Delivering the air we breathe and food we eat, essential to our physical and mental health, providing habitat and ecological value and contributing to the resilience of our urban environments, landscape is something we literally cannot live without. As density increases providing this crucial resource – our cities breathing space – is still a challenge.
At this stage in the evolution of our cities and the densification of our urban environments there should be no need to explain why green, open spaces, trees and vegetation are important. By way of reminder landscape offers many benefits:
Improving our health: Access to green space increases physical activity, improves mental health and provides places for social connectivity.
Improving Climate Comfort: Vegetation reduces the impacts of urban heat island effect through evapotranspiration and shading to provide cooler surfaces thus reducing surface and air temperatures.
Shade trees and turf areas can reduce surface and air temperature and while the impacts vary in different conditions this can mean a reduction of around 15°C for surface temperatures, and up to 24°C and around 1-2°C. (Low Carbon Living CRC, 2017)
Increased Urban Resilience: Reduces risk of flooding by reducing & slowing run-off.
Reduced Energy Consumption: Studies have indicated that planting vegetation for shade can reduce a buildings’ energy consumption by as much as 25% annually. Green roofs provide insulation reducing energy consumption through the need for heating and cooling and improves the efficiency of collocated PV Cells by up to 25%.
Biophilic design can reduce stress, enhance creativity and clarity of thought, improve our well-being and expedite healing (Terrapin Bright Green LLC, 2014)
Enhanced Ecological Value: Biodiversity can be enhanced through expanded green networks, areas of endemic planting and offering habitat.
Mitigating Pollutants: Trees and vegetation improve water quality through filtration, sequester carbon, filter the air and covert C02 to Oxygen thus improving air quality.
Potential for Urban Farming: For local food production to meet growing demand and reduce the impacts of food transportation.
Despite landscape traditionally taking a back seat to other infrastructure, roads, services and buildings, there is now widening recognition of its contribution to creating livable, resilient places for our future as we move to ever denser urban environments.
While a great deal is being done by governments at all levels here and around the globe - many may argue this progress has been too little and too slowly.
In NSW there is a State Government target to increase urban canopy cover to 40% from 19%. This initiative is supported by the Sydney Commission’s Objective 30 and Objective 32 which detail the delivery of the Sydney Green Grid, connecting our network of open spaces and waterways. This however is mainly reliant on public land to be achieved.
Importantly, as noted in the Greening Sydney Plan 2012, 62% of the land area of Sydney’s City is privately owned and 42% of the existing canopy cover is within this private land. While still difficult, it is somewhat more straight forward to influence outcomes on public land but what can be done for the significant proportion in private ownership?
Of course, this is where planning policy comes in to regulate the provision of landscape and open space, an area we have seen significant gains in over recent years. State Environmental Planning Policies including SEPP 65 and the associated Apartment Design Guide, sets targets for development including quantum of deep soil and landscaped areas.
While it could be argued that targets such as “25% Communal Open Space in residential apartment developments” are still low by international best practice standards, with 50% being more typical best practice and 100% being applied in places like Singapore, metric requirements have definitely seen increased provision of landscape areas. Further increasing the provision is local council DCPs and guidelines that often set requirements beyond the state policies.
Despite this, significant opportunities are being missed. This is not because developers aren’t interested in delivering more extensive landscape areas, contrarily - astute developers see landscape as a relatively cost-effective way to define brand and offer amenity to their customers in turn increasing sales rates and prices – a particularly important edge in an increasingly competitive market.
It is at least in part the tightness of our planning regulations, those with the intent of producing the best possible outcomes - more landscape, less overshadowing, reasonable scale etc - that are stymieing the delivery of more landscaped space.
Through, at times, potentially legitimate concern that developers will try to make the most of any leeway in the controls to force in additional area and height, our controls are written very tightly, providing very little room within envelopes to provide relief - to provide breathing space. This includes, often with unfortunate results, limited potential for building articulation, what we get just fits the box.