Green spaces: not just nice to have, essential for Sydney's future

Penny Sharpe is a Labor Member of the NSW Legislative Council and the Shadow Minister for Environment, Heritage, Trade, Tourism & Major Events

So much of the post colonisation history of Sydney can be told through the battle between development and population growth versus preservation of our environment and heritage.

As Labor seeks to return to Government in 2019, an incoming Labor Government will face the latest and most difficult development challenges Sydney has faced in its short history. Population growth means the number of people living in Sydney willgrow from 5 – 6.7 million people in the next 20 years. This unprecedented growth brings with it pressure for land for 725,000 new homes and 817,000 additional jobs (Greater Sydney Commission, 2016).

The growth Sydney is experiencing is putting pressure on hard infrastructure, transport, housing and jobs but one of the greatest pressures that barely rates a mention is the pressure on our environment. Our urban green spaces are under threat, we are losing our tree canopy, we have critical biodiversity loss, our peri urban food bowl is disappearing and our waterways need investment and restoration.

In this current development spiral, failure to take account of and plan for our natural assets could leave our city barren, hot, ugly and unhealthy. 

Beyond biodiversity and habitat our urban environmental assets stack up economically and socially.

The health of our natural assets brings economic, social and environmental benefits that are well known.

The 202020 Vision collaboration of over 200 organisations has developed a plan to create 20% more green space in our urban areas by 2020. 202020 put the value of green space this way (Miller and Peacock 2016):

“Simply put, green space is good for business, good for people and good for the environment.”

Professor Roger Jones from the Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies makes this point:

“Investing in green infrastructure and green spaces, carefully done, does not create future debt. It grows the monetary economy through the commercial activity it attracts and increases property values. It grows the welfare economy through increased benefits to people and it grows the environmental economy because of the habitat it creates. This is real economics and real economic growth." (Miller and Peacock 2016).

Our parks are more than just nice places to visit; a recent US study put the health savings derived from parks in 85 of the largest US cities as equivalent to $3.08 billionper year. The study also found the environmental savings from parks with trees and vegetation offering lower cost solutions for managing storm water run-off and air pollution (Healthy Parks Healthy People, 2017).

Closer to home, Beyond Blue’s literature review of the health benefits for people in contact with parks found that:

“Growing evidence shows that access to the natural environment improves health and well being, as well as preventing disease and helping people recover from illness. Experiencing nature in an outdoor environment can help tackle mental health problems, obesity and coronary heart disease.” (Townsend and Weerasuriya, 2010).

As the impact of climate change becomes clearer, even those most sceptical of climate change cannot ignore the climbing summer temperature as we have successive hotter days more often. 

This is becoming a life and death matter. The National Health and Medical research Council has estimated that Australian deaths attributed to heat could reach 2500 per year by 2020 (Brown et al., 2013). That is twice the road toll. 

Individuals and governments cannot air condition our way out of this problem but we can protect the tree canopy that cools our houses and streets and we can plant more trees as a cheap and easy way to help communities mitigate the impact of higher temperatures in our cities.

Recent research into the urban heat island effect highlighted by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects shows that trees can cool cities by between 2c and 8c. Trees, when planted near buildings can cut air conditioning use by 30% (Brownet al., 2013).

The evidence is clear, our trees, wetlands, waterways, parks, urban bushland, beaches and oceans are not just nice to have, they are fundamental to our city’s economic and environmental sustainability as well as community wellbeing. What is lacking is a commitment from state government.

Labor Governments have always had to find the answers and in 2019 Laborwill have to find them again.

Labor Governments have always understood and taken into account the importance of the urban environment of Sydney. In 1951 the McGirr Labor Government adopted the Cumberland Plan – a plan that integrated land use planning with a commitment to a green belt throughout our city. 

Arising out of the green bans of the 1960’s and 1970’s it was the Wran Government who adopted world leading heritage protections through the NSW Heritage Act and then in 1979 crafted the Environmental and Planning Assessment and established the Land and Environment Court to give voice to heritage and the environment in the development decisions being taken in NSW.

It was the Carr Government that led the world on laws that took serious action on climate change. It was Carr and the previous Labor Government that added 3mil ha to the National Parks Estate and delivered large parcels of open green space to people living in western Sydney through Sydney Olympic Park and Western Sydney Parklands.

In 2019, what can Labor do?

