Opinion | The power of streetscape and how to protect it

WORD ON THE STREET: Do not take shortcuts in urban design, the author says.
WORD ON THE STREET: Do not take shortcuts in urban design, the author says.

Newcastle is a city of potential. Awakened from post-industrial stagnation, empowered by an influx of students and young families, and energised by growing community of artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs, the city is a recognised melting pot of fresh, radical, progressive thought and action.

Newcastle’s aspiration to stand among the world’s greatest cities is quite realistic. It has what it takes: the landscape, the history, the culture, the people and the spirit.

However, there is one essential ingredient for making world-class cities. Each of the world’s most admired cities has, time and time again, rejected mediocre pragmatism and instead, taken risks and followed their quest for betterment of the urban condition.

Streetscape plays vital role in realisation of a city’s potential. Good streetscape supports life, life supports thought, thought supports culture and culture supports better streetscape. A successful streetscape depends equally on its man-made and natural components. Unlike man-made structures, trees need decades of consistent care in order to develop into the single most priceless urban asset.

Large trees create desirable places. They filter air, regulate atmospheric humidity, fix soil, support urban wildlife, and, most critically in Australia, provide shade. Every summer, our suburbs grossly overheat. Temperatures in shadeless streets easily exceed those in adjacent, more densely vegetated environments by over 10 degrees.

Any developed society considers protection of old trees paramount. Trees are often listed as cultural heritage items. In Europe, plaques bearing state’s coat of arms claim large trees as indisputable public property. Damage to old trees attracts criminal charges. 

Each time another row of mature trees is cut down, like in Swan Street, Cooks Hill, and Young Street, Carrington, recently, it is not only residents who lose - the entire city does. If the trend of carpet destruction of established urban forest continues unchecked, Newcastle’s only public places habitable in summer will be shopping malls.

So when the council comes to your leafy street, armed with words such as “street upgrade” or “tree remediation”, here is what they need to hear:

  • Assess and report on individual trees, not whole alleys.
  • Do not ask an arborist, whose livelihood depends on tree removal, for opinion on tree health. Ask a botanist.
  • Do not let your liability insurance dictate the city’s streetscape. Insure the trees, not against them.
  • Do not let engineers design your streetscape, engage an architect.
  • Roads impeding tree root development should be narrowed or made one way.
  • Footpaths damaged by roots should be raised on short stilts, with cavity underneath accommodating underground services, as in Marrickville or Balmain.
  • The cost to repair a building damaged by roots will likely be less than its lost market value, should it stand in a treeless street.
  • Suitable warning signs might reinforce common sense in cyclonic weather.
  • If one or two trees become an issue, remove those only and replace them immediately.
  • If a whole alley must be removed, select and protect one or two best specimens. 
  • Total removal of mature tree alleys is entirely unacceptable.

Jiri Lev is a sole practitioner and post-graduate student of architecture at the University of Newcastle