Lip service?

Is this what a fully realised urban forest would look like?

In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED, local environmental consultant Tim Frodsham voices his concerns about Fremantle council’s urban forest plan.

I welcome Fremantle council’s recent advertisement for senior urban forest officer.

But I have a range of concerns that the call for this appointment has given voice to, as well as the urban forest plan, itself. 

While the role’s title and direction sounds positive and hopeful, my comment is that an expansion from 500 to 1000 trees per annum is a rather paltry and tokenistic gesture in terms of addressing the concomitant issues of climate change, the urban heat island effect, biodiversity and ecosystem crashes and population health impacts.

The plan refers again and again to urban forest, without any real connection to the real definition of what a forest actually is: a richly complex set of biological, physical and hydrogeological relationships serving a vast range of interdependent species and processes, all of which influence, and are influenced by, changing conditions over time. 

All the plan talks about are ‘trees’ in a rather generic sense, and doesn’t attempt to aspire to even an ‘analogue’ forest state, that at least accounts for the verticality of how a forest is structured, with sub-stories, groundcover species, vertebrate life, and the vital functions of supporting soils. 

It’s kind of a shallow and cosmetic pretension, rather than an intent towards serious re-afforestation aimed at repairing the state sponsored vandalism we’ve termed development, and addressing the climate emergency the council has officially recognised we’re in.

The urban forestry plan does not appear to address its goals with any clear strategy for funding the program, as token as the 20 per cent tree cover goal it has in mind. 

For example, it claims that private funding/partnerships from major stakeholders and other sources will facilitate the growth and management of the urban forest, but doesn’t provide any details on any agreements made, or how these partnerships are supposed to deliver outcomes. 

It talks about stakeholder groups, only giving the usual lip service to Indigenous custodians rather than make them an intrinsic element of a climate-resilient design brief, and then struggles to contend with the resultant fire hazards from the fuel loading of extra biomass.

For the past three decades since climate change and biodiversity threats were clearly on the public policy radar, the council has demonstrated an ineffective and largely anodyne effort to take the initiative with the revegetation of residential verge spaces, a huge opportunity missed for addressing the issues it’s outlined in its plan.  

It’s too little, too late in terms of a meaningful response to climate change. 

There is a tacit acknowledgment that the house is on fire, but that we can sleepwalk towards the low-pressure garden hose outside in a feeble attempt to put it out.  

If it’s a declared emergency, what’s needed is to act like it is one – a kind of total mobilisation of every available resource aimed at prosecuting a clear set of strategies that resolve the existential threats of catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss.

In general, while ratepayers should be thankful for the existing natural areas amenity that has been provided, they do little to assist in regaining the critical balance of local ecosystem services and climate change adaptation required (shade, biodiversity, soil water retention, urban hydrological stability, carbon sequestration, mental health benefits, and other key benefits too numerous to mention here).

More to the point, the results indicate failure of leadership, resourcing allocation, and reflective of an administration whose essential survival continues to be dependent on optimising parking and amenity for vehicles that make for up to 30 per cent of local emissions. 

Again, what’s needed from this local government is less investment in perpetuating this paradigm, less shallow pretension towards sustainability, and a far more proportionate investment in the keys to survival of organised forms of human life as we lurch into the grim and desperate climate reality of the Anthropocene. 

If I’m beginning to sound a bit radical extremist and fringe dwelling, then don’t believe me; instead try and read into the IPCC revised climate scenarios for 2070 at business-as-usual emissions projections. 

It would be great if hate mail from climate change contrarians could change the physics and implications of the current climate modelling. Not so.

The council can, with a serious effort and the vital assistance of its constituent residents, augment and accelerate a more sophisticated urban revegetation plan that necessitates a dramatic conversion and development of land for biodiverse and multi-purpose plant communities that can offer at the same time: shade, carbon uptake, biodiversity habitat, food, economic utility, and hydrological stability. 

We have so much work to do, and time is running out.  

There is no more room for deliberation, social complacency and bureaucratic torpor. Act now!

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