It’s time for an urban revolution! It’s time to take back our streetscapes.


A tawny frogmouth pair sitting in an urban streetscape tree in Melbourne.

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.

moth 3

A native heliotrope moth. Elevated richness of native invertebrates will result from turning streetscapes into nature strips.

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.


8 thoughts on “It’s time for an urban revolution! It’s time to take back our streetscapes.

  1. Great blog! Why any council feels like they should plant any non natives is beyond me. Can you elaborate on the safety issue you raise? Why is having native plants anymore problematic then say high fences that dominate some suburbs? Or non native large/medium story trees?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lachlan.
      I think the main issue on having structural planting of the shrub to mid-story layer is around line of sight and perception of danger.

      I am with you on why we still have arguments over planting natives. But then again we used to give out medals for introducing things like blackberry and rabbits.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely agree with planting native vegetation in nature strips. Where I live near the botanic gardens, you can actually see Southern Brown Bandicoot’s utilising these spaces to forage. It’ll be fantastic if perceptions can shift into perceiving native vegetation as a more aesthetic choice. If councils take the initiative to plant more native plants then perhaps people will become more familiar and appreciative of these species and maybe get to witness the same incredible biodiversity that I am privileged in seeing in my estate.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Lachlan, some species of native trees that fit the physical conditions (microclimate, soil type, space) may be more susceptible to limb drop or pavement disruption due to root disturbance. If I’m not mistaken, most native species also aren’t amenable to being propagated through cuttings, so it’s harder to get consistent traits for reliable outcomes (especially form). Personally I also find that native trees don’t give off very good shade.

    The other problem landscape managers have against natives is aesthetics, but as Melissa said, at least that can be changed. We need more cultural celebration of native landscapes and get kids used to it early. If people could see what comes alive when native vegetation is brought back, then they’ll find that natives are worth the compromises.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the comments. Agree, I suspect there are significant issues around getting consistency of traits etc. I do feel at times that this can be a little over played by councils. A bit of random variability could actually add to the attraction of streetscapes. Maybe an avenue for some social research 🙂


    • I think perhaps I am one of the kids that got used to it early, to me most exotic species are ugly and when I look at them I see rows and rows of weeds. I am lucky to live in an area that is gradually getting planted out right to the curb with natives (and when I drive into suburbs without this I think they look barren and lifeless). Clearly though if I consider the vast suburbs of mcmansion with no native trees, I am in the minority.
      I am not certain but i’d say there is almost always a native species that can do the same job as almost any exotic but it comes down to peoples perceptions of what looks good…Weeds! 😉


  4. Pingback: It’s time for an urban revolution! It’s time to take back our streetscapes. | lmrh5

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