by Lily D’Ambrosio, Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change

Almost 100 years ago, A Plan for General Development set out the first comprehensive vision for Melbourne’s open space network. While the remarkable legacy of this vision lives on, the composition of our community is evolving, our climate is changing, and as we deal with the impacts of COVID-19, equitable access to quality, connected open spaces has never been more important. Responding to these challenges and opportunities as we protect, optimise and grow our city’s blue-green infrastructure will rely on innovation, creativity and meaningful collaboration.

Open space has long been at the heart of Melbourne’s culture and character. Our regional and local parks, gardens, laneways, civic areas, promenades, bays, waterways and trails across 32 local council areas contribute to our city being considered one of the world’s most liveable. Since the beginning of the

Coronavirus pandemic, Melburnians – particularly those in densely populated neighbourhoods – have connected with nature and explored the green and blue infrastructure on their doorsteps like never before.

Protecting, optimising and growing Melbourne’s open space network so it caters to our diverse, burgeoning population addresses current inequalities, and builds our resilience to climate change, is critical to the health and wellbeing of our whole community.

We are building on the legacy we’ve inherited, and partnering with Traditional Owners, local councils and other partners to actively identify and remove barriers to creating accessible open space, through policy-to-practice reform.

This will ensure a broader range of interests, needs, preferences and abilities are included in the planning, management and design of open space.

Sunvale Community Park in Brimbank City Council combines cultural elements with natural features. Photo – Brimbank City Council

A lasting legacy

Released in 1929, A Plan for General Development set out the first comprehensive vision for Melbourne’s open space planning. This bold strategy sought to create and maintain quality open space, which its forward-thinking architects understood to have “a beneficial effect on the health, morals and business efficiency of communities, and consequently on the national life”.

The plan set out the vision for a radial open space network that provided five acres of parks and playgrounds per 1000 people. This included expansive parks along the city’s waterways and a framework to reserve land in peri-urban areas for open space, as people moved to the outer reaches of the metropolis.

Since then, large tracts of open space have been reserved as the “lungs of the city”, a world-class shared path network has been developed, parks have been created in Melbourne’s growth corridors, and we have reimagined our identity as a city by the bay by improving access, facilities and use of the Yarra River and Port Phillip Bay.

Today, Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary contains over 23,700 hectares of open space (nine per cent of the metropolitan area), of which 32 local government authorities manage roughly half.

Planning for the future

Melbourne’s population is forecast to grow to nine million people by 2056, with 70 per cent of the 1.9 million new homes to be built in established areas.

Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 – the overarching vision for Melbourne for the next 30 years – outlines that 20-minute neighbourhoods will be key to maintaining liveability in the face of population growth, higher-density living, health trends and the impacts of climate change.

These 20-minute neighbourhoods will provide people with access to shopping, healthcare, education, employment, public transport and trail connections, diverse housing and parks, reserves and sporting facilities within 20 minutes’ ride, walk or trip on public transport from home.

Melburnians will spend more time in their local council area, with greater connections to their local communities. Quality, well-managed and well-planned open space will be critical to this.

Benefits of open space

Physicians regularly prescribe time in nature to help improve immune function, blood pressure and respiratory health, and reduce the risk of chronic health issues. Mental health practitioners celebrate the effect of nature on depression, anxiety and stress.

And community connections made on common ground can be an elixir for loneliness – an increasingly insidious public health challenge.

Of course, the benefits of open space extend beyond our individual physiology. Green open space – including urban forests, large suburban parks, sports fields and waterways – help preserve the native plants and animals that are essential to a healthy ecosystem and inextricably linked to our own wellbeing.

They support stormwater filtration, facilitate pollination and contribute to carbon sequestration, among many other benefits. Open space is also key to our city’s resilience to climate change.

Anyone who has sheltered under a tree on a hot day understands the value of tree canopy for urban cooling (a single mature tree has the same cooling capability as ten air conditioners running 20 hours per day).

And multipurpose open spaces can reduce the impact of increasingly common flooding and extreme rain events by retaining floodwaters, while protecting urban biodiversity and providing a space for recreation at other times.

Open space provides a range of physical, mental and wellbeing benefits for the whole community. Photo – Michael Rees – Lightfoot/City of Hume.

Open space also drives economic stimulus and job creation in multiple sectors, including tourism and recreation industries, creative arts and events, design, construction and maintenance, and natural resource management.

And parklets and pop-up parks have been vital to sustaining many hospitality industries during lockdowns. You just need to count the number of take-away coffees being enjoyed in suburban parks to understand the benefits of these spaces to surrounding businesses.

It takes a village

In developing a strategy to protect, optimise and grow a shared, connected and immersive open space network under Plan Melbourne, we engaged extensively with local councils, public land managers and other partners to understand the opportunities and challenges they face.

We heard that councils are committed to delivering quality, well-designed and well-managed open spaces for their communities, but these efforts can be hampered by legacy planning, procedural and financial arrangements that may no longer be fit for purpose.

We designed the Open Space for Everyone strategy to achieve a system-wide reform at a metropolitan scale. This will enable us to review and, where necessary, address the structural barriers – such as governance, legislation and financing models – that may be inhibiting efficient and effective planning, financing and delivery of new and improved open spaces.

It also commits to carrying out investment mapping for the next 30 years, to identify opportunities to cater to our growing population. At a micro-scale, the strategy allows for flexibility.

Councils are best placed to interpret individual needs and nuances of their communities, so the strategy was designed to flex and adapt to the unique challenges and opportunities of each local government area.

Central to the strategy is a commitment to work in partnership with Traditional Owners to support their right to self-determination and participation in all aspects of implementing the strategy.

A key to this policy-to-practice reform will be to challenge long-held practices and expectations. Working with land managers across the city, we will interrogate the status of reserved and restricted lands and waters within Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary (which the Victorian Planning Authority puts at more than 9,000 hectares), including cemeteries, schools and public golf courses.

We are also partnering with local councils to deliver projects that directly benefit communities, such as through the $154 million Suburban Parks Program.

This includes $50 million to create 29 pocket parks (up to 2,000 square metres) and 15 purpose-built dog parks, and to provide much-needed upgrades to 41 existing parks. We are also investing $5 million to plant 500,000 trees in the western suburbs.

Specially designed dog parks have been created in communities around Melbourne through a partnership between State and Local Governments. (Photo taken before masks and physical distancing required). Photo – Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Delivering connectedness, for everyone

By applying a city-wide lens to open space planning, we can achieve a more interconnected network. This will help to maximise the time people spend in green space, better facilitate active transport and provide opportunities for increased tree canopy cover and shaded corridors across land management jurisdictions.

We can more effectively address widespread accessibility issues, including cultural and gender safety. The Victorian Government, together with 23 Victorian local government authorities, is partnering with Monash University’s XYX Lab and CrowdSpot on YourGround – a social research project to map the perceived safety of our state’s open spaces.

We will use this data to improve access and inclusivity for women and gender-diverse people, and help drive policy in line with the Gender Equality Act 2020. We can also effectively facilitate self-determination with the city’s Traditional Owners.

This innovative, dynamic and collaborative approach will enable us to achieve the vision that Melbourne is a city in nature with a flourishing and valued network of public open space that is shared and accessible by everyone.

It’s our responsibility to work together to continue building on the legacy we’ve inherited – to create an open space network for all Melburnians to enjoy now, and for the next hundred years.

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