In 2019, Labor’s agenda must provide leadership, policies and legislation, ongoing investment, a vigorous defence of the public interest and explicit accounting and promotion of the economic, social and environmental benefits of our urban environmental assets.

Labor cannot argue a just say no approach to development, nor can our plans fail to address the need for increased housing, jobs and other hard infrastructure such as public transport. We have to make the case that only Labor can protect the green spaces and urban amenity that our communities value and rely on.

Here are five ideas for Labor to take to the people and into government.

1. Leadership: an environmental vision for Sydney

The Greater Sydney Commission was a Labor idea. A centralised planning body brings with it the opportunity to ensure the environmental assets of our city are given the protection and expansion that our city needs as it grows.

Labor should show leadership by committing to the Greater Sydney Commission’s Independent Environmental Panel’s environmental vision for Sydney (Independent Environmental Panel, 2016).

Drawn from eighteen environmental, scientific and business organisations, the Environmental Panel has set out a road map for ensuring that the environment is embedded in planning of Sydney into the future. Their vision sets out the principles that Government should commit to for Sydney. It states that Sydney will be:

  • A city that values its unique environmental landscape and biodiversity; and which all citizens can enjoy and protect 
  • A healthy city with clean air and water and sufficient green open space and tree cover providing widespread opportunities for relaxation and exercise 
  • A resource efficient city where the environmental impacts of water and energy supply and disposal of solid, liquid and gaseous waste are minimised 
  • A resilient city, able to cope with extreme events 
  • A city that knows and values its history.
2. A publicly available inventory to define and guide the long term protection and enhancement of Sydney’s Green Grid and open spaces

Labor should support explicit accounting of our environmental assets including an inventory of open space as defined by bushland, parks, golf courses, street trees, streetscapes, walking and cycling transport corridors, urban agriculture, green roofs and green walls. The result of this inventory would form the basis of what defines the green grid of Sydney. 

The green grid (Schaffer, 2013) is a concept that is currently being floated through the work of the Greater Sydney Commission, but what is far less certain is how it will be delivered into action that will protect and enhance our green spaces.

Labor can give certainty to this protection by making the inventory available as publicly accessible data and maps and then formally linking the inventory to land use planning. The inventory must to be considered in all planning instruments and decision making at state and local government level.

3. Strong long term protections of our environmental assets

As the pendulum has shifted towards development at all costs, current policies and legislation cannot keep up with the need to protect what is left of our green spaces.

Labor must give proper protection to the green grid by reviewing and refining policies and legislation to ensure that the elements that make up the green grid and other environmental assets have the protection that is needed to maximise the multiple benefits our green spacesour trees, our waterways and our local heritage areasprovide. This protection must be guaranteed, not for the four year electoral cycle, but for decades into the future.

4. Science, Research, Monitoring and Reporting

Labor must invest in science, research, monitoring and reporting systems that are able to measure the impacts and social, environmental and economic benefits of our green spaces as well as identify threats and opportunities for future expansion.

5. Invest 

Finally, Labor must be prepared to find new funding and to redirect existing funding to invest in programs that assist local government, state government agencies,community organisations and private land holders to restore, protect, maintain and enhance key elements within the green grid.


As Sydney faces its biggest growth challenge to date, an incoming Labor Government will have to draw on the inspiration and the legacy of the past to make the choices that will protect and enhance our environmental assets into the future.

Labor will have to take to the people of New South Wales clearly understood policies that don’t just define the failures of the current conservative government but that demonstrate a commitment to the urban environment for long term benefit of Sydney and its people.

The challenge of population growth and development pressure can be met by making the right decisions and ensuring that the next Labor Government will use all the levers that State Government has at its disposal to ensure the future of greater Sydney is clean, green, full of life and still one of the most beautiful cities in the world.



Brown, Katscherian, Carter & Spickett, 2013Cool communities: Urban trees, climate and health, Curtin University, 

Greater Sydney Commission, Towards Our Greater Sydney 2056, 2016, NSW Government 

Healthy Parks Healthy People, 2017 

Independent Environmental Panel, Greater Sydney Commission, 2016 2016 

Miller & Peacock (Ed), The 202020 Vision Plan, Horticulture Innovation Australia, 

Townsend & Weerasuriya2010,, Beyond Blue

Schaffer, 2013NSW Government Architects Office


This essay was published in the Australian Fabian pamphlet A New Vision for NSW: Ideas for the next NSW Labor Government.

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  • published this page in Home 2018-01-16 10:10:44 +1100