What is Greenspace, anyway?

In debates about the environment, urban planning and development, the need for greenspace is a bit of an accepted wisdom. “Protect our greenspace” is the one argument against a new development that nobody dares argue with.

But what do people really mean when they talk about greenspace? Does everyone mean the same thing? Do they know themselves how they would define greenspace beyond it being not a building or paved area?

Claims that greenspace is good for our physical and mental health justifies demands for public parks and sportsfields, and a preference for detached houses with turfed backyards.

For a long time, Australia has been a place of seemingly abundant land.  If we wanted more space, we just cleared more trees. This has given us urban sprawl, hot cities, and a car-dependent lifestyle.

To change, we need to stop being wasteful and make better use of land, getting more benefits from less space with lower environmental impact. Higher-density housing and urban infill is part of this but it needs to be done well and, of course, everyone agrees that we need to retain precious greenspace.

Definitions of Greenspace

How many of these would you consider urban greenspace?

  1. bushland
  2. turfed footpaths/verges
  3. household gardens
  4. planters on balconies, landings and verandas
  5. common ground in townhouse and apartment developments
  6. roundabouts and traffic islands
  7. parks
  8. outdoor playgrounds
  9. sportsfields (turf)
  10. sportsfields (artificial)

If we look at the benefits of greenspace, to people and to the environment, each of these may have some merit. However, rather than bundling them into “all greenspace is good”, we need to consider what is best in any given situation and how to make better use of the limited land and resources we have.

1. Bushland

Bushland is the greenspace that is often at the core of protests against development.  While we need to retain as much as we can, all bushland is not of equal value.  Bushland corridors along creeks is more valuable than bits of bushland dotted about the suburbs. The types and ages of trees and other plants makes a difference.

2. Turfed Footpaths and Verges

In Brisbane, one of the most under-used spaces is the footpath or verge – mere neat green carpets to be viewed from car windows. In our car-centric city, verges are used by too few pedestrians and provide little environmental benefit. When you do walk, you find they are brown as often as green and often sparse and weedy.

The fastest, easiest way to improve our city would be to ensure all properties have street trees and replace turf with plants that provide habitat and are pleasant for pedestrians.  Verges could, and should, be wildlife corridors, pollinator corridors and pedestrian corridors.

3. Household Gardens

Gardens are as varied as their owners, ranging from true wildlife habitats to monocultural turf. most are somewhere in between. This website includes our journey transforming a fairly barren suburban garden into greenspace that benefits the human inhabitants and provides habitat for flora and fauna.

4. Planters on Balconies, Landings and Verandas

These can supplement gardens or bring greenspace into unit blocks and other homes. No home is too small for a pot plant or two. Planters can be built into the design of apartment and office blocks.

5. Common Ground in Townhouse and Apartment Developments

This is too often concrete areas used for nothing other than driving and parking. Like private gardens, they can be transformed into native habitat, trees for shade, plus shared community gardens for growing food, pleasant outdoor sitting areas for building community.

6. Roundabouts and Traffic Islands

Dense planting not only provides more environmental benefits than non-permeable concrete, it affects the way people drive – slowing them down. Obviously, these need to be designed keeping safety and visibility in mind.

7. Public Parks

Our local parks tend to be flat green grass/weeds with tall trees and sometimes seating.  There is little habitat for small birds who need low, dense shrubs. If councils are unwilling to create gardens, perhaps local residents could be given support in creating native and food community gardens.

8. Outdoor Playgrounds

If well-planned and maintained, playgrounds can provide community-building for both children and the adults who accompany them. They can also include plenty of habitat including shrubs and water for birds etc.

9. Sportsfields (Turf)

Sportfields are flat and green, and cater for a limited number of people. They are single purpose – not habitat or wildlife friendly (lights, noise, chemicals). While teamsport can be beneficial, many of its claimed benefits can be achieved in other ways. Changing from a car-centric lifestyle would be have more benefits to health to a wider range of people. Community and teamwork can be created using art and cultural activities, community gardens and more. This is not to say there shouldn’t be sportsfields, just that they need more justification than other forms of greenspace in prime locations or where priorities need to be balanced. Community use of sportsfields in school grounds should be maximised.

10. Sportsfields (Artificial)

These are also flat and green, but tend to be hotter, retaining and reflecting considerable heat. One reason for their popularity is that they are cheaper and easier to maintain than grass fields. So they too, have their place, but preferably with covers or shadecloth to reduce heat and sun exposure.

Development in Your Neighbourhood

So, when considering the merits of any new development, the protests against, or the negotiations from competing interests, let us consider how we can create the best quality greenspace for the environment and for the people who will live there, and also how we can improve, connect with, and even regenerate the greenspace of the surrounding suburb.

We need to move beyond motherhood statements about saving greenspace and have honest discussions about quality of greenspace and the sort of city and suburbs we want to have in 10 or 20 years time.

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