Written by Vicki Holder
With the huge infrastructure costs, it’s difficult to justify opening up land on the city fringes. So it looked like we would just have to make the most of the urban footprint we’ve already acquired by going up with intensification.
But now the Government has established a $1 billion fund to help Councils pay for infrastructure. Auckland has licence to grow both inside the city limits and further out on the boundaries. So is it up or out? Either way, city environmentalists and ecologists are feeling uncomfortable. What about the trees and urban green spaces, they cry.
Major plans are afoot for more roads, buses, rail links and cycle ways. In an intensified environment, grass berms will get smaller. And competition will heat up below the ground for services - fibre, cables and stormwater rule. Watercare has dozens of projects planned to renew and upgrade to support growth.
“On the surface, going up seems better because it requires less land and sprawl. I’ve sat through hearings for the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP) and there doesn’t seem to be much space for trees. It’s on the wish list but not a fundamental part of the plan.”
But with so much infrastructure catering for human expansion, it’s all the more crucial to allocate space for our urban forest. Simon Miller of arboricultural and environmental consultant firm Peers Brown Miller says we need to rephrase the question. “How is the city going to be designed so the urban forest can accommodate the building. From an environmental perspective, Miller says, “there is just one key for continuation of life on earth. Without trees, there won’t be anything to shelter from because we won’t be here.
Trees create habitats by cleaning our air, getting rid of waste and lowering temperatures as well as feeding species – including us.“The trees and our environment should not be the first thing to give. We need to design so the built environment doesn’t just accommodate trees as an afterthought. Trees are primary, and should be considered as one of the principal design limitations of any given site. They come first.” So, cities are where the greatest environmental efforts should be, asserts Miller.
Auckland biosecurity expert, Dr Margaret Stanley says there’s no simple answer. “If you go out, you run the risk of cutting into eco-systems which offer the city bio-diversity. When you start chopping away at patches of bush within the city, that creates a problem for birds and animals.
“In the Auckland isthmus we have just 6% tree cover over 8 metres so we’re missing all the services they provide around stormwater run-off and mitigating air pollution. " Stanley states.
“When intensification is done badly, you get sprawl, no big tree corridors and we lose birdlife. The fact is, most people go for low maintenance, shrubby gardens which don’t help much. But you can intensify and keep green spaces by going up.”
Generally the Council and communities understand the reality of the environmental services trees provide. But the Council is in a difficult position, says Miller. Two years ago, the National Government did away with the bulk of tree protection - under pressure from developers to build more houses.
“In the US and Australia, cities have goals to increase the percentage of tree cover to 40% and have instigated treebate programmes.
“In Portland Oregon, they recognise every tree contributes to clean rivers and stormwater management. The larger the tree, the more stormwater it can manage. If residents plant a tree over 4.5 metres when mature, they receive a credit on their water bill. In Chicago, trees wear brightly coloured tags highlighting reasons why residents should care about the region’s 157 million trees that contribute to a greener, healthier world.”
What can we do?
Miller says planners need to look at our cities as interconnected eco-systems that operate effectively together in an integrated system, rather than disparately.
It doesn’t matter if it’s up or out. “We just need to put in more than we take out. From a practical point of view, we need to disperse people out from the centre a bit. But the city should be concentrated to protect more than it consumes. Every house should have a stormwater tank to retain more than it flushes out into the system.
“We can all take responsibility. Vote for people who demonstrate they have an understanding of the role trees play in the environment.” Stanley says we need to improve areas we already have. “It’s important not to lose the green fragments. Right now it’s death by 1000 cuts as developers plant to create instant effect for immediate sale.”
“Auckland is obsessed with palms. They are a problem as weedy sub-tropical palms spread further and survive frosts. They’re shade tolerant and don’t have natural enemies like bugs and pathogens, so they out-compete native plants that deal with insects. In 50 years they will have invaded the area.”
“We need a plan. It’s about saying, here’s a variety of plants you need to plant instead for biodiversity. The Council has planting guides – Maori jasmine, rewarewa, kowhai and hebes are great insect food.”
She would like more trees and complex vegetation added to our manicured playgrounds to encourage insects and animals. It would also give children opportunities for informal play - climbing and making huts.
Join the Auckland People’s Panel, says Stanley. And take part in surveys asking about the Auckland you want. “The Council uses the results as a strong steer for change.”