The natural secrets of urban well being

Butterfly street art

But I don’t feel afraid. As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in Paradise.

Exactly 30 years ago, in April 1984, the journal Science published a seminal paper in environmental psychology. The study compared the recovery of patients in two sets of hospital rooms, identical in every respect except one. Patients in half of the rooms looked through a window to trees in a park. Patients in the other rooms faced a brick wall. The author, Roger Ulrich, wondered whether exposure to nature improves human well-being, and his experiment tested whether the patients who viewed the park recovered more quickly after surgery. Continue reading

Why do we plant and remove urban trees?

Garden magazines 2What does the future hold for the urban forest? What is the urban forest? The term – like green infrastructure – suggests an integrated entity, perhaps collectively planned and managed. But most urban trees are in private gardens, not public spaces, and gardening is a personal, individualistic pastime, not a collective enterprise.

If the seeds of the urban forest are sown in a million home gardens, then we need to know how residents relate to garden trees. Let’s take a peek into the frontal lobes and back yards of our neighbours, and ask: why do we plant and remove urban trees? Continue reading

Won’t the real Shady City please stand up?

brisbane_cardTourism brochures would have us believe that almost every Australian city is a ‘city of gardens’. Since tourism marketeers are just real estate agents on uppers, it’s reasonable to ask sceptically, ‘which cities do have the most green space?’ or more simply, ‘which cities have the most trees?’ Continue reading

50 shades of green: cooling the suburbs

Bendigo StreetscapeHow many trees are in your suburb: lots, a few, not enough? What about that suburb over the river, are there more trees there? As summer heatwaves hit, the benefits from shady urban trees grow more and more obvious. But why do some suburbs have more trees and shade than others? Is it a matter of ecology, history, policy, or the people who live there? Do the folks down the road just hate trees too much? Continue reading

Snapshots of change: repeat photography competition

Tree dieback Mt Pilot

I know what you didn’t do last summer. You forgot to take a photo.

Remember how dry it was last summer? Drought-stressed trees shed their leaves on dry hill slopes across central Victoria. Many readers submitted their observations of dieback to an earlier blog post.

What happened to those trees? Did they re-grow their canopy during the year, coppice and re-sprout, or did they die, leaving gaps for other plants of the same or different species. More importantly, in years to come, how will we know how each patch changed? Continue reading

Framing the plains and packaging remnants

von Guerard Bushy Park

A friend once asked, ‘why do botanists have such terrible gardens?’

The question might have triggered a long discussion, had we not just left my house. I changed the subject instead. Years later, I think I’ve worked out a credible response. It’s partly about scale. The scales at which people see gardens and ecosystems.

Take grasslands for example. Continue reading

Field guide to the future


My first field guide. A 35 cent bargain.

I could ask ‘what was your first field guide?’ but my first field guides belonged to my parents, not me. So instead I’ll ask, ‘what was the first field guide you remember using?’

I remember two: Trees of Victoria by Leon Costermans – a permanent resident of the car glove box – and Birds of the Ranges by the Gould League. I am indebted to the authors and illustrators of both. Without them, I may have led a different life.

Our Costermans bore the hallmark of a truly great field guide; after years of abuse, we stripped it of every skerrick of re-sale value. One summer, someone put a block of copha in the car glove box to protect it from the sun. When discovered weeks later, everything floated in a pool of coconut fat. It was awesome. Costermans was indestructible. Like the trees inside it, we created the world’s first rip-proof, water-proof, scented, and highly combustible, field guide to eucalypts.

What makes a field guide truly great? Continue reading