Here’s an idea: Let’s plant our way out of the Covid crisis

Image via @CoriDrogemuller on Twitter

There’s never been more love and appreciation of green spaces from the community. So how can we achieve an environmental, economic and health “triple point score” by delivering more and better green space as part of the post COVID-19 recovery?

Stimulus is beginning to flow and job protection is a top priority for federal and state governments for a post-pandemic recovery.

Yet the real “green sky” opportunities are to direct stimulus funding towards initiatives that not only protect local economies, but also embeds health outcomes, equity and helps make us “disaster proof” in the future.

How do we get there?

By redefining what we mean by “essential infrastructure” to ensure that the “triple point score” opportunity for local government is to create economic, health, wellbeing and environmental benefits as integral to the post-COVID recovery.

This is the key message that was revealed in a recent pulse check to the Greener Spaces Better Places urban local government network.

The findings of the pulse check provide a snapshot, or a “window in”, on what’s been happening with green space professionals in urban councils; we had 25 of 139 urban LGA respond to the survey, and undertook an additional 24 long format one-on-one interviews with local and state government, government associations and elected representatives, to get a more holistic insight into the challenges and opportunities of the situation COVID-19.

Around 60 per cent of respondents said urban greening, including tree-planting, maintenance, potted colour displays, and other capital works projects like new parks, were considered “essential” and expenditure would remain the same or be brought forward.

So when we talk about “essential infrastructure”, what does that mean?

“Essential” or “critical Infrastructure” means assets, infrastructure, systems and networks that provide essential services necessary for social and economic wellbeing, which is typically public infrastructure.

Oftentimes, we don’t appreciate the importance of assets, systems and infrastructure until it is under threat, and that is exactly what we saw from the COVID-19 response from local government and from the communities that they represent.

Our conversations with local government highlighted a real shift in community attitudes toward green spaces. Given public health orders pertaining to the closure of gyms and team sports, there was a huge increase in the reliance on public open spaces, gardens and streets for physical and mental health. In high density areas and for apartment dwellers, access to high quality green space heightened the value of these assets, infrastructure, and indeed networks (such as active transport routes) as essential services necessary to social and economic wellbeing.

We heard from councils that parks, promenades and open spaces became vital community places, and we saw first-hand people using parks and recreational spaces in unseen numbers, and the Department of Industry and Planning in NSW confirmed dramatic increases in green space use from their community survey.

Given how critical these spaces are for mental health and wellbeing during a time of increased community stress, it was important access to nature remained open at a time it was most needed. With some of the first studies coming out on the impact of the pandemic on mental health, more and better green space could be more important than ever. Professor Thomas Astell-Burt and Associate Professor Xiaoqi Feng from the University of Wollongong confirmed last year the type of green space matters very much. Their research found adults with 30 per cent or more of their neighbourhood covered in some form of tree canopy had 31 per cent lower odds of developing psychological distress, and 33 per cent lower odds of developing fair to poor general health.

The increased and diversified usage of these spaces during this time is still yet to be properly explored in terms of what it meant for people during the lockdown, but also after, and something we’re very keen to explore further.

As we emerge from lockdowns, let’s leverage this critical opportunity to gather this information while behaviours and attitudes are changing, and promote activities that encourage longer-term behaviour change.

While community behaviour and attitudes did indeed reflect the attitude that green space is “essential infrastructure”, council funding priorities and state and federal conversations about critical infrastructure spending are not yet consistent with this reality.

The recognition of green infrastructure as “essential”, and budgets that reflect this

During the beginning of the pandemic there were some noteworthy announcements on green space spending as a means of stimulus. In the ACT, the territory government announced 4000 new trees to be planted as a way to keep city service workers in jobs during the COVID-19 crisis.

While it is likely that this capital works funding had already been allocated, the link between tree planting and jobs is an emerging and important new narrative.

Other councils have taken the opportunity to redeploy underutilised staff to urban greening initiatives and maintenance, such as the Town of Victoria Park in Western Australia with their UFOs (urban forestry officers) and Darebin City Council in Victoria, who redeployed staff to plant trees, hand weed, mulch and remove litter to assist the council’s parks team. With unemployment set to climb, it’s been acknowledged these types of redeployment could be broadened to help those who’ve lost their jobs.

While many urban councils are continuing the urban greening programs, we also heard from 40 per cent of respondents that the future of activities like new plantings, community greening projects and major works were considered at risk in the COVID-19 environment and beyond.

The cost of funding urban green space doesn’t always reflect the benefits

Economic downturn in the broader economy creates uncertainty for local government cashflow, especially among those that rely heavily on rates, rents, parking, fees and charges to fund their operational expenditure.

We repeatedly heard rumours that local government should prepare for a Rudd-style stimulus package, yet it appears that no criteria has been set by the Federal government on local government stimulus packages. Instead, it seems more likely that state government priority projects will continue to feed local economies, and that the best opportunities is to continue to highlight that urban greening projects are most effective in generating triple point score outcomes.

There’s never been a better time to encourage that “backyard blitz”

There’s also a huge acknowledgement from councils this could be the opportunity to tackle canopy loss and green space loss on private space. Councils are under so much pressure to have public green space pull its weight on these issues, yet some of the greatest losses are coming from private land.

All surveyed respondents said they had noticed greater interest in residents greening their homes, and seeds were flying off the shelves at local nurseries as soon as they were restocked. And we see this continuing, with June data from Hort Innovation revealing 76 per cent of Australians have increased their spending on gardening equipment and plants.

The increased interest in gardening among consumers due to the COVID-19 situation continues to offer the opportunity to set the agenda of what people can do in their home and on private land to contribute to their own health and wellbeing – as well as support their local economy. As restrictions ease, councils can look to leverage the high interest with education and incentive programs to restore lost canopy and reap the benefits for their families and communities on private and public green space. Sutherland Shire Council in Sydney’s south is a great example of driving custodianship of public green spaces with its initiative #TreeTuesday, along with a range of other community engagement activities as part of their 3000 trees project.

But of course, greener cities are not just about the human benefits. That is just one part of the story. Diverse urban forests ­– and not just parks and green spaces, but streets and homes and yards – are essential for resilient cities. They are imperative to how we prepare for climate change (that other existential threat we pushed aside from March to May) by managing stormwater, urban heat island effect, and air quality, as well as biodiversity and conservation.

What COVID-19 has done, at many levels, is reframed priorities. Coupled with an economic downturn and recovery effort that we still do not fully grasp, there has never been a greater need to ensure that every dollar spent delivers multiple benefits, not just for now – but also to withstand the unknown and likely quite volatile future conditions.

Our research revealed urban greening still has a strong pulse at a local government level, and has never been more appreciated by the community. However, for the hearts of so many communities and places – particularly during a crisis – to beat strongly, it requires nourishment via state and federal stimulus. Were this to happen, we believe that not only would it heal our wounded economy, but we would also ensure the future fitness of our local communities, ecosystems and transition from a narrow idea of “critical infrastructure” to appreciating the value of “regenerative infrastructure”.


Jess Miller is Greener Spaces Better Places program director and Anthony Kachenko is Hort Innovation’s general manager of extension and adoption. Greener Spaces Better Places is a national initiative that brings together academia, business, government, community groups and the green industry to share knowledge and find new ways to work together to make sure that as our cities and towns grow, so too do our green spaces. Greener Spaces Better Places is funded through the Hort Innovation Nursery Fund, using the Nursery Marketing Levy. Hort Innovation is the grower-owned, not-for-profit research and development corporation for Australian horticulture.

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