How do we turn a drain into valued green space? First, ask the residents


Leila Mahmoudi Farahani, RMIT University and Cecily Maller, RMIT University

This article is based on a paper being presented at the State of Australian Cities Conference in Adelaide, November 28-30.


The green infrastructure of our cities includes both publicly owned, designed and delineated areas and less formal, unplanned areas of vegetation — informal green spaces. These spaces account for a large proportion of urban green areas. However, they are often among the most overlooked and neglected urban spaces, which contributes to negative perceptions, a recent study has found.

Yet informal green spaces represent a largely untapped opportunity to improve liveability and residents’ health and social well-being. Especially in lower socioeconomic areas that lack formal green spaces, improving the condition of informal green spaces can promote their use and enhance neighbourhood liveability.


Further reading: Our cities need more green spaces for rest and play — here’s how


We can’t afford to waste green space

Green spaces are important indicators of quality of life in cities and suburbs. They are shown to have a wide range of positive impacts.

For residents, the benefits include physical, mental and social health and wellbeing. The multiple environmental benefits include ecosystem services, improving microclimate and reducing air pollution, alongside biodiversity conservation.

Owing to such benefits, governments invest a lot in greening projects or improving green spaces. Sometimes these interventions include informal green spaces to increase their accessibility, use and potential benefits to residents.

The researchers surveyed residents about the Upper Stony Creek channel area.
Author provided

Upper Stony Creek, an urban waterway restoration in Melbourne’s west, is a good example. Work will soon transform the concrete drainage channel, now separated from the residential area, into an accessible urban wetland and park.


Further reading: How Melbourne’s west was greened


Residents’ perceptions and uses

Clean Air and Urban Landscapes (CAUL) Hub researchers from RMIT University investigated residents’ perceptions and uses of Upper Stony Creek and the adjacent informal green space before the start of the intervention.

Interviews with residents showed overall impressions of the site were negative. An overwhelming majority of them commented on the site’s undesirable features.

Lack of regular maintenance, lack of access, feeling unsafe and litter were among their main concerns. Safety concerns included natural hazards, such as the presence of snakes (encouraged by a lack of regular maintenance), crime and local drug trade. These concerns affected when and how often residents used the site.

The negative perceptions suggested residents were looking forward to the intervention. They believed it would improve the informal green space and their neighbourhood.

Residents do use the informal green space alongside the concrete channel.

In spite of their misgivings, residents found value in using the area for practices typically found in formal green spaces such as dog-walking. They also used it for less typical practices such as motorbike riding. The lack of restrictions in these spaces allows for uses that might not be acceptable in more formalised urban spaces.

In fact, residents appreciated the sense of exploration, informality and feelings of being away from urbanisation that the site provided.

Informal green spaces are filling a niche not met by more formal green spaces. This means interventions to transform informal green spaces should, where possible, take into account residents’ current uses of these areas.


Further reading: More than just drains: recreating living streams through the suburbs


Ensuring work improves these spaces

Our findings highlight the importance of considering and understanding residents’ perceptions and concerns about informal green spaces for informing work on these spaces.

Our case study suggests small interventions, which aim to resolve the main concerns such as lack of maintenance and safe access, can increase the use of informal green spaces without resorting to entirely formalising the space. In fact, understanding residents’ needs and expectations could result in more cost-effective interventions that won’t jeopardise the informal character of such areas.

Each informal green space will be unique in its features and characteristics, as will residents’ perceptions of it. Therefore, understanding these sites and residents’ lived experiences and concerns more completely through in-depth consultation will be important to ensure interventions meet community needs and expectations.

A sound knowledge of how informal green spaces are used, or of why they are not being used, can inform planners and decision-makers when intervening in such spaces to increase the liveability of urban neighbourhoods.


The ConversationThe authors welcome collaboration with local councils and other organisations to help understand residents’ uses and perceptions of informal green spaces when undertaking improvements or waterway restorations.

Leila Mahmoudi Farahani, Research Officer in Urban Studies, RMIT University and Cecily Maller, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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More than just drains: recreating living streams through the suburbs



File 20170912 1368 1qg03ny
A drain carries water but does little else, but imagine how different the neighbourhood would be if the drain could be transformed into a living stream.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

Zoe Myers, University of Western Australia

Lot sizes and backyards are shrinking in Australia at the same time as building density is increasing. So we cannot afford to overlook the potential of existing – but neglected – spaces in our suburbs, like drains.

