As 2023 draws to a close it is worth considering significant developments over the past year that impacted Australian urban forests, canopy cover and their management.
The South Australian Parliament’s Inquiry Into The Urban Forest was prompted by tree losses across the City of Adelaide. An estimated 11% canopy cover had been lost in 10 years and tree removals numbered 75,000 per annum. The situation in other major Australian cities is comparable or worse! The question is “Why did the South Australian government launch an inquiry?” The short answer is concern about the effects of climate change on the city and the health impacts and loss of economic benefits that will be incurred and compounded by the loss of canopy and an associated increase in the urban heat island effect.
Earlier in the year the NSW government committed funding to explore the concept of natural capital, which will attempt to put an economic value on species. It will be interesting to see where this project lands, but it is likely to highlight that species and living things have economic value: Recognition not before time given recent examples of large-scale illegal urban tree removal that occurred around Sydney in the latter part of the year. This may have an effect on urban tree valuation and the recent Arboriculture Australia, Minimum Industry Standard (MIS).
In the ACT canopy cover is declining and tree planting targets to maintain future canopy cover are not being met. This was attributed to a lack of suitable trees for planting, a shortage of qualified staff, weather conditions and loss of canopy due to urban development.
Bizarrely, in Victoria a developer was fined $225,000 for illegal tree removal in Campbellfield. He then applied to the council for approval to develop the site, which was refused. The developer then took the council to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (VCAT) and won on the basis that there were no significant trees – he had illegally removed them all, factoring in criminal fines as part of ‘the cost of doing business’. The council went public in its dismay.
On a grander scale, Infrastructure Victoria presented a report; Choosing Victoria’s Future: 5 Urban Development Scenarios. It received wide media coverage and support for its message was that Victorians could save $43 billion by following a compact cities model with more intense development in suburbs. There was barely a mention of parks, gardens, trees, or the values of green infrastructure as promoted in Standards Australia’s Handbook: Urban Green Infrastructure -Planning and decision framework, the benefits of natural assets in delivering urban infrastructure, or the massive emissions associated with grey infrastructure. There would be no increase in the ratio of greenspace to developed land beyond the existing level under Infrastructure Victoria’s preferred model.
The problem under such a development model is the inability to maintain tree canopy cover and the essential services trees provide. Canopy cover would inevitably continue to decline under such a proposal with disastrous impacts on public health and well being as climate warms. There is no recognition of the ongoing economic and health benefits that urban trees provide, worth billions of dollars each year, that would offset the purported once-off saving. There is a concern that other states and cities might see the Victorian analysis as a precedent that could be applied elsewhere. Despite understanding the many values and benefits of the urban forest and urban greenspace, both are continuing to decline in cities regional centres and towns across Australia, at a time of climate change. In the past it might be argued that decision makers did not know of these benefits, but surely this is not the case now. The information has been widely circulated and documented and if state governments refuse to respond to it, can it be considered that this is negligence rather than ignorance?