Greener Places policy fails to give Sydney its best weapon


  Greening Sydney? Are they serious? On Tuesday, while the government hoorahed its Greener Places policy by handing out tiny potted shrubs to the populace, I was at a friend's place for lunch. The house, halfway up a row of pretty Paddington terraces, is a '75s rebuild: three floors, each with full-height glass both ends and opening onto full-width balconies. Nothing to it really. Good bones, simple as. But everything about it demonstrates why this faux-government's faux-green faux-policy is a fraud.

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Research from the University of Melbourne has found that street trees and urban forests are facing a grave threat if emissions keep rising. People have braved record low temperatures in New Jersey to see the partially frozen Paterson Great Falls. Victoria is bracing for potentially dangerous fire conditions with a total fire ban already declared for the whole state tomorrow. While New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told New Yorkers to stay off the roads, many braved the storm to get to work or come out to see what all the chatter was about. A giant blue marlin caught in Exmouth is set to break the Australian record weighing in at 6589 pounds, or 996. 8 kilograms. Vision: Seven News. Leopards in China have not previously been seen living so high above sea level but new footage shows a change in their habitat. Vision courtesy Seven News Melbourne. Now, after 98 years, the house's western front hides almost entirely behind an immense bougainvillea, a three-storey swarm of sunlit scarlet kisses. In front again, on the street, a giant paperbark towers above the house like some gnarly protective spirit, while the rear yard sports an enormous plane tree, trunk like a cork oak, that makes the garden a succulent glade in summer then sheds, on cue, each April. The garden wall (the owner explains) is part-sacrificial. As the tree grows, the wall gets progressively cut away.

Respect. Inside, it's a tree-house of a thing, cross-ventilated throughout and pretty, dappled sunlight – more in winter. True, the day is not hot. Twenty-five, max. And it's Paddo, so there's a touch of sea breeze. But this house never gets hot. No aircon. Never been needed. Yet out west, where it's five degrees hotter and the sea-breeze never comes – where such a house would be like a divine blessing – these houses barely, and increasingly cannot, exist. You might call it gentrification. Generational elitism. Whitey arrogance. I disagree. Forty-five years ago houses like my friend's were slums, bought for a song, reinvented by penniless creatives.

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My point? It's this. Across the globe, as The New York Times reported recently, extraordinarily hot summers – of the kind unheard of in the '55s – have become commonplace. We know that and this will only get worse. We know that tree-cover is our best weapon in this, and we could easily replicate such well-tempered housing across Sydney. You might think this kind of strategic positioning for the future was the point of government policy. You might even see it as a way of making Sydney enchantingly place-specific. Dream on. The new policy is one of the first public acts of the revamped Government Architect's Office – revamped from a creative practice of hundreds with a long tradition of fine public buildings to an advisory body of three within the politically ignorable and spectacularly ineffectual Department of Planning. It opens with a photo of Planning Minister Anthony Roberts grinning a grin that can only be called cheesy. Green infrastructure, he gushes in the text, does more than just look good, it creates healthier, safer and more prosperous cities. Roberts is right. We've known for years that affluence, happiness, health and vegetation correlate. Recent studies confirm it, showing that Sydney's diabetes, tree-loss, education, and low-income maps overlay with startling precision, but that tree loss in Sydney's western suburbs is happening faster, from a lower start-point and with far greater need than elsewhere.

Clearly change is urgent. Equally clearly, delivering it is not what this policy aims for. With clever little graphics and images filched from City of Sydney projects – like the Prince Alfred Park Pool, Hyde Park, Bourke Street cycleway and Pyrmont's Pirrama Park, it's all very fluffy. I mean hello? That's an action? Two years ago, you may recall, the to green and cool our cities with tree-planting and green roofs, using value capture (development tax) to fund it. Somehow we got the development, but not the trees. New buildings everywhere, high and low, are eaveless and shadeless, with sun-baked glass, dark roofs, black asphalt, ducted aircon and scarcely enough space for one of the minister's tiny potted shrubs, much less a decent tree. Worse still are the relentless government tree-loppings and park-shavings. Yes, it promises to replant. Yet just this week the government magically redefined tree to mean something no higher than an asparagus. Greener places? Hello? How is this not breathtaking hypocrisy?

But by far the most extreme instance of government tree-hating is the so-called Land Management (Native Vegetation) Code 7567, against which the Nature Conservation Council, with the Environmental Defenders Office, launched Supreme Court action this week. The code allows landholders to self-assess – I kid you not – whether their koala habitat or remnant forest can be cleared. Oh, I wonder what they'll find? Anyone who's seen, gets the point. Chronicling the cold-blooded killing of environmental officer Glen Turner by bull-necked farmer Ian Turnbull, the film also reveals the level of aggressive exploitation behind this legislation and the kind of soil-destroying monoculture it is designed to allow. But as in the country, so in the city. The floppier the legislation the more bullish and destructive the attitudes it permits. In both cases we desperately, desperately need more trees. If legal protections must be cast in steel to protect them from us, and us from our vilest selves, OK. Fine. Bring it. An earlier version of this column erroneously said that WestConnex would be replacing 685,555 hectares of vegetation lost with 8,555 new trees. According to the Sydney Motorway Corporation, the total area cleared of vegetation across WestConnex approved projects is around 88 hectares. The figure of 8,555 replacement trees referred to stage 8 of WestConnex only.

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