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 Joseph-McGrath

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.

Leading women – Holt resident, Jennifer Bardsley starts micro-forest

After hearing a radio interview about Canberra’s fledgling micro-forests, Jennifer Bardsley started the Holt Micro-forest initiative. Supported by a group of keen residents they visited potential sites and created social media accounts to spread the word. Together they raised $25,000 in a crowdfunding campaign which has been topped up with successful grant applications.

The Climate Factory chats with Jennifer about her busy family life and why she wanted to create a micro-forest.

TCF: What’s your day job?
I am currently on maternity leave with our 7 month old baby. I also have a 10 year old and 8 year old son. Family keeps me pretty busy!  When I’m not on leave, I am a public servant working in Information Technology.

TCF: What’s a ‘typical’ day look like for you?
At the moment night and day merge into a blur, we are still up through the night quite a lot with bub. Generally the morning focus is getting the children ready for school, followed by school drop-off, housework, walking the dog, school pick-up, afternoon sport activities, dinner and bed routines. In between that I try to spend some time with family and on writing, books and the micro-forest initiative.

When you are passionate and persistent, so many things are possible.

JENNIFER BARDSLEY


TCF: Why are you passionate about volunteering to create a micro-forest in your suburb?
My family and I love being outdoors. We love being surrounded by nature. It brings such a sense of fun, adventure, happiness and peace. It’s good for our mental and physical health. We are also worried about global warming and threats to biodiversity. We want to play our part in combating climate change and nurturing the natural world around us. 

TCF: What’s a surprising fact about you?
Two of my other passions are writing and martial arts. I have recently published my first children’s book ‘A land of muddy puddles’ and I am assistant instructor at a local Tae Kwon Do club.

TCF: Do you have any words of advice about being a leader? And if people are hesitant to have a go at being a ‘leader’ what would you say to them?
Be the change you want to see in the world. When you’re passionate and persistent, so many things are possible! 

If you want to know what is involved in starting a community micro-forest we’ve created a video documenting the Eight Steps.

Public servant and mum by day, micro-forest leader by night.

One of the best things about creating micro-forests is working with community leaders. Over 2020-222 I’ve had the privilege to work with four women who want to make a difference in their local community.

Qualities of community leaders

Research shows there’s at least 10 qualities of community leaders. Leaders tend to be smart, empathetic, self-aware and motivated.

I want to shine the spotlight on women I’ve collaborated with recently. They have shown me the importance of building a team and inspired me when I felt lacklustre. Together we are creating change at the neighbourhood scale.

Purdie Bowden

Purdie is one of the volunteer leaders of the Watson micro-forest team. They raised $53,000 to build the Watson micro-forest and nature playground.

Photo supplied.

Purdie’s advice for anyone taking on a leadership role in their community is to:

Do something you care about, and find great people to do it with!

P. BOWDEN, Watson.

The Climate Factory chats with Purdie Bowden.

TCF: What’s your day job? What does a ‘typical’ day look like for you? 

I work at DFAT on the Australian aid program, and was previously a lead negotiator for Australia on the United Nations Paris Agreement on Climate Change. I work part time and have two young kids which keep me busy the rest of the week.

TCF: Why are you passionate about volunteering to create a micro-forest in your suburb?

I’ve always cared deeply about the natural world. Creating a micro-forest and nature play area in my local park was a wonderful opportunity to connect more closely with the community we live in, and build something tangible. When I saw Edwina successfully raise funds and create the Downer Micro-forest, I thought why not do it in Watson.

TCF: What’s a surprising fact about you?

I’m a trained yoga instructor, but haven’t got around to teaching yet.

TCF: Do you have any words of advice about being a leader? And if people are hesitant to have a go at being a micro-forest leader’ what would you say to them? 

Working on something you are passionate about doesn’t feel like work. It’s just fun. And it’s even better if you can partner with people who share your energy and passion. Working with capable and enthusiastic partners on the Watson Micro-forest project gave me the confidence to launch the crowd-funding campaign and take other ‘big’ decisions, and helped me get through the times when I’ve been tired or frustrated. So in summary: do something you care about, and find great people to do it with!

TCF: What are you looking forward to in 2021?

Planting the Watson Micro-forest!


At The Climate Factory we inspire and support people to create a community micro-forest in their neighbourhood. Our methodology can be applied to almost any public landscape project.

Resources

Want to be be inspired and find out how how to build a climate-cooling micro-forest or landscape project in a public space? We’ve create a video on the 8 steps to create a micro-forest.

Thor’s Hammer giving back

Thor Diesendorf and Edwina Robinson perched on the recycled turpentine bench made by Thor’s Hammer. The timber was sourced from an old wharf. Image: Lachlan Richardson

Giving of your time, expertise and money to a worthy cause can make you feel good.

Thor’s Hammer

One Canberra business, timber recycler and furniture maker, Thor’s Hammer, donated a 2.4 metre bench of recycled turpentine and 300 plants to the Cole St, Downer micro-forest.

After the bushfires of 2019-20, owner Thor Diesendorf decided to contribute 10% of profits to three Canberra groups doing environmental good – Firesticks, an indigenous led corporation focused on cultural burning practices, Greening Australia and The Climate Factory were the beneficiaries.

The Climate Factory is a social enterprise, founded in 2019 by Landscape Architect, Edwina Robinson after Australia experienced its hottest summer on record. Our vision is to rehydrate the landscape, build great soils and plant densely with climate ready plants.

Planting trees helps the environment

Thor says planting trees is a great way to help the environment. His favourite tree as a child was a deciduous Chinese Elm, Ulmus parvifolia, in his backyard. Thor says he spent a lot of time climbing that tree and still has a soft spot for the species.

Community involvement

Community involvement is key to the success of the Downer micro-forest. Local residents formed a carer group in 2019 and turning up in droves at working bees to install 1800 climate-ready plants, mulch and make tree guards. Diesendorf’s team nestled the timber bench amongst newly planted She-Oaks.

Now, the Downer Micro-forest is a thriving ecosystem, thanks to sponsor’s like Thor’s Hammer and community input

Recycled timber used in Watson micro-forest

The Climate Factory built a second micro-forest in 2021 inspired by the Downer Project. The Watson site blends micro-forest and pollinator patches with nature play elements, like a boardwalk, shopfront, a dry creek bed and camp fire.

Boardwalk made of recycled Turpentine dontated by Thor’s Hammer.

Once again, Thor supported the project and donated recycled wharf timber (Turpentine) which was used in the boardwalk.