Jul 11, 2021, 14:00 PM
IT'S ONE of the toughest balances to strike in the world of urban infrastructure: how many trees and which species should we plant in our residential streets? Everyone knows how critical tree canopy is for providing shade and cooling, and mitigating against the effects of a warming climate. But anyone who’s lived in a city also knows that trees drop leaves in our drains, stain car roofs, crack footpaths, and push their roots deep into our sewage and water pipes.
The City of Knox, like a growing number of Melbourne councils, has been looking at different ways of giving residents a say in the selection of trees for their suburban streets.
For several years, Knox Council has operated a simple online forum through which it informs residents which trees are going to be replaced in their street, and then gives them a vote on potential species to replace them. The process not only helps ensure that new plantings please the locals, but that they suit the location and soil conditions, support the local ecosystem and wildlife – and don’t wreck the footpaths.
“Trees are such an emotive issue that you really need a system that gives everyone a voice,” says Trent McGowan, who has led Citywide’s work with Knox Council since the company secured its first contract in 2015.
“More and more Melbourne councils are realising this these days, and Knox was one of the early adopters of an online system that provides a fair and democratic basis for selecting our trees. You’re never going to make everyone happy – but this is about the closest you will get!”
Citywide has been the principal contractor on Knox’s tree-planting program since 2016, and has just secured a six-year renewal of their contract which will take them through to 2027.
It’s a particular source of pride to Trent, who has built up such a trusting relationship with Knox, that the local capital projects officer Ryan Ferguson often engages him in helping to select the best seed stocks and saplings, as well as resolving some of the conflicts that residents have with local trees.
Trust between teams
McGowan has been at Citywide for eight years, and has led the trees team servicing Knox for the past four. Like many in the trees business, he’s come to develop a deep level of trust for his four-member team, so if ever there’s ever an emergency – a tree down, a time-pressing planting schedule – he knows he can leave the day-to-day work to them.
With a tight planting schedule between May and August, and an almost continuous program of tree assessment and replacement informed by everything from local infrastructure plans to the latest climate science, there’s never a quiet day for the Citywide crew.
Every year, over 2,500 new trees are planted across Knox, each of which has to be watered, mulched, measured and monitored every month for the first two years of its life – after which its care is handed over to the council.
Outside planting season, the Citywide team has to do regular pruning and ‘reactive works’ on trees that may pose a danger to people or property, as well as attending to trees that have been pulled up or damaged by vandals.
“It’s non-stop work, basically,” says Trent. “But having a really dedicated and knowledgeable team and a great bunch of colleagues at Knox who are really approachable and easy to work with, makes it so much easier.”
The shift to natives
In keeping with the growing preference for native species on our sidewalks, Knox Council mostly recommends indigenous flowering trees to residents, such as sugar gums and other Eucalypts, Banksias, Lophostemons and Angophoras.
“The shift to natives is mainly because of climate change and the need to select suitable trees for the future,” explains Trent. “These past few years we’ve really seen this trend accelerating. Knox are very strong on this, and we really value their support for this movement.”
So has Trent noticed any changes in the local environment himself?
“I’ve noticed that certain species like maples are becoming harder to establish, and are struggling more in the Australian climate,” he says.
“The clay soils in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs can be really challenging, and tough for establishing new trees. There are places where it’s difficult to gauge the moisture content and how much watering will be required. In some places it can be too wet even in the summer – and you start losing your trees to rot.”
But Trent says his team’s close relationship with their council counterparts makes challenges like this much easier to face.
“We always discuss the nature of the soil in each site, the drainage and likely moisture retention, when we’re looking at trees that will suit a particular location. Plus, the amount of pruning that will be needed, weed management, mulching – we talk about a lot of stuff!”
Partnerships may not always make things perfect, but they certainly increase the likelihood of a productive outcome.