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Private Members Motion | Significant Trees

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. M.C. Parnell:

That this council—

1. Notes the importance of significant trees to our urban environment and amenity;

2. Notes that over 1,100 South Australian citizens have signed a petition calling on the state government to change the law to prevent the unnecessary destruction of significant trees and force property developers to incorporate important vegetation into their projects for the benefit of the environment and the wider community; and

3. Calls on the state government to take action now to protect more of the significant and regulated trees on the former Glenside Hospital site.

(Continued from 15 February 2017.)

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN (16:24): I rise to speak in support of the motion moved by the Hon. M.C. Parnell concerning significant trees. The motion notes the importance of significant trees to our urban environment and amenity; notes that over 1,100 South Australian citizens have signed a petition calling on the state government to change the law to prevent the unnecessary destruction of significant trees and force property developers to incorporate important vegetation into their projects for the benefit of the environment and the wider community; and calls on the state government take action now to protect more of the significant and regulated trees on the former Glenside Hospital site. I find great favour with the matters raised by the Hon. Mr Parnell when he spoke to his motion.

I will not dwell on the Glenside development. I had the good fortune at one time to live near what was then the hospital precinct and I know the area well, and I too question why 83 trees should have to be removed to facilitate a development. I know the local community is enraged by the loss of these trees. I can advise the chamber that the issue has reached even as far as Mount Gambier, with the local member in the other place, Mr Troy Bell, also advocating strongly on behalf of concerned constituents.

The Glenside development is an instructive example of what is wrong with our development processes. I have never seen the compelling need to turn land into a desert before redevelopment commences. There rarely seems to be any desire by those seeking to develop land to value significant trees and incorporate them into the building on site. Trees seem to be an enemy of the developer. There is no hesitation or reluctance to remove a tree; rather, trees are treated as living organisms that are unworthy of existence and which are to be exorcised as soon as possible.

I acknowledge that there are many legitimate circumstances where trees must be removed, but the removal of trees always seems to be the starting point in a development consideration, not the reluctant end point. Developers rightly have a keen eye on profit; however, developers appear to fall before this idol and rarely reflect on the importance of trees to their surroundings and to the community at large. Instead, they build us boxes to live in—or should I say imprison us in—surrounded by low maintenance and unattractive shrubs, convenient to maintain but cruelly unfit for native fauna. This in turn keeps people shielded from the joys of nature and from understanding their place within it. Residents’ eyes are now just affixed to screens and their minds occupied by their virtual fixations. The connection with nature herself is broken.

I have often queried the role of the architect in all this. I suspect it is not just margins nor the lack of imagination of the commissioning client, but also the inability of our architects to rise above the mediocre creations they seem to worship in this city and incorporate a landscape along with its trees. I know it can be done better. You need only go to Victoria, which seems to revel in great architecture, both public and private.

Our urban society seems to resent the tree as some sort of interloper on our domestic landscape. We cannot leave alone even the old trees in our parklands. They too seem to have lost their ancient right to be left alone to peacefully grow, to provide a place for wildlife to harbour safely, and even to provide shade for the weary traveller on their city commute.

It was not always that we disrespected the tree. There was a time when trees were not just valued by us but were worshipped. Trees have long had a symbolic significance in our cultural heritage. From the Tree of Knowledge in Eden to the blessed trees of the Celts, trees have played a central part in the cultural life of our societies. For Buddhists and Hindus the banyan tree is sacred, and in Africa it is the baobab. The sycamore was important for ancient Egyptians, and oak trees have featured prominently in ancient mythologies across Europe. For the Celts, oaks are the foremost amongst the venerated trees.

The avenging power of the oak is particularly famous in Somerset, where they were considered to possess great powers. It was once a widely held belief that oaks resented being cut down and townsfolk would diligently avoid walking by oak coppices. We have not completely lost our cultural connection with trees. Today, trees are at least used as symbols of countries and cities. I believe we must revisit the past and recast our relationship with trees and see them once again as sacred, rather than an encumbrance to poorly designed homes, empty gardens and petty profits.

We must also not just see trees as a resource but as an important partner in our life on this planet. Trees should be central to our urban environment, not ancillary. The value of a tree should be greater than a building. A tree takes years to grow to maturity. Buildings can be constructed and demolished many times in the life of a great tree. We must explore the ideal of urban forests, rather than the concrete jungle. We must work against the desire of development advocates to remove us from nature.

According to the 2014 report, titled Benchmarking Australia’s Urban Tree Canopy, conducted by the University of Technology Sydney, Adelaide has the unenviable honour of having the lowest level of tree canopy cover compared to all other Australian capital cities. At 27 per cent, our tree coverage is less than half than that of Hobart, the country’s greenest city, and 12 per cent below the nation’s average. A recent Charles Sturt council-commissioned study revealed that tree canopy cover in the local government area declined by about 690,000 square metres since 2008.

However, I am a realist. I suspect that my appeals for our community to rediscover and revalue their relationships with trees will not be heard, given the modern obsession with the virtual world as well as the brutal realities of the business of development. I am therefore enamoured with the suggestion made by an inner-city Perth councillor that we assign a monetary value to urban trees, weighted according to their economic, environmental and health benefits, which must be taken into account in planning decisions. If some in our community are unable to love trees, they can at least value them.

The University of Adelaide has estimated the gross benefit of a typical Adelaide street tree to be worth over $422 per annum. This is derived from energy savings from reduced air conditioning use, air quality improvements, stormwater management, improved aesthetics, capital appreciation and carbon sequestration. There is also the possibility of creating a tree commission. In some parts of the United States they have a shade tree commission. Its role is to work with residents to watch over the health and diversity of forest and street trees. This includes growing the community green areas and promoting public awareness of proper tree care.

I am sure there are other initiatives to not only protect the urban tree from felling, but also to encourage the community to place greater value on the trees in their lives. Even with all the regulatory protection, we as a community need to reconnect with the earth and the life that comes from it. We must redefine our relationship with Gaia and build communities that are healthy, sustainable and aesthetic. We must restore the significance of the tree in the life of our communities. I will leave you with a short quote from William Blake who, in 1799, wrote in one of his letters:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity…and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.

I commend the motion to the chamber.

See full session on Hansard