NATURE IN OUR CITY

Comments to the STANDING COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND TRANSPORT AND CITY SERVICES

The importance of the natural environment to Canberra.

The planned development of Canberra into Natural Temperate Grasslands, Woody Grasslands and native forest habitats ensured the city’s internationally-acclaimed uniqueness as Australia’s capital city; the bush capital. Residents and visitors celebrate Canberra’s naturalness, its diverse habitats, its accessible wildlife experiences, spaciousness and fresh air.

Since most Canberra residents never go to Namadgi or other regional national parks, it is important that they should be able to experience nature close to their own homes in Canberra, i.e. in the nature parks and other reserves close to Canberra. This applies to visitors as well, who are usually very interested in Australian wildlife.

Although most suburbs are close to a nature park reserve or other open space, the quality of natural experience varies widely between them. Some, such as Aranda Bushland, are being transformed through repeated fire management, into weedy, grassy woodland and gradually losing their mature trees. Vehicle tracks made during control burns become an erosion hazard and detract from the wild character of reserves. Other areas, such as lands bought for development by the ACT government (e.g. between Parkes Way, Bindubi Street and the Aranda Snow gums), are becoming weed-infested through neglect, compromising the efforts of park-care volunteers in the adjoining nature parks. At the same time, adjoining roads are becoming busier and noisier, reducing the amenity of bushland reserves.

Older suburbs have mature trees, many of them native eucalypts, relatively small houses on large blocks and enough vegetation to attract local wildlife into the suburbs. New suburbs, on the other hand, have large houses on small blocks, fewer, smaller trees, usually not native, less open space and, as a result, wildlife is less likely to be seen by local residents. Roads are taking up more of our urban space, increasing run-off and making migration between nature parks more difficult for wildlife.

In short, if Canberra was a Bush Capital, it is becoming less so every day.

1. The level of public support for and satisfaction with [the] amount and quality [of] nature and natural environment areas in Canberra, particularly in urban areas.

The ”silent majority” of Canberrans value the ACT’s open spaces, views to the ranges, fresh air and proximity to rivers, creeks, wetlands, woodlands, forests and the high country. This appreciation may be subconscious but many also say, unsolicited, “We’re so lucky to have this”.

The thousands of people who utilise reserves, Urban Open Space (UOS), creek and river Corridors and the components of Canberra Nature Park (CNP) in the course of each week show that there is very high support for these places and the experiences of immersion in nature that they offer. These places are under threat from insufficient management funding, the encroachment of development and inappropriate use.

2. The types of nature and natural environments within Canberra

Although mountain and alpine ecosystems are well-preserved in the ACT, Canberra’s growth is spilling northwards and beyond the border onto woodland and grassland which is not well-protected in reserves. These are the habitats of vulnerable species such as Little Eagle, Scarlet Robin and Superb Parrot. New urban developments near nature reserves, such as Mulligan’s Flat and the proposed conservation zone around Ginninderry, make them less suitable for these species. This is because the new suburbs are replacing foraging areas of the eagles and fostering the proliferation of despotic birds such as noisy miners, red wattlebirds and currawongs.

Also, as Canberra spreads north and satellite towns such as Murrumbateman and Yass become effective suburbs of the capital, there will be very little public open space for these increasing populations.

What to Do?

Increasing housing density should occur without decreasing the amount of space for vegetation, both ornamental and vegetable gardens, and large trees. Trees should be native where possible, allowed to grow to maturity, with drought-resistant, deciduous shade trees where needed to protect buildings and recreation areas from summer heat. Mature eucalypts should be retained as far as possible, in existing areas and new developments, since these contain, or potentially contain, nesting hollows which are critical to the survival of many native species. If lost, these take centuries to be replaced.

Corridors connecting nature reserves should be maintained, overcoming, if possible, the isolation caused by roads, e.g. by covering them. They should have similar vegetation to the reserves they connect, including shrubs and groundcover plants. These facilitate climate adaptation, as well as wildlife migration.

Cats are a serious threat to native wildlife: they should be licenced, microchipped and confined to their owner’s residence. Likewise, dogs should be kept out of nature reserves, where appropriate.

Asset protection zones should be outside nature reserves, so that their biodiversity is not compromised by repeated burning.

Control of weeds and nature park maintenance should be adequately funded. African Lovegrass might have been controlled before it became established. Now, it will be difficult to stop it from invading the nature parks.

Residents should be discouraged from growing plants which are a known weed problem, and encouraged to remove them.

New ways to educate residents and visitors about Canberra’s nature reserves are needed. More visitor interpretation facilities would help but a Nature Park App might appeal more to the younger generation.

Continuing research on ecology of local wildlife, especially endangered and vulnerable species needs to be funded. This is needed to ensure that developments can be planned to minimize impacts on these species. Current developments may adversely affect the Little Eagle, Scarlet Robin, and Rosenberg’s Monitor, for example, but not enough is known of their ecology to ensure their survival.

3. Opportunities for Blue (water) and/or Green (natural) infrastructure in Canberra

Since Canberra is an inland city, in the Murray-Darling Basin, and subject to droughts of up to 15 years duration and a drying climate, efficient use of water and effective treatment of wastewater is extremely important. The Green-Blue idea combines this with recreational and biodiversity benefits. Canberra already has good examples of Green-Blue design, such as the Sullivan’s Creek wetlands and the lakes into which each of Canberra’s towns drains, enabling water to be purified before it reaches the Murrumbidgee.

