Sydney blue gum tree that inspired writing of The Hollow Tree. Addison Road Community Centre, Marrickville. Photo: Mark Mordue

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By Mark Mordue

Representatives from Macquarie and Sydney universities and the Inner West Council will gather with green practitioners and other key environmental figures in Marrickville on Friday 24 May to discuss creating a greener, better city.

The Rethinking the Urban Forest Conference brings together arborists, urban planners, architects, ecologists, politicians and scientists whose ideas and practices affect everything from the nature and number of trees on our streets to how polluted the air could be in an office where you work.

Colleen Sutherland is one of the main organisers behind the Conference. It is being presented by the Addison Road Community Centre Organisation and held inside its grounds at Gumbramorra Hall.

First cross-disciplinary conference

“As far as we can determine, this will be the first time this type of cross-disciplinary conference has occurred in Australia,” Sutherland says. “It actually surprised me when I realised that interdisciplinary working and planning among these people posed such a challenge and that these people rarely, if ever, had been gathered together as a group in one place to talk about what they do.”

Addison Road Community Centre Organisation has more than 160 trees on its 9-hectare site. Tree maintenance has become a serious part of the infrastructure work there along with the Centre’s social justice, arts and community activities.

“Issues like community well-being and sustainable living that the Centre are already involved in have naturally expanded into the development of the Rethinking the Urban Forest Conference,” Sutherland says.

This variety of activities by the Organisation also reflects “much of what the Conference is trying to achieve too – people working together, outside their silos. It is what has really led to a multi-disciplinary conference like this.”

More than 150 participants from all over the city and country will attend the Rethinking the Urban Forest Conference. Thirty speakers in panels across the day will give presentations. Some of the questions they will try to answer include:

How do we improve tree cover to provide much-needed shade in our hot summers?

What is the relationship between a greener environment and our mental and physical well-being?

As city-life increasingly involves high-density apartment living and large-scale offices, how might we use “green walls” to offset pollutant chemicals that are released from plastics and synthetics?

The idea for the conference grew out of a dying Sydney Blue Gum tree inside the grounds of the Addison Road Community Centre. Rather than cut it down, Addi Road worked with an arborist and Inner West Council to lop off branches that might drop or cause the tree itself to become dangerous and topple over.

Hollows were then cut into the tree along with those that had naturally formed, creating a home for birds, lizards, insects and microbats. The tree is now a showpiece for visiting school children interested in studying habitats that allow living creatures to survive in the city.

The old Sydney Blue Gum and its hollows awakened an even greater awareness of the role of trees in the local area. What is called “the urban forest” does everything from support bird life to absorb pollution and keep us cool in summer, enhancing our health and happiness. The more built up our urban environment becomes, the more critical it is that we increase the numbers of trees and green spaces around us.

The Rethinking the Urban Forest Conference will also host a book launch (open to the public) that features drawings by school children who have observed the birds, lizards and microbats around the old Blue Gum. The book is called The Hollow Tree and will be launched on Friday 24 May at 11am.

Explaining complex laws

During the Conference, Dr Fraser Torpy, Senior Lecturer and Director for the Plants and Environmental Quality Research Group at UTS, will speak about “the capacity of green wall technology and urban greening to mitigate air pollution, both within buildings and through the wider urban environment”. Jemilah Hallinan, an environmental lawyer and Outreach Director with the NSW Environmental Defenders Office, will discuss “the new laws that came into force in 2017 that regulate urban tree clearing on private land”. She promises to “explain these complex laws in plain English”.

Dr Abby Mellick Lopes, a Senior Lecturer in Design and a Researcher at the Institute for Culture and Society (ICS) at Western Sydney University, will discuss “the heat-island affect” and the need for “design practices that are more mindful of the social and environmental impacts of urban heat… [and] the need for cities to support people to move comfortably out and about, to gather and to rest without having to rely on cars or private air conditioning”.

These are just a few of the ideas and speakers on the day. Although the conference is targeted to engaged professionals, it will have a long-term impact on people of the Inner West and many other communities across the country through the ideas and planning models that evolve.