Plants with tree guards, surrounded by mown grass and recycled timber bench

Collaboration needed to regenerate Canberra’s parks

2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Parts of the country were so dry it culminated in the Black Summer bushfires.

Tiny forests tackle urban heat

In response to 2019, I started The Climate Factory to take action on climate change. At The Climate Factory we collaborate with communities to build tiny or micro forests. And we choose parks with low biodiversity. These forests are targeted at reducing urban heat.

A CSIRO 2017 report showed Canberra’s summer urban temperatures were up to 8°C hotter than the surrounding countryside. Based on this report I realised that regenerating urban areas was a priority.

Miyawaki Method

In September 2020, The Climate Factory built the first micro-forest pilot project in an unloved park in Downer, Australian Capital Territory. There we trialled dense planting loosely based on the Miyawaki method. Akira Miyawaki describes himself as the inventor of man made forests.

However, this dense planting has raised some eyebrows. More on this later.

Urban oasis

The aim of a micro forest is to cool the landscape. To do this, we combine simple water harvesting methods with soil improvement. This is followed by dense planting of natives. One young resident said we’d turned a dustbowl into an urban oasis.

Downer Micro-forest, December 2021, 14 months after planting. Photo: Jarra JosephMcGrath

Tiny forest trees

In developing a list of trees suitable for the micro or tiny forest, I relied on Australian National University (ANU) School of Forestry research. This 2019 study was commissioned by the ACT Government to help the city adapt to climate change. Researchers consulted with councils in hotter, drier regions to develop a list of trees likely to thrive in a hotter, drier future.  

First on the tree list is the Kurrajong, Brachyciton populneus. This plants has become the signature tree for Canberra’s tiny forests.

Tiny forests align with the ACT Government goals

Canberra’s new tiny forests align with the ACT Government’s goals on climate adaptation. The ACT Government’s 2019 Living Infrastructure Plan states, “As we continue to face the challenges of climate change, in particular increased temperatures and more frequent heatwaves, it will become increasingly important that our parks are able to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. This includes ensuring appropriate planting, shading, provision of water features and suitable paving and surface materials. By upgrading our parks, we will support our community and ensure these valued public spaces will continue to remain attractive, useable and functional spaces for our community, and provide oasis in times of heat stress.” p28.

The Government also recognised the important role the micro-forests play in canopy regreening. In September 2021, the ACT Government announced it was committing to planting an additional 54,000 trees by 2024. This action will help the Government reach its target of 30% canopy cover by 2045.  Furthermore, they announced they were extending the Adopt-a-Park program by three years and specifically mentioned micro-forests initiatives.

National attention

The Climate Factory’s micro-forest concept is regarded by many as innovative and attracted considerable media attention. In an ABC article, Australian National University Professor of Forestry Peter Kanowski said micro-forests had the potential to lower temperatures in urban parts of Canberra.

“I think we should expect to see more of these as part of the sort of diversity of ways that we add greenery to our cities, and that we use that greenery to deliver multiple benefits for the environment, but also for urban residents and communities,” he said.

“I think the big picture is that we sort of need all hands on deck in our urban areas, because of the increasing average temperatures and the increasing frequency of heat waves.”

Handsome evergreen Kurrajong at the Banksia St O’Connor wetland. These trees are slow growing and tough and are the signature tree of Canberra’s tiny forests. Photo: Edwina Robinson

Criticism

But the micro-forest movement has its critics. A number of the capital’s grassland ecologists and allies are unhappy. They claim the micro-forest plantings are overly dense, a waste of resources and will negatively impact biodiversity. They also suggest that micro-forests give the wrong impression to the community. They say the community will think forests once covered Canberra’s plains. Which they didn’t. Instead, they would rather see grassy woodland restoration happening throughout Canberra’s public lands, using endemic species.

However, the challenge with endemic species is that it is unclear whether they will be resilient in an uncertain future.

Measuring heat in tiny forests

To assess if micro-forests cool the landscape, temperature loggers will be installed in the Downer tiny forest in 2022.  Information will be accessible with a smart phone and an app. This will provide an unique dataset for planners for the future.

Regenerative thinking

Recently I participated in a course on regenerative, living systems thinking. The course was led by Dr Dimity Podger of Barasa Consulting Group. It’s based on thought leader Carol Sanford’s book ‘The Regenerative Life’. Sandford’s book focuses on regenerative principles and ways of thinking about societal transformation. Her approach recognises that our places and contexts are continually evolving. And as humans we can unlock and develop the potential that arises in living systems.

In the book, Sanford enourages us to recognise the inner obstacles that stop us from developing regenerative solutions.  One common internal obstacle we face is fear. Another obstacle, is inflexible thinking.

Sanford says, when we are in problem identification mode we break a system into parts and struggle to realise its true potential.  We are more likely to compete with one another rather than collaborate. If we are stuck in problem identification mode we perceive resources as scarce, not plentiful. And fail to identify the opportunities.

To adapt to climate change in our urban areas by 2030 we need to transform the way we think about our activities, beyond repeating business-as-usual. Business-as-usual won’t help us respond to rising temperatures and urban wellbeing.

Collaboration needed

Our approach to parkland regeneration, needs to be collaborative not competitive. We must consider the potential of what our parks could be in a hotter world.

The Downer Micro-forest is located in a highly modified neighbourhood park. The tiny forest plantings cover 450m², a mere 5% of the park. This leaves oodles of room for a display of other ecosystem types, like grassy woodlands or other features the community values. And plenty of room to have a conversation about how grassy woodland advocates can get involved. It shouldn’t be an us or them approach.

Eight Step Method

At The Climate Factory, we developed an Eight Step Method to help people create climate-cooling micro-forests. The process is powerful in that it invites ‘non-experts’ to step up and create a volunteer team. Together they lead the community to develop a tiny forest over a 12 to 18 month journey.

The Eight Step Method acknowledges the potential in all of us to stretch ourselves and do something we’ve never done before. In Step 2 it uses crowdfunding to circumvent the notion of a scarce money pool.

For every micro or tiny forest, the public can attend a community forum where they vote on what’s important.  At Downer, the community focused on water harvesting, habitat and nature play. At the Holt Micro-forest they will include a food forest. So far, over three community consultations, no-one has expressed a desire to include grassy woodland alongside their tiny forest.

Tiny forests provide inspiration and hope

It’s easy to snipe at those daring to break new ground. Dr Grey Coupland, Ecologist and Urban Forest Maker, Murdoch University points out the positives of the Miyawaki method.

“The work that Miyawaki forest makers do will not solve the climate crisis or the biodiversity crisis. The work is part of broader action and a ground swell movement. Perhaps the most important aspect of these forests is that they provide people with the capacity for hands on action and the ability to see that their actions can make a difference at the local level. The forests provide inspiration and hope.”

In 1910, former United States President, Theodore Roosevelt gave this speech about critics. Roosevelt said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

By offering community leadership to create a healthier society, The Climate Factory, is acting in what Sandford calls a regenerative citizen role. Furthermore as a regenerative entrepreneur, we provide a blueprint to make community tiny forests. Our tiny forests address one of society’s most pressing problems – urban heat.

It’s time to stop sniping and problem identification and collaborate to create solutions that benefit people, animals, plants and the planet.

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