Other than houses and roads, one of the things that are most visible to people in our urban environments are the streetscapes. The foot print of streetscapes throughout our urban areas is enormous yet their potential for great biodiversity outcomes largely goes unrealized. In fact we generally manage them in a fashion that creates an ecological desert (maybe a little poetic license) with extremely limited value for biodiversity.
Many years ago we investigated the role of different streetscape vegetation and the response of birds to it (You can read more here). Surprise, surprise, native bird diversity was highest in streetscapes dominated by native trees. Probably more concerning was the fact that 75% of the bird abundance in streetscapes dominated by exotic trees was made up by a few species introduced to Australia! Upshot, streetscapes dominated by lawns and exotic trees are not good for birds, and presumably native biodiversity as well.
Interestingly, in Australia, we refer to streetscapes as nature strips. Whilst this may make us feel better about our impact on the environment, it is a grossly incorrect term. In reality, as far as nature is concerned, streetscapes sit on a continuum from ecological desert to nature strip. So just calling it a nature strip does not make it a nature strip.
So here comes the revolution bit. What can we do about it? This is actually a tough one. I used to give lots of talks to local government about turning streetscapes into nature strips. Obviously step one is pushing for native tree species to be used throughout our urban areas rather than the exotic European species favoured by many urban designers. I was often surprised to find a backlash to this on various different levels e.g. “Native trees do not have the great form that exotic trees have”, “Native trees drop limbs and leak sap”, through to “This will impact upon the value of the houses”. This last point a reference to houses in areas with established exotic trees having higher value. Probably correlative rather than causative.
I usually took my recommendations a step further and encouraged councils to consider ripping up the lawns and replacing them with native vegetation. Ultimately, suggesting the idea of introducing structural diversity to the planting. This usually got many and various different responses, it must be noted not always negative. The main negative, other than the negative aesthetic influence, was the issue of public safety. In essence with structure on the streetscapes the public have no line of sight and as such perception of risk and safety is influenced. I actually think this is a valid point that we need to think about.
Personally, I think we need to take control of our streetscapes, and I think we need to have a revolution that forces local governments to act in favour of nature rather than against it. We need to fight for a diversity of native canopy trees to be the dominant vegetation on all of our streets. Following this, we need to rip up the lawns. Replacing the mown and managed grass with diverse low growing (less than a metre) native vegetation will have enormous benefits for native biodiversity. If everyone in a street did this, would councils force them to change it back? Who knows, but it would make for an interesting situation.
Finally, coming back to the point about structural plantings and safety. I do agree with the issue around perception of safety, so how do we deal with it. Actually this is somewhat more straight forward than one would think. We can get structure into our urban environments by thinking of our streetscapes and our front gardens as part of the same system. Spatially they are only a few metres from each other. So use the streetscape to enhance the canopy and low growing vegetation, and utilise your front garden to add a bit of mid-storey structure to the system.
Imagine your own street. Imagine being immersed in an urban woodland. Imagine walking through it to the sound of native Australian birds, and watching the bees and butterfly’s etc. Would that elevate your perception of wellbeing? Research suggests it would. Would it feel cooler in the summer? Again, research suggests it would. Ultimately, imagine your entire city dominated by streets like this. What are you waiting for? It is time for an urban revolution.