Greening the grey: lessons from Melbourne

An aerial shot of Melbourne on a sunny day showing skyscrapers, trees, and roads.
Published: 11/03/2020

We are publishing a series of blogs on designing for a changing climate. Here our Principal Design Officer Heather Claridge reports back about her findings and experiences with urban adaptation in Melbourne.

Greening the grey

Central Melbourne’s public spaces, streets, lanes and buildings have been planted up to cool the urban environment and manage surface water. With temperatures reaching up to 7°C higher than the rest of the city, the central area has had to green its hard surfaces. This is to directly address the ‘urban heat island effect’ and in turn help maintain city liveability.

The city has also set a goal to double its street tree canopy by 2040. It is taking a ‘street by street’ approach to planting. Sadly, many of Melbourne’s indigenous tree species are not well suited to the city’s shifting climate. Melbourne’s authority has been working with the local universities to identify appropriate tree types for future conditions.

Urban tactics are being deployed to incrementally increase the city’s open space provision. With only a quarter of the land in the city owned by the City of Melbourne, it has had to reclaim road infrastructure, where possible, for greening.

Two great examples of this are in the north-west of the city: Gardiner Reserve and Railway and Miller Street Reserve. These pocket parks are helping to cool the area, offer shade and surface water drainage. They also serve as fun, play and social spaces in Melbourne’s dense inner city.

Watch: Heather reports back from Melbourne

Click to watch Heather give a two-minute summary of her findings from Down Under.

Involving the community

The transformation from grey to green has also extended to Melbourne’s network of laneways, well known for their street art and cultural and cafe uses. The potential of the lanes for climate adaptation was identified in the Green Our City Strategy. Following this, the public was invited to nominate places for climate-conscious interventions.

More than 800 nominations were received, and four lanes were selected: Katherine Place, Meyers Place, Guildford Lane, and Coromandel Place. Visiting Meyers Place and Guildford Lane, the shift from just hard surfaces to including living walls, street trees, and community-managed planters, is impressive.

Funding action

The city has been similarly innovative in how it has funded projects. The Urban Forest Fund uses the fees collected from unavoidable public tree removals to provide grants for green community and entrepreneurial projects.

Through this, financial support has been provided to many projects including an urban farm on a rooftop and a laneway on the university campus. The laneway is testing grape vines for urban cooling potential. This approach is a creative way of enabling others in the third and private sector to play their part in designing for a changing climate.

Managing surface water is also an important priority for Melbourne’s city centre and its green features. Through Melbourne’s Total Watermark Strategy, a target has been set to make more than 20% of each water catchment permeable.

There was an obvious celebration of water in the city through the addition of signage and interpretation boards at water features. The city has also established a series of self-guided urban water walks to share understanding about the journey of water through the city.

Final reflections

Overall, the City of Melbourne is using clever tactics to deliver a greener city for the changing climate and to ensure its citizens’ quality of life is not significantly eroded. It is incrementally planting up the grey and supporting lower-carbon lifestyles in its emerging urban regeneration areas.

The officers responsible for delivering the projects and targets had a strong appreciation of the intrinsic link between climate action and urban liveability. It was inspiring to gain insight from them.

Through visiting examples of places that are being futureproofed against a changing climate, I started to picture how Scotland’s urban areas could scale climate action by working with the public, private, community and further education sectors.

Since my visit in November 2019, Australia and parts of Melbourne have been devastated by wildfires caused by the shifting climate. This is a grave reminder of the need to retrofit our urban environments at pace to ensure we protect current and future lives.

About the author

Heather Claridge is a Principal Design Officer at Architecture and Design Scotland. In 2018 she won the RTPI’s Young Planner of the Year Award. She was given the opportunity to undertake a study trip to Melbourne thanks to a donation from The Julie Cowans Memorial Trust and support from the RTPI and Places for People.

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