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Can NSW’s green infrastructure policy stop canopy cover decline?

NSW’s Government Architect has released a draft policy that aims to put green infrastructure at the heart of city-making.

Greener Places has been designed to guide the planning, design and delivery of green infrastructure across urban areas in an attempt to improve health, liveability and sustainability of cities.

The draft policy comes as cities across Australia continue to lose tree canopy coverage, with recent research finding a 2.6 per cent loss across the board over the past 3-8 years, with Sydney’s western suburbs among those with higher than average declines.

Like the Better Placed design document, Greener Places attempts to provide a clear statement of the government’s position on green infrastructure “by establishing benchmarks for the future of our built environments”.

“Greener Places inaugurates green infrastructure as a fundamental consideration in the strategic planning process from a regional to local scale,” the draft says.

“This means a connection between metropolitan, district and local plans. Each plan must recognise and value assets such as National Parks, public bushland and waterways. District and local plans must value and support large and small parks, open spaces and streetscapes as integral components to green infrastructure.”

The strategy will require statutory reforms to give it effect, including:

  • inclusion of green infrastructure strategic planning outcomes and requirements in regional plans and district plans
  • inclusion of green infrastructure in land use and infrastructure plans, priority precincts and with funding though Special Infrastructure Contributions (SICS) where appropriate
  • issue of manuals, toolkits, planning circulars and planning practice notes providing advice to councils and other stakeholders about the requirements for preparing green infrastructure strategies, and providing advice about preparation of planning proposals and LEPs to give effect to regional and district plans
  • monitoring and reporting of Greener Spaces outcomes and projects through the department’s People and Places dashboard
  • development of model council DCP clauses regarding Greener Places requirements to assist councils in implementing the requirements of the policy and related guidelines at the local level

There are four principles that guide the policy: integration, connectivity, multifunctionality and participation. Within these principles are specific actions, including:

  • a minimum ISCA rating for all federal and state funded projects
  • aligning the green infrastructure network with NSW infrastructure and urban renewal initiatives, particularly longer-term transport plans
  • encouraging alternative modes of transport such as walking, cycling and jogging
  • collaborating with water authorities to maximise green infrastructure along waterways and stormwater channels
  • developing open space strategies in every local government area to ensure equity of access to green space

Launching the strategy, NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts said green infrastructure was fundamental to ensuring quality of life and sustainability in cities.

“Green infrastructure is essential infrastructure and should be integrated into all community planning,” he said.

“Greener Places has been developed by the Government Architect to deliver the strategic approach for the planning, design and management of green infrastructure and will deliver connected urban ecosystems across NSW.”

Conflicting messages

Many may wonder whether the strategy can help to transform the current state of planning in NSW, though, as its release came in the same week the NSW government was accused of surreptitiously altering a requirement to replace thousands of trees removed for the WestConnex tollway by changing the definition of what is meant by a tree.

Instead of 3500 replacement trees with minimum pot sizes of 75 square metres (which can mean trees taller than three metres), saplings the size of “ballpoint pens” can now be used.

Greens MP Jamie Parker called the move “insulting”, while City of Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore said planning minister Anthony Roberts was providing inconsistent statements.

“The planning minister says he wants tree planting to be his legacy [but] we’re faced with the continual chopping down of trees for the government’s infrastructure projects and now the failure to take seriously the need to replant,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald.

The government’s transport planning decisions have also put land at risk in the Royal National Park and Western Sydney Parklands. Committee for Sydney’s Tim Williams recently wrote for The Fifth Estate, taking aim at transport planning and its effects on green space in the western suburbs.

Total Environment Centre executive director Jeff Angel said the policy was a step in the right direction, but said current loss of tree coverage was the “elephant in the room”.

“The rate we are losing trees across Sydney is alarming, and the state government’s promise to swap existing bushland with replacement trees has already proved inadequate, if not at times laughable,” he said.

“The system services provided by mature trees, including cooling shade, can not be provided by tiny saplings that will take decades to grow.”

He said if the policy were to be successful “the state government can no longer in good conscience sponsor large infrastructure projects that remove thousands of trees, against community wishes, as we have seen happen with WestConnex and the Eastern Light Rail”.

“Greener Places had better herald greener planning or Sydney’s economic and cultural clout will be severely diminished.”

  • Submissions on the draft plan are being accepted until 2 February 2018.

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