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Bringing nature into our built environment

By Dr Rachael Bathgate, University of Melbourne

There is a trend in the marketing of new Australian commercial and residential developments that involves showing images of lush green foliage draping over buildings and framing views of gardens from luxurious rooftops. Beyond the hyperbole, the human health benefits of green infrastructure in cities is clear; however, the uptake of green infrastructure in retrofitting and new building designs in Australia lags behind that of other countries with comparable climates. How close to a future reality are those photoshopped images?

Green roofs, walls and facades (GRWF) form part of ‘green infrastructure’, a term that encompasses these landscapes that are generally built on structures and at ground level, including parks, gardens and street trees. The barriers to implementing GRWFs have been identified in multiple international studies. What is less clear are the collective actions required to overcome these barriers, particularly from Australian governments and industry.

In March and April this year, GRWF summits were held in both Melbourne and Sydney, providing an opportunity to address some of these actions and create a positive vision for greener Australian cities in the future. These formed part of a larger three-year University of Melbourne–Hort Innovation project, investigating how demonstration sites can be used to increase the uptake of green infrastructure projects across urban Australia and, in doing so, help to grow the industry.

The summits brought together 66 invited representatives from green infrastructure and allied industries, government, academic groups and the community. This included project partners such as the University of New South Wales (UNSW); the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DEWLP); the City of Melbourne; and larger developers like Frasers Property, Lendlease and CBUS Property. Led by Dr Kate Lee and Assistant Professor Nick Williams from the University of Melbourne (School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences) with Professor Leisa Sargent (UNSW Business School), the summits used an ‘appreciative inquiry’ methodology to engage in active participation, explore complex issues and create new approaches to problem-solving. The summits were designed in collaboration with the broader green infrastructure industry through a summit design team to ensure that workshop activities were relevant to industry drivers and needs.

Summit participants identified the opportunities and critical changes needed to bring about a flourishing Australian GRWF industry, including:

  • creating real incentives at a city scale
  • identifying the economics of health/wellness from GRWFs
  • developing standards and updating national building codes
  • establishing a new national body to be an effective voice for GRWF advocacy and leadership
  • creating a portal for knowledge sharing (public and industry)
  • building more pilot projects in the public and private domains.

University of Melbourne’s Assistant Professor John Rayner attended the Melbourne summit in his role as a lead researcher on the project, where he is investigating how to better incorporate maintenance into green roof design and development. ‘The summits were a really positive and effective way of drawing on the diverse views and experiences of people from different disciplines involved in green infrastructure. It really helped us to understand the issues that need to be addressed to drive its expansion across Australia,’ Rayner said. ‘Greater engagement with facilities managers in this research would be really useful as they are dealing with green roofs management at a practical level every day.’

In any landscape, and particularly in GRWFs, high-quality outcomes are best achieved when installation and maintenance are properly considered during the design process. Common problems that are reported from many GRWF projects include irrigation failure, poor plant growth and survival rates, and excessive costs in maintenance and resourcing. Green infrastructure is a living asset that benefits from a more active asset management approach, particularly to ensure that the long-term benefits are fully realised. From a property value perspective, green roofs have been found to have economic benefits through direct or avoided costs; for example, through decreasing summer energy cooling demand, increasing occupancy rates and the decreasing maintenance costs of stormwater infrastructure by retaining slow stormwater run-off. This information is included in a new report by the City of Melbourne, which examines how the economic, environmental and human health benefits of GRWFs may be quantified, and can potentially be applied across a range of building scales in Australian cities.

Significant research milestones are being achieved in other aspects of the Hort Innovation project. Most notably, the launch of 1 Treasury Place, Melbourne – the site of the main demonstration green roof in Victoria, which was completed in May 2019. Supported by the City of Melbourne and DELWP, this highly prominent site will host research across a number of areas, including exploring the plants and green roof build-ups that are suitable for Australian conditions, an evaluation of the installation and maintenance requirements, and investigating the human health and wellbeing benefits delivered by green roofs. As part of the overall project, research will also take place at the University of Melbourne’s Burnley Campus. The outputs of the project will contribute to a growing body of green infrastructure knowledge to be shared across industry, government and the community.

The next step is for researchers and participants to codevelop a position statement later in 2019 to help shape the future of GRWFs in Australia – a roadmap to guide industry and policy makers.

A summary of the discussion and outcomes of the summits can be found on the Green Infrastructure Research Group website. For further information about summits or other aspects of the current Hort Innovation project, please contact:

Assistant Professor Nick William:
Dr Rachael Bathgate:

This story was originally published in Facility Perspectives, Vol 13 No 3.