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  • Helen Hawkes

It’s OnlyNatural

Green spaces and shade trees aren’t just pleasant, they’re critical to the mental, physical and ecological health of our cities. As our world heats up, can a new kind of urban development bring relief? By Helen Hawkes

One Central Park’s living walls are fed by a recycled water treatment plant. Photography by Simon Woods/courtesy of Frasers Property Australia and Sekisui House Australia.

As we are battered seemingly daily by news of climate disasters, there are green shoots of hope close to home. One of those is Sydney’s dedication to developing an urban environment that prioritises nature-based spaces and connection to the community and the land. To that end, the recent “Nature Positive Sydney” report signals the strengthening of a shift towards a city where respect for Country and living infrastructure preside.

“The intent behind the report was to really demonstrate that valuing nature at a development scale is more than a nice-to-have,” says report author Sam Kernaghan, director of the Resilience Program at the Committee for Sydney, whose members range from property developers and academics to lawyers and architects. “Embedding nature in design is actually a critical part of how we respond to accelerating urban heat and ensure the survival of nature in our cities.”

Kernaghan believes Sydney has the potential to be one of the world’s leading biophilic cities, one that recognises the need for daily human contact with nature. He imagines new walks that skirt the water’s edge, bike tracks, green roofs and walls, bodies of water that cool urban areas and foreshores alive with nature, all connected to the memory of Country. 

Architectus principal Dario Spralja. Photography courtesy of Architectus.

Says Dario Spralja, principal of Architectus, who was involved in early workshops for the “Nature Positive Sydney” report: “To me, biophilic design means providing better connections to nature, its systems and health benefits. This will drive our desire to better preserve nature as an integral and critical part of our existence and, by extension, preserve the interconnected global biosphere.

“Immediate access to fresh air, to birdsong, to sky … that’s our default,” Spralja adds.

Weathering climate change 

Record temperatures, unprecedented floods, soul-destroying droughts — these are the terrifying signatures of the new normal. But the natural environment, which has better mechanisms to deal with extreme weather events, can show us improved ways of designing and building, says Spralja.

Plantings that create natural stormwater swales, for example, can not only mitigate extreme rain events but reduce the heat island effect — significantly higher temperatures from vehicle and air-conditioning exhausts and unshaded concrete and asphalt — experienced by city dwellers. Lord Mayor Clover Moore AO told Winning that she believes urban greenery is as vital as roads or internet access, with tree canopies able to reduce ground temperatures by up to 10 degrees Celsius as well as remove pollution from the air, store carbon and contribute to psychological wellbeing.

Recent research by the University of Wollongong and UNSW suggests these leafy umbrellas may also reduce poor health in general — and even loneliness. “That’s why we have a $377 million greening program, with the target of 40 per cent of the City’s footprint covered by greenery by 2050, to provide a cooler, calmer and more resilient City,” says Moore.

New and innovative ways to create more green roofs and walls, and green laneways and narrow streets, are also being explored as part of the Greening Sydney 2030 strategy. While Sydney already boasts some spectacular curated natural spaces, including the Royal Botanic Garden and The Domain, the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan and the bushland corridor within Western Sydney Parklands, Kernaghan says there’s a lot more the city can do with its backyards, nature strips, buildings, building facades and rooftops, as well as parks, waterways and infrastructure corridors. 

The Sydney Metro planting trials aim to tackle local biodiversity loss. Photography courtesy of Hassell.

Biophilic design in action 

Many of Sydney’s leading architects are already incorporating a biophilic sensibility into significant developments across the region, and nature-positive buildings are thriving.

At Hills Showground Metro Station, architects Hassell, in conjunction with Sydney Metro and the University of Melbourne’s Burnley Campus, spearheaded the planting of 8,000 seedlings comprising 110 species. The aim: to achieve a beautiful, biodiverse ground-level landscape that would inform the design of future landscapes across the city and contribute to residents’ wellbeing. 

Planters on One Central Park. Photography by Simon Wood.

Architect Mark Giles of PTW. Photography by Michael Yip.