Large buildings should have roof-top gardens, both to provide wildlife habitat and recreational areas, and to reduce the run-off rate during rain. Effective water-proofing of roofs must be employed and continuously monitored.

New suburbs should provide the opportunity for larger more effective wetlands to be incorporated from the start. However, new developments close to the banks of the Murrumbidgee or Molonglo, such as Ginninderry, do not drain into a central basin, so it is much more difficult to ensure that wastewater is treated effectively and remains so in the future, because a large number of small ponds must be maintained. Urban developments should be kept away from major rivers which serve other communities downstream.

4. Managing the interface between the natural environment and urban areas particularly with regard to conserved environmental areas.

There is a pressing need for the ACT to acknowledge that all “environmental areas”, intra and inter-suburban spaces have value for people’s health, wellbeing and nature regardless of their location, management agencies and legal status.

There is a pressing need for improved, long-term appropriate procedures and funding commitments for land management in the Canberra region. This is particularly true of Ginninderra Creek in spite of decades of dedicated, expert work by professional land managers and volunteer land carers.

The development of West Macgregor showed that development was permitted far too close to the Creek. The building phase ensured that Hooded Robins and Diamond Firetails became extinct on this section of the Creek after 2010. It is now rare to see other migratory bird species utilising or following the creek-line as they have done for millennia. The suburb’s house presence, domestic animals, extra light and noise all impact on wildlife. This should serve as a warning about suburbs’ planned proximity to Ginninderra Creek in NSW and to Ginninderra Falls. Adequate buffer zones need to be retained around the border of urban areas to protect all wildlife species in the reserve.

Planning to build suburbs into land to the west of the ACT is unconscionable from the perspective of fire risk. Suburbs to the west of Belconnen were among those threatened by the 2003 Canberra bushfires because of their location near steep slopes and exposure to prevailing north-westerly winds. Wildlife and plant species were severely affected. There will be an increase in bushfire events as global warming continues to create climate variability and change. Prof. Jason Sharples’ report, commissioned by the GFA, documents the wildfire behaviour that can be expected in the Ginninderra Falls area each fire season.[1]

There are quotes from the Strategic Bushfire Management Plans of 2009 and 2014 and responses to the proposal for a second Electrical Sub Station (DA 201732500) showing that lands to the west of the ACT and west Belconnen are in fire risk zones. The vegetation is flammable, prevailing winds bring fire and embers from the west and the frequently-visited nature reserve around Shepherds Lookout was severely burnt in 2003.

With houses close to the Falls needing protection, new residents will clamour for prescribed burns to reduce fuel load in the Falls area. Some of the vegetation species around the Falls do not recover from fire-changed regimes.

5. Current policy or regulatory settings that impede the integration of the natural world with optimal urban development and design.

The GFA has no confidence in the ACT Government’s intentions to:

  • Comply with its own rules and regulations
  • Adhere to Action Plans for threatened species or ecosystems
  • Respond to Reviews
  • Acknowledge the latest science
  • Support its own requirements for Environmental Impact Statements in critical environments. Environmental laws passed to protect nature must not be waived or watered-down for political or developer expediencies

Summary

  1. Canberra residents should be able to experience nature close to their own homes in Canberra.
  2. Older suburbs have mature trees, many of them native eucalypts, relatively small houses on large blocks, and enough vegetation to attract local wildlife into the suburbs in contrast to newer suburbs.
  3. New suburbs are replacing foraging areas of native birds and fostering the proliferation of despotic birds such as noisy miners, red wattlebirds and currawongs.
  4. Increasing housing density should occur without decreasing the amount of space for vegetation, both ornamental and vegetable gardens, and large trees.
  5. Cats are a serious threat to native wildlife: they should be licenced, microchipped and confined to their owner’s residence.
  6. Repeated fire management of some reserves is turning them into weedy, grassy woodland, and they are gradually losing their mature trees.
  7. Asset protection zones should be outside nature reserves, so that their biodiversity is not compromised by repeated burning.
  8. Control of weeds and nature park maintenance should be adequately funded.
  9. Residents should be discouraged from growing plants which are a known weed problem, and encouraged to remove them.
  10. New ways to educate residents and visitors about Canberra’s nature reserves are needed.
  11. Continuing research on ecology of local wildlife, especially endangered and vulnerable species needs to be funded to ensure that developments can be planned to minimize impacts on these species.
  12. Urban developments should be kept away from major rivers to protect water quality.
  13. Adequate buffer zones need to be retained around the border of urban areas to protect all wildlife species in the reserve.
  14. Exposure to extreme fire hazard should be treated with the same respect as the 100-year flood in planning residential areas.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.

David Kelly,
Vice President,
Ginnindera Falls Association Inc.

27 June 2018

References:

“Planning a Green-Blue City”, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Victoria, February 2017

“Concrete jungle? We’ll have to do more than plant trees to bring wildlife back to our cities”, Peter Fisher, The Conversation, Jan 2016.


[1] Melanie E. Roberts, Jason J. Sharples, Andrew A. Rawlinson, Incorporating ember attack in bushfire risk assessment: a case study of the Ginninderry region https://www.mssanz.org.au/modsim2017/H10/roberts.pdf

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