In denser living environments, we will need new types of green and open space to meet the needs of residents.

One such overlooked space is the urban water drainage system. As part of my research I’m examining the potential of a co-ordinated and integrated network of suburban streams.


Further reading: If planners understand it’s cool to green cities, what’s stopping them?


The largest water catchment in the Perth metropolitan area is Bayswater Brook (previously called the Bayswater Main Drain). Largely for the purpose of improving water quality, in recent years work has begun to remake drains running through the suburbs into “living streams”.

Aside from the obvious benefits of water purification and stormwater management, these networks of suburban streams can be re-imagined as preferred paths through the neighbourhood.

Using established drainage routes capitalises on their existing connections through a suburb. This network could amplify the connections between parks and other green areas, providing a rich soundscape of birds, frogs and insects, and a diversity of sedges, rushes, melaleucas and other vegetation along the banks.

Look at the big picture

While the conversion of old infrastructure into living streams is not new, it has as-yet-unrealised potential to rehabilitate the large sections of open drainage that run in visible, connected ways through our suburbs. This elevates the idea of a living stream to a multi-layered ecosystem, one that includes multiple drains across the suburb.

The Bayswater Brook permanent drainage system runs through the northeastern suburbs of Perth. These drains can be dangerous and public entry to these areas is prohibited out of necessity.

Access barriers are unsightly but necessary because the existing drains can be dangerous.
Author’s own

The drains run along the rear of mostly low-density housing, hidden from streets.

An aerial view of houses backing onto a 90-metre long open drain in Perth.
Google Earth

Their condition is typically marked by weeds, minimal vegetation and stagnant water.

Fenced-off areas offer no public benefits to the neighbourhood other than drainage.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

The sheer number of these open drains across the metropolitan area offers a compelling opportunity to reconceptualise the system as a holistic and integrated network of ecologically restored streams. This requires co-operation between multiple levels of government.

A project by WaterCorp in Western Australia (which manages drainage infrastructure) has begun inviting local governments to submit proposals for use of the green space around drains. These are currently for small portions of the larger network, such as a pop-up park planned for a basin in Morley.

The benefit of doing this in a co-ordinated way – rather than single stream restoration – lies in the possibilities of making these spaces a genuine alternative to the street.

What are the benefits?

Typical drains (above and below) add very little to neighbourhood amenity.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

Zoe Myers, Author provided

By activating unused, off-limits areas at the back of houses, we can turn public space “inside out”. Providing a sequence of accessible paths creates a new option for pedestrians away from roads and cars, but still with an established, clear route through the suburb. We can have a space that is buffered from traffic noise without the isolation of an empty park segregated from main thoroughfares.

Many studies have convincingly found connections between the sounds of waterscapes and restorative emotional states and views. Having multiple entry and exit points as the streams thread through the suburbs would heighten the spaces’ usefulness as everyday pathways. Children could walk along the streams to school, or adults could take a short cut to catch the bus to work, maximising this kind of beneficial interaction with water.

Recreating natural habitats would also increase biodiversity and create a multi-sensory environment, as well as a cooler micro-climate. That would make it an even more attractive place to be in hot months. Encouraging a more natural flow of water through the streams would also reduce biting midges and mosquitoes, which thrive in stagnant water.


Further reading: Green for wellbeing – science tells us how to design urban spaces that heal us


Potentially the most convincing reason for local governments to rehabilitate drains is that living streams increase neighbourhood property values. Research has shown the effect is significant. In the Perth suburb of Lynwood, for example, median home values within 200 metres of a wetland
restoration site increased by A$17,000 to A$26,000 above
the trend increase for the area.

This in turn can support increased density. High quality nature spaces potentially offset the sacrifice of the usual backyard area, by increasing the number of people with direct access to these spaces.

Turning an urban drain into a living stream opens up a world of possibilities.
Author’s original render

The ConversationThere is a growing imperative to remove the false choice between designing for people or for nature. Remaking our old infrastructure for many new uses offers multiple benefits to our ecology and well-being. When a drain becomes a living stream it doesn’t just provide a new kind of open space but adds a new dimension to enjoying, and moving through, your suburb.

Zoe Myers, Research Associate, Australian Urban Design Research Centre, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.