Paul Hameister OAM – Opinion Article

The majority of humanity now lives in cities and this trend is expected to accelerate in the future. The property development community has a responsibility to future generations of city dwellers to create an urban fabric that considers more than just optimal financial outcomes.

Trees and green space in cities around the world are continually being lost to large scale development. In inner Melbourne alone, over 2,000 hectares of tree canopy cover has disappeared in the past decade.

Many in my industry share my passion for nature based cities, but they lack the incentive via environmentally sustainable design (ESD) rating tools and the justification via third party property industry expert evidence, to make a commercial decision to incorporate more nature in projects.

Nature Based Cities is seeking to address both these roadblocks.

Firstly, we need to fix the property industry’s ESD rating tools to encourage and reward the creation of new green spaces, tree retention and new tree planting.

Of the handful of nationally recognised environmental assessment tools available to the property industry in Australia to rate how sustainable our built environments are, distressingly, not one includes the mandatory retention or planting of trees or the provision of green open space in its criteria.

A 6-star Green Star rated building, the highest level of ESD recognition possible, can be developed with not a single tree or blade of grass – how can this be considered “green”? For property developers and large institutional property owners who shape our urban environments, we are broadly led by government policy and standards when it comes to the definition of “environmental excellence”.

While current metrics all set admirable targets towards a more sustainable future, they do little to encourage green open space, tree retention and new tree planting. This is unacceptable and must be addressed.

Secondly, it’s time to mobilise developers and planners with one comprehensive set of expert evidence that greening our cities pays dividends – not just to the planet and its inhabitants, but also to the bottom line of developers and property investors.

As part of our Moonee Valley Park project, we commissioned a research report by the University of Melbourne to try and bring together all of the benefits that flow from incorporating more nature into urban environments based on the last 20 years of academic studies.

This report, Nature Based Cities: Greening for Sustainability and Liveability, was so impactful that we decided to share it with our industry, and anyone else who might be interested, and establish the Nature Based Cities movement, offering a much-needed foundational plank for planners, designers, and developers to support the delivery of more green space.

What the University researchers found is that the benefits of green open space and trees go well beyond contributing to sustainability objectives. They offer substantial societal, cultural, and economic benefits. Access to green open space encourages physical activity, social interaction and community cohesion; it alleviates mental health challenges and discourages anti-social behaviours, drug use and organised crime. Greenspace is vital for childhood development, adult connection and active recreation and exercise. The extensive list of benefits identified is overwhelming.

But that still didn’t feel like it was enough to shift the dial in a meaningful way in an industry driven by profitability.

So we asked leading property research firm, Urbis to identify what the value premium is for real estate co-located with green space.

Urbis in its report, The Growing Value of Green Space, found that park front houses and apartments have enjoyed a 34% and 17% respectively average price premium over the last 10 years. This applies to new master-planned developments too, with up to 28% price premiums and 49% rental premiums for park fronting properties in these projects. Urbis also found that the value placed on proximity to greenspace is growing over time – capital growth for park front property is almost twice that for the market average.

Likewise, we are making this ground-breaking research publicly available.

However, even once armed with the research and with the ESD rating tools hopefully fixed soon, will it be enough?

Consumers are savvier than ever before on issues of sustainability and the environment – they are asking the big questions of companies they buy from and demanding that products are ethically sourced and manufactured, sustainable and contributing to a healthier planet. This global shift in values applies equally to the construction and development industry.

I believe that only those developers who prioritise urban greening in their projects will have any currency with the property purchasers of tomorrow.

At Moonee Valley Park, for example, in partnership with Hostplus and the Moonee Valley Racing Club, we are dedicating half of the site, or 20 hectares in total, to new botanical parklands including new vegetation, walking and bicycle tracks, and green open spaces for adventure and recreation. The project’s sales success to date validates the growing value placed by buyers on living in an inner urban locale that is surrounded by expansive green space.

With the work we are doing through the Nature Based Cities initiative, we are seeking to arm property-based organisations with the tools to demonstrate real leadership and innovation on urban greening. We will also be seeking to work with government to fix the industry’s ESD rating tools to incentivise urban greening.

Collectively as an industry, we have the privilege and responsibility of influencing the shape of cities in the future. We need to make a conscious decision as to which future we are choosing.

We will be working hard to ensure a future where our cities are defined by green open spaces and trees.

To access the full Nature Based Cities research reports, visit www.naturebasedcities.com.au

We’d love to hear from you if you have any suggestions, ideas or feedback.

Please get in touch with us via email contact@naturebasedcities.com.au