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Climate-conscious planning in the City of Melbourne

By Heather Claridge, RTPI Young Planner of the Year 2018

Heather Claridge, who won the RTPI’s Young Planner of the Year award in 2018, used her prize money to pay for a study trip to Melbourne, Australia, where she carried out research on how the city is being designed for a changing climate to maintain liveability.

The Young Planner of the Year award is sponsored each year by Places for People. Their chief executive is David Cowans. His late wife’s charity, the Julie Cowans Trust, donates £1000 to the winner each year to spend on a research trip/studying/career development.

During the trip she gained valuable insight into the key project strategies and partnerships being developed to help ‘green the grey’ and regenerate sections of the inner city.

In this blog she shares some of her findings.

My first walk through central Melbourne quickly revealed the measures adopted to adapt the city to the shifting climate. Public spaces, streets, lanes and buildings have been transformed through retrofitting living walls, green roofs, street trees, open spaces and rain gardens. With temperatures reaching up to 7 degrees celsius higher than the rest of the city, the central area has had to plant up its hard surfaces to directly address the ‘urban heat island effect’ and in turn help city liveability.

But efforts have not stopped there. Many long-term targets have been set to further integrate grey and green infrastructure. For example, for street trees the goal is to double the tree canopy by 2040 and a ‘street by street’ approach to planting is being taken. The City of Melbourne’s urban forester highlighted that sadly many of Melbourne’s indigenous species are not well suited to the city’s shifting climate and as such the authority has  been working with local universities to identify appropriate trees for future conditions. 

Climate adaptation

The redevelopment of Melbourne’s network of laneways for street art, cultural and cafe uses is well known. Yet I was intrigued to discover more about the role of the laneways in climate adaptation. The Green Infrastructure planner at the City of Melbourne explained that the potential of the city’s laneways for greening was identified in ‘The Green Our City Strategy’ and following this, the public were invited to nominate lanes for climate conscious interventions. More than 800 nominations were received and four lanes selected - Katherine Place, Meyers Place, Guildford Lane, and Coromandel Place. I visited Meyers Place and Guildford Lane to see first-hand their impressive transformation through the introduction of features such as a living wall, street trees, community managed planters and an eco-mural.

The city has also been tactical in how it has increased its open space provision.  With only a quarter of the land in the city owned by the local authority, it has had to reclaim road infrastructure, when possible, for greening. I visited two great examples of this in the north-west of the city - Gardiners Reserve and Railway and Miller Street Reserve. These pocket parks were helping to cool the area, offer shade and surface water drainage as well as serving as fun, play and recreation spaces.

The use of tactics also extends to innovative funding approaches. The Urban Forest Fund uses the fees collected from unavoidable public tree removals to provide grants for green community/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 which is testing grape vines for urban cooling potential. I thought this was a great way of enabling others in the third and private sector to play their part and driving innovation.

Managing surface water is also a key priority for Melbourne’s city centre and its green features. Through Melbourne’s Total Watermark Strategy, a target to make over 20% of each water catchment permeable is set. I was impressed by the obvious celebration of water in the city through signage and interpretation boards at features. I even took the opportunity to undertake one of the City’s self-guided urban water walks - visiting the water sensitive urban design features of Fitzroy Gardens and understanding more about the journey of water in this area.

Sustainably designed urban renewal

I was already aware that Melbourne had made significant strides in encouraging more residential living in the central area however I wanted to find out more about future urban renewal and densification efforts. The eam leader of city plans at the City of Melbourne explained that in the northwest, the former industrial area of Arden and , are being primed for sustainable urban development. A new metro station is being built to enable low carbon connections into the centre and facilitate higher density developments. The approach to master planning this area has been design-led and includes design principles such as celebrating water, human-centric streets, environmentally conscious buildings and restoring the adjacent river corridor.  I look forward to tracking how it is developed over the coming years.

During my visit, I took the opportunity to visit a project which has delivered climate responsive design in a housing project. The Nightingale 1 housing development is located just north of the City of Melbourne’s boundary, in Brunswick, and was developed as a direct response to the worsening quality of housing in Melbourne by a group of local architects. The 20 homes within the scheme have been shaped by guiding principles including sustainability and affordability. The project profits have been capped at 15% through the use of ethical investors and each owner has signed a legal agreement preventing them from selling their apartment for more than the neighbourhood’s average price rise. The development is car free, the building operations are 100% fossil free, and there is a fantastic communal roof garden for growing food and socialising. I was guided around the development by two of the residents who explained that they were involved in the apartments’ design from the start. They also highlighted the strong sense of community within the block with various social activities and events ongoing. Overall, it was great to see a project which straddles both climate conscious design and affordability and hear about how further Nightingale housing developments were being scaled up elsewhere in Melbourne.

Final Reflections

The City of Melbourne is using planning tactics to deliver a greener city for the changing climate and to ensure that the quality of life of its citizens is not 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 really strong appreciation of the intrinsic link between climate action and urban liveability and it was inspiring to gain insight from them. Through visiting examples of places which had started to future proof against a changing climate, I have taken much learning back to my own planning context.

Finally I would like to thank the Julie Cowans Memorial Trust, Places for People and the RTPI for their support and generosity in making this once-in-a-lifetime study trip possible.

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