At Frasers Property Australia’s luxury apartment and retail precinct One Central Park, in inner-city Chippendale, PTW oversaw one of the most extensive plantings for a building of its kind globally — a total of 85,000 plants watered by an onsite recycling treatment facility. Planter boxes, vertical vines and green walls in the facade literally wrap the towers in plant life. Senior practice associate Mark Giles says that, since the building’s completion, studies have found the green walls, on which the French botanist Patrick Blanc collaborated, have significantly reduced both urban heat and the particle pollution associated with respiratory diseases.

At the Vance residential development at Harold Park, in the heart of the inner city, PTW also employed facade-mounted planter boxes and green walls, with the plan modified to allow more midday sun into the central courtyard and maximise the views of Glebe’s green foreshore.

A render of the plant-filled lobby of Banksia tower in Mulpha’s Norwest Quarter, by Bates Smart architects. Photography courtesy of Mulpha.

Mulpha’s $1 billion, zero-carbon Norwest Quarter in the Hills Shire, construction on which began in August last year, incorporates layers of canopied and in-ground landscaping, abundant balcony planters and use of light and cool materials throughout to reduce the heat island effect, says head of developments Tim Spencer.

With 50 kilometres of walking and cycling tracks and 46 hectares of integrated open space, the development also includes nature-based initiatives such as veggie gardens, beehives and worm farms. “Norwest Quarter was conceived with the mission of building a community that united people with the environment, nature and The Hills,” says Spencer.

Integrated open space at Natura, a “residential resort” in Sydney’s Macquarie Park. Photography by Brett Boardman.

At Macquarie Park, Natura, a “residential resort” designed by Architectus, two 20-storey buildings overlook a significant ecological site of mature trees, waterways and parkland known as Shrimptons Creek Riparian Corridor. The development includes some 7,000 square metres of landscaped communal gardens in which to breathe deeply. 

Green rooftops & connection to Country 

A City of Sydney spokesperson says the council is encouraging the use of green roofs in new developments, and retrofitting them where possible. At Lendlease’s Daramu House at Barangaroo, designed by Tzannes architects, a “biodiversity roof” created in conjunction with Junglefy (now owned by Vertical Gardens) has increased birdlife fourfold and insect life, including rare blue banded bees, ninefold. An industry-first innovation, it not only allows pollinators to thrive in an urban environment, but has also had a positive impact on urban heat, stormwater mitigation and carbon dioxide reduction. 

At Westfield Bondi Junction, the award-winning SkyParks gardens project includes coastal, bush tucker and pollinator gardens, created as part of a Waverley Council sustainability project aimed at cooling the city. As well as providing opportunities to measure the cooling effect of plantings, it will assist with understanding the business, wellbeing and educational benefits of installing vegetation in hot urban spaces, says a council spokesperson.

Australia’s first Indigenous rooftop farm, using more than 2,000 edible, medicinal and culturally significant plants, can be found at South Eveleigh technology park and retail hub in Eveleigh. The award-winning development also includes an open green, a cultural garden and an entry garden. The 500-square-metre rooftop space at the edge of the bustling city was created for Mirvac by Yerrabingin, a design firm that delivers environmentally conscious native landscapes enriched with Indigenous narratives. The company also worked with Hassell on the Sydney Olympic Park Stadia Precinct to bring to life a development that focuses on Indigenous design principles and narratives including green space for all seasons, for contemplation or play.

Hassell’s Sydney Olympic Park Stadia Precinct follows Indigenous design principles. Photography courtesy of Hassell.

Kernaghan says a First Nations world view involves a Country-centred circle where people, animals, resources and plants all support one another. “When thinking about green and blue [ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and stormwater] infrastructure, we need to bring an understanding of Country, of how the natural and human systems interact,” he says.

Says Spralja: “Our connection to nature is hardwired into our DNA. Since the dawn of Homo sapiens 150,000 years ago, only the last five per cent of that period has been spent living in permanent cities.

“As human beings we have an innate need and desire to be surrounded by nature — under a tree or on a beach, feeling a breeze or watching the sunrise or sunset,” continues Spralja.

“It is imperative that we step away from hermetically sealed, nature-deprived boxes.” 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our tenth edition, Page 104 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “It's Only Natural”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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