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June 10th, 2016
Cities • Energy

Responding to climate change: Melbourne’s urban forest strategy

The millennium drought, higher temperatures and an ageing tree population threatened the city of Melbourne with an environmental challenge. An important plank in the city’s response was the creation of an Urban Forest Strategy, which promised and delivered thousands of newly-planted trees as part the development of a more sustainable ecosystem, with its growing tree canopy helping Melburnians survive the intense heat of summer.

The initiative

One of the immediate responses to the drought was to control the use of water, and the city reduced water demand per head by nearly 50 percent, It also looked to a long-term strategy for mitigating the effects of extreme heat.

In an effort to cool the city down, the city administration decided in 2012 to create a 20-year Urban Forest Strategy. “At the core of this strategy is a vision to create a resilient, healthy and diverse forest for the future ... The City of Melbourne is renowned for its historical parks, gardens and boulevards ... It is important that the forest of the future maintains the essential character of the urban forest that Melburnians love.” [2]

The strategies and targets proposed to achieve this vision are to:

  • “Increase canopy cover ... [3]
  • “Increase urban forest diversity (The urban forest will be composed of no more than 5% of any tree species, no more than 10% of any genus and no more than 20% of any one family) ...
  • “Improve vegetation health ...
  • “Improve soil moisture and water quality ...
  • “Improve urban ecology (Protect and enhance a level of biodiversity that contributes to a healthy ecosystem) ...
  • “Inform and consult the community.”

It was, in addition, a response to the fact that many of Melbourne's existing trees were dying. “The council's environment portfolio holder Arron Wood said the AUD30 million initiative aimed to double the city's canopy cover from 20 per cent to 40 per cent by 2040.” [4] The intention is to plant 42,000 trees over the 20-year life of the strategy, which also aims to increase forest diversity and use alternative water sources.

The challenge

From 1997 to 2009 Melbourne, along with a number of Australian cities, suffered the 13-year-long Millennium Drought. "Melbourne is getting hotter - because of a warming climate, and what is known as the urban heat island effect. Buildings, sidewalks, and streets all absorb heat and make cities hotter than the surrounding countryside ... With ongoing global warming, this extreme weather is expected to intensify.” [1]

It was imperative that the city take steps to manage the effects of higher temperatures and unpredictable climatic events.

The public impact

The initiative has already made a significant arboreal impact:

  • "Since 2012, the city council had planted nearly 12,000 new trees across the city in disused car parks and roads.” [1]
  • “About 70,000 trees have been mapped in the Urban Forest Visual, with each tree assigned an identification number and email id to interact with the community at large.” [2]

In addition, “Wood believes this will cool the city's summertime temperatures by 4ºC”. [3]

Stakeholder engagement

The urban forest sits within a wider context of ‘green governance' and green infrastructure. “Green governance shapes the plans and decisions that influence the development of urban forestry. A multitude of institutions, organisations and stakeholders are involved in shaping and making policy and management decisions that affect urban forests”.

As part of community engagement, “the city council's aim is to have the urban forest included in a broader conversation about how Melbourne's cultural identity can be enhanced through revisioning, redesign and ultimately replanting.” [4] The eventual objective is that “the community will have a broader understanding of the importance of our urban forest, increase their connection to it and engage with its process of evolution”. [5]

Political commitment

This was a local government initiative by the Melbourne and is supported by the federal government as well as the state government of Victoria.

The strategy also received significant funding from government, with AUD30 million being invested in the initiative.

