From a forest in a city to a city in a forest

MELBOURNE, Australia: The City of Melbourne has made significant advances as a Green City over the past three decades, and has been voted The World’s Most Livable City for seven years in a row. FCI spoke with Ian Shears to find out how Melbourne has successfully balanced significant growth of population and accompanying infrastructure with green initiatives.

Over a 20 year period from the late 1980s the City of Melbourne’s population doubled. To accommodate this rapid growth in population compromises were made, and by 2009 more than 10% of green cover had been lost to hard development. Turning this around has required some innovative thinking and visionary leadership. “While there are individuals that have been valuable champions for the city”, says Ian, “enabling influences have come from many sectors, and it has been fascinating to watch how beliefs and efforts have aligned.”

Bold and visionary strategies

The City of  Melbourne’s green strategies are bold and visionary, yet are driven by data. Evidence exists globally to show the benefits of greening to water management, air quality and urban heat build up. “When we assessed and analysed the components of our urban space” explains Ian, “we were quite excited to recognise that the city has enormous potential for greening”. Two current initiatives illustrate this well.

The city centre is a regular grid of streets with many small interconnecting laneways. Some of these have become destinations for the impressive graffiti that has actively been encouraged as dramatic street art. For many laneways, though, function/access is all they offer. Mapping the city revealed that laneways offer 160Ha of wall space and 70Ha of ground plane – all with the potential for greening. When the city put out a call asking who would be interested in doing some greening in their laneway, 800 responses were received within the first two weeks. People are willing to get involved in improving their surrounds, and the city can leverage off this desire.

Likewise, city buildings offer 240ha of possible green space on their roofs. If only one quarter of this was covered with green roof plantings, it would have the capacity to hold 30Ml of water. This is an impressive volume, even more so, when we consider that modeling of catchment and flows indicates that only 6.8Ml of storm water would cause flooding.

Proactive at any time of change

An important part of City of Melbourne’s greening strategy has been to be proactive at any time of change, and to introduce a green component within the change. “The Urban Forest strategy”, explains Ian, “came as a response to terrible drought, and by 2009 we were in danger of losing almost half of our city’s trees. This really brought to the attention of the community how much Melbourne’s trees are valued, and how vulnerable they are.”

The Urban Forest strategy that arose in response considers whole of forest decisions, thinking that, as in a natural forest, the trees are only part of the green cover. People have always had a special connection to trees, and the term Urban Forest resonates better than ‘green Infrastructure’.

The most recent greening initiative responds to the active and empowering community engagement that the City of Melbourne has received. With a changed perspective on governance, the City of Melbourne considers community consultation as going beyond the point of conversation to recognition of shared capacity and responsibility. With almost 75% of the municipal area privately owned or managed, new initiatives must facilitate greater greening in this private realm. The Urban Forest Fund offers matched funding for privately owned areas that are committed to implementing new greening projects, such as green spaces, tree planting, vertical greening or green roofs.

Recommendations for trees

With all this greening activity, how are plants selected for greening of Melbourne? A comprehensive guide to green roofs includes lists of plants suitable for Victoria. For different aspects of laneway greening, recommendations are made for plants such as climbers and ramblers, plants for pots in the sun or shade, and ground cover plants.

Another impressive publication provides recommendations for trees for specific location types in the landscape, distinguishing between the characteristics of trees needed for parks, residential verges, verges with powerlines– a total of 16 different location types. For preparation of both of these lists ease of plant availability was a consideration. One of the longer term initiatives, however, allows for contract production of specific plant types, selections or varieties, with as much as a 10 year lead-up time. “It is at this point where horticultural producers and plant breeders can, and must, do more”, says Ian. “In the face of climate change we are looking for plants with wide plasticity of tolerance to temperature. Particularly trees, as these will see the greatest change in climate through their lifespan.”

The horticultural sector must do more than supply catalogue items that are easy to propagate and have been reliable in the past. We need to become actively involved in identifying, sourcing and supplying plants that have resilience beyond current tolerances.

An important area where horticulture is already engaged is intolerance or resistance to pests and diseases.  Ian Shears considers that increasing plant diversity  – genetic and age diversity – can buffer against widespread devastation, but the threat of emerging pests and diseases is the most important future vulnerability of the city’s living green.


Anton Malishev. Image of the future city from Melbourne’s Art and Design Competition.


New landscape in Fitzroy Gardens – cafe and 5mg stormwater harvesting system below ground in foreground.

Before and after of Errol St Reserve – road dieting.

Queen Victoria Gardens and city backdrop.

Thermal image of temperature in and out of the shade of trees.

Aerial of the city from the east parkland.

Kings Domain mature tree landscape.

Ian Shears is Practice Lead for Urban Forest and Green Infrastructure, City of Melbourne.

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