Sky gardens

By Janette Corcoran

Melbourne may have lost its liveability crown this year but might better green infrastructure help win this back? 

“Liveability” has many factors, such as residents feeling safe and socially connected, having affordable housing with linked-up public transport, being able to access health, education and shopping services and, increasingly, being surrounded by robust green infrastructure.

According to the University of Melbourne, green infrastructure is a city’s network of natural and designed vegetation elements (both public and private). It includes traditional green elements such as urban parks, gardens and trees, as well as newer items such as green roofs, green walls and rain garden technologies.

And the benefits of green infrastructure are believed to be manifold, including returns that are economic (e.g. improved amenities), environmental (e.g. reduced heat island effect) and social (e.g. strengthened community resilience).

However, we of the Vertical Villages know well the challenges of green spaces in high density precincts – and, usually, if dedicated areas were not incorporated into the original design, options to redress this are very limited.

This said, perhaps inspiration can be taken from our counterparts in other high-density cities who face similar challenges arising from their “density”.

Consider Singapore

These vertical dwellers, with the aid of their government, have leveraged the closeness of their buildings to improve their residents’ sense of connectedness. One popular element used to achieve this is “sky gardens” –  green spaces created at height which help residents manage their stresses.

These sky gardens can be open or enclosed and may be spread over several levels of a building (i.e. not only the roof). They are purposefully designed to incorporate the aesthetic qualities of a garden setting, so as to evoke responses of wellbeing.

These areas can also be used as social spaces to support the formation of communal groups which can meet, occasionally or regularly and at various times (morning tai chi, coffee breaks, afternoon gardening, etc).

Interestingly, sky gardens are not a new phenomenon and can be traced back to quite ancient times when civilisations similarly sought to integrate greenery into cities at height (though the heights these days are more lofty!). For instance, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built by Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife Amyitis, comprised a series of planted terraces, supported on stone arches 23 metres above ground. Trees were embedded into tiered stones terraces, with permanently green foliage irrigated by a mechanical system from the Euphrates River.

Returning to current times, Australian academic, Dr Philip Oldfield (UNSW), believes there are two lessons we can learn from our Singaporean counterparts. The first is that we need to increase the number and size of sky gardens in Australian buildings and intentionally design them to support social interaction.

The second lesson concerns the way these spaces are managed as recent experience has revealed a tendency to be overly restrictive in how and when these spaces can be used.

“It’s not just what you design – it’s how you manage it,” he said.

Dr Oldfield emphasised that residents must be consulted in order that they can stamp their own identity on these areas, as so doing fundamentally affects the success of the development.

And to accelerate greening across our high-density precincts, the City of Melbourne is launching its 2018 Urban Forest Fund. This round opens on August 27 and it offers matched funding (up to $500,000) for new greening projects such as green spaces, tree planting, vertical greening or green roofs.

The eligibility and assessment criteria are now available on the City of Melbourne’s web site www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/urbanforestfund

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