Public confidence

Participation from the public has been encouraging. According to councillor Wood: “a lot of people have really taken ownership of the urban forest and they're really interested to know what new species will be planted; when will their street be renewed in terms of the urban forest.” [6]

As part of the strategy, “Melbourne's 70,000 trees were mapped in a project called Urban Forest Visual, with each tree assigned an identification number”. [7] Councillor Wood was gratified by the project's success: “we know that Melburnians are passionate about their trees, parks and gardens”. [8]

Clarity of objectives

The objective of the Urban Forest Strategy was simple, precise and, most importantly, backed by measurable targets in a time-bound manner. “The goal of this strategy is to guide the transition of the present city landscape to one that is resilient, healthy and diverse, and that meets the needs of the community. Its intended outcomes are to create resilient landscapes, community health and wellbeing and a liveable, sustainable city. Central to this is the vision to make the city greener – to create a city within a forest rather than a forest within a city.” [9]

Strength of evidence

Urban forestry have been part of Melbourne's planning process since 2002: “the City of Melbourne has a set of street tree precinct plans dating from 2002 that were developed through extensive community consultation”. [10]

There was clear evidence of the need for a response both to the Millennium drought and to the decline in the tree population: “modelling shows that within the next ten years, 23% of our current tree population will be at the end of their useful lives and within twenty years this figure will have reached 39%”. [11]

The strategy drew inspiration from American initiatives,such as New York's 2006 Urban Forest Project, which “spread to other US cities of Albuquerque, Baltimore, Denver, Portland, Toledo, San Francisco, Tacoma and Washington, DC”. [12]

The Urban Forest Strategy in Melbourne is formed on solid academic research, for example, A Model of Urban Forest Sustainability, by JR Clark et al (1997), which was “one of the formative works applying principles of sustainability to urban trees”. [13] Its conclusion was that “the most significant outcome of a sustainable urban forest is to maintain a maximum level of net environmental, ecological, social and economic benefits over time”. [14]

Feasibility

The benefits cited above support the feasibility of the strategy:

  • Environmental and ecological benefits include a reduction in pollution, storm water flows, greenhouse gas emissions, while enhancing biodiversity.
  • Social benefits, e.g., the creation of local identity, encouraging outdoor activity, and reconnecting children with nature.
  • Economic benefits, such as reducing energy cost, increasing property value, avoiding infrastructure damage etc.

The Urban Forest Strategy originated as a government initiative, and the city council was the nodal agency entrusted with its planning and implementation. Being a government initiative made the urban forest legally viable and the AUD30 million took care of the finances required to implement the 20-year project.

Management

The strategy's framework was presented as a number of management intentions:

  • “The management and development of our urban forest needs to be undertaken with a long-term vision …" [15]
  • “The success of the Urban Forest Strategy will rely on effective ‘green governance' by the City of Melbourne, clear communications, and a widely understood implementation strategy that comprises programmes that meet both short and long-term goals ..."
  • “Intra-Council integration involves internal stakeholder and interdepartmental cooperation. At a city scale, planners work directly with urban foresters to integrate policy, practices and analytical tools, coordinating input from many other departments related to managing growth.”

Measurement

The main metrics that the city council publicised were the number of new trees planted (12,000 by 2015) and the number of existing trees (70,000). There was a subsidiary indicator, the amount of canopy cover provided by those trees.

The urban forest depends on a number of components being combined into a well-functioning ecosystem. “Building the urban forest as a living ecosystem and ensuring that it provides the maximum benefits for our communities will rely on smart species selection, improving soil moisture retention, reducing stormwater flows,  improving water quality and reuse, increasing shade and canopy cover, and reducing infrastructure conflicts.” [16] This has been based on “extensive mapping of tree health, species composition, canopy cover and useful life expectancy for the trees now managed by the City of Melbourne”. [17]

Alignment

The main administrative actors in the Urban Forest Strategy are the city council and its environmental function, supported by the state of Victoria and the Australian federal government.

It collaborates with local academic researchers, for example: “the City of Melbourne in partnership with Monash University is monitoring microclimate conditions at streetscape level beneath different tree canopy configurations”. [18]

There has been engagement with citizens to encourage tree planting in “the private realm”, for example, in residents' own gardens. According to a study by Treelogic, tree planting in the private realm is most effective via registering significant or exceptional trees. [19] Projects such as the Urban Forest Visual have led to community engagement, in Melbourne and beyond. The strategy document itself encourages citizens to investigate “how you can participate in the decision-making process for some of City of Melbourne's current and future initiatives (link: www.participate.melbourne.vic.gov.au)”. [20]

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