As the population density of Australia’s major cities continues to rise and the average size of Australian backyards continues to shrink, urban forests are becoming increasingly important. Jon Shinkfield, Director of architecture practice REALMstudios, says, “Australians have this romantic idea that they should be entitled to a quarter acre block and the house and the backyard where life will be just wonderful. But the reality is that people have very much reduced space around their dwellings now, or live in joined dwellings in the form of townhouses and apartments.

“Historically the backyard was the place for growing some vegetables… for the kids to play… for safe exploration. Well we just don’t have that any more – there’s actually very little open space at all other than just the courtyard environment.”

In order to allow Australian urbanites to engage with nature and community, Shinkfield advocates a new approach to space in urban areas. “In the increased density model of cities, available open space and occupiable streetscapes will be central to our health and well-being. They could almost be described as the new backyard in the minds of Australians, and very important to our city fabrics going forward as we become increasingly and more densely urbanized.

“The open spaces that we have – the parks and such – need to be thought of in a multi-functional way, rather than in the limited way that we’ve thought about them historically. They need to become places of social engagement and multi-generational activity, which is what the backyard used to be.”

Unfortunately, creating lush and appealing urban forests is a challenge with increasingly difficult weather brought about by global climate change. Public parks will need more water to survive and thrive, creating a cool, comfortable setting for visitors.

Shinkfield says, “Water is needed to create a canopy, because that can create cool, green grass areas, rather than the fried grass areas that are as dry as a bone and as hot as if you just put bitumen right across the park. There is also a whole bundle of research that is saying that moisture within the soil medium actually creates a cooling effect in the same way that the shade of a tree does. If you can put those two things together, water in the soil and shade, you’ve got a significantly cooler environment – maybe five or six degrees cooler than otherwise.”

Improved water infrastructure – in particular, drainage and stormwater systems – will play a critical role. “There needs to be a different reuse of water that both comes out of the sky and is captured on all of the hard surfaces, whether it be roads or pavements. Rather than just sending it down to water drains and then out into the bays or rivers, we should use it on the way through so that it can create a better and greener outcome. Because of the changing weather patterns, we’re getting more rain coming down faster but with less frequency. So we’re getting a significant amount of water delivered, but we need to work out how to hold it and use it, rather than just let it go and disappear.”

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