Thursday, January 18, 2018

I'll tell you what works

The byline of this blog says it's a reflection on what works and what doesn't in terms of making public open space usable.

Look at this picture. Who wouldn't want to be in this space? The guy on the right with the dog was just soaking it up. I knew how he felt. I didn't want to leave either.

Now mentally remove the tree. What are you left with? A whole lot of gravel, a large granite outcrop and a few piddly shrubs. No-one would EVER want to linger in that environment, right?


We put far too much emphasis on expensive paving and fixtures and miss what really counts (Elizabeth Quay is a perfect recent example). Look again at the picture: no fancy paving, no expensive fixtures... yet an incredibly peaceful place that makes you want to linger.

It's Central Park in New York BTW. Check out an aerial picture of the park sometime and be staggered at the canopy cover. And this in a cold climate! How much more do WE have to do this!!

But notice something else: the tree is BIG. We have to use more large-growing species if we want to get the same effect. There are far too many small to medium trees being used in Perth because people are anxious about root damage. Two things: (a) "meh" to a bit of root damage - accept it's the price you have to pay to have great POS and (b) the damage is never as bad as you imagine. We can all point to the horror stories but the reality is that they are relatively few and far between. The vast majority of large trees cause few problems. If we constantly design for the worst case scenario we will end up with the worst case: POS that nobody actually uses.

PS…to really get a sense of this space, click on the picture.


  1. Submit an article to eco-business. They are giving great coverage to real topics like the measurable motivations for urban trees!

  2. PS I'm a resident in your neighbouring Nedlands Council and I'm struggling to come to terms with the 2 shrubs-on-sticks that our verge is stuck with. The preferred tree (Pyrus spp. / Ornamental Pear) in my verge is supposed to have a 4 m canopy? And, 8 m apart? It has had 1 m of leafy sticks on a 2 m pole of a trunk for the last 4 years. I've tried deeper watering, adding composting worms and compost to the base of the trees, and occasional seaweed plant food. Did I get the ornamental shrubs instead of trees?

    1. Hi Shauna

      Nice to hear from you!

      No, you didn't get the ornamental shrub instead of the tree. You got a totally inappropriate tree species supplied by a nervous-nellie Parks department, a situation reflective of the general trend towards risk-aversion in a society increasingly concerned with "not losing" than actually winning.

      It's not just Perth either. In my travels I'm seeing the same thing everywhere. I did a post a while ago about my visit to Madrid where all the old trees are large and magnificent yet the new plantings were ridiculous things like Prunus (Ornamental Plum). Pyrus (Ornamental Pear) is in the same basket of deplorables. I wouldn't bother too much with your attempts to improve your trees. You're on a hiding to nothing there.

      What makes this situation even more disturbing is that there aren't even overhead powerlines to worry about. That used to the only reason we planted midgets on verges. Now it's de rigueur.

      Solution? I don't know. Perhaps come and sing in my "blues" band. It won't change anything but it will probably make you feel better ;)