. Immersing the senses in nature is an age-old therapy with benefits said to include lowering blood pressure and boosting energy levels. 

What can you do to help grow Melbourne greener? Heath Gledhill’s top tips:

  • Support community groups such as Let’s Make a Park which help reclaim unused urban spaces. In 2019, the group created a pop-up park on a traffic island in Strathmore.
  • Get planting in your backyard or on your balcony. No matter the size of your patch, you can help expand our green lungs to take our next generations safely into the future. 
  • When planting, choose vegetation wisely. Use species with drought tolerance, and those that can work well in our northern regions, which reflect what our climate conditions may become.
  • Be aware of what’s happening to public open spaces in your area, particularly private developments such as sports grounds.