Rooftop gardens could help cool our cities amid climate change, but archaic planning laws are holding back a green revolution.
Australian cities are heating up, with an alarming report this year finding temperature increases from climate change and urban growth will make Brisbane “a difficult place” to live by 2050.
Scientists blame what is called the urban heat island effect, which means cities are hotter than nearby rural areas due to development.
But it is not too late to turn it around, and plants could be the solution.
Green rooftops could help to take the heat out of the city, but Brisbane’s property developers and planners said local laws were holding them back.
Cities like Singapore and New York have long embraced sky gardens and while Brisbane is late to the garden party, there are dozens of developments in the pipeline that would use clever ways to provide greenspace, when room on the ground is at a premium.
In September 2018, then-Brisbane lord mayor Graham Quirk announced the Council would amend the Brisbane City Plan to formalise the Council’s support for rooftop gardens and green spaces, but 12 months on, that had not happened.
Currently a rooftop garden is considered a storey of the building, so if a developer has planning permission for a certain number of storeys, it is not financially viable to have one as a garden instead of sellable space.
Developers hamstrung by poor planning laws
Brisbane town planner Mia Hickey said the majority of large-scale inner-city apartment developments in Brisbane wanted to incorporate rooftop spaces, but were hamstrung by the poor planning laws.
“There are definitely some developers who are shying away from adding rooftop gardens for this reason,” she said.
“It’s not a good look when they [council] said they were going to do this [change planning laws] and it hasn’t been done.”
Pictured: Rooftop yoga is held on the Lucent at Newstead.
Ms Hickey said research showed rooftop gardens promoted physical activity, psychological wellbeing, and had a positive impact on air pollution, noise levels and temperature regulation.
“It’s no longer just OK to put a half-shaded BBQ area up there with a little bit of grass,” she said.
“We’re now starting to see developments that incorporate resort-style amenities that are winning awards.”
Newstead rooftop garden a ‘sky retreat’
Lucent, a 17-storey residential tower at trendy Newstead in inner-city Brisbane, is one of those, winning local, state and national design awards.
The tower, completed in November 2017, included a 1,600 square metre rooftop area with expansive views over Brisbane.
The luxury development by Cavcorp described its rooftop garden as a “sky retreat” complete with “lifestyle-enhancing amenities”.
It claims to have Australia’s longest infinity pool, along with a detox sauna and spa, yoga lawn, Zen gardens and even a golf green on the rooftop.
With more families abandoning the suburbs in favour of inner-city living, Ms Hickey said even those on more restricted budgets were demanding rooftop garden space.
Consumers looking for the ‘up-yard’
“It’s just as important as the local school catchment,” Ms Hickey said.
“It’s no longer about the size of the backyard, but about the size and amenities of the rooftop, or as I like to call it — ‘the up-yard’.”
There are numerous inner-city apartment proposals with ambitious rooftop gardens on the drawing boards.
Cbus Property is building a 47-storey apartment block at 443 Queen Street in Brisbane’s CBD.
Claiming to be Australia’s first “subtropical-designed” building, construction is underway on the riverside development.
The building will have a “breathable facade” with gardens on every floor as well as on the rooftop, aiming to reduce energy consumption by up to 60 per cent.
At New Farm in Brisbane, the Maison project by Frank Developments will have cascading gardens on every floor of the proposed five-storey development.
The development, yet to receive Brisbane City Council (BCC) approval, claimed it would be one of the most heavily landscaped buildings in the city, with more than 86 per cent of the site to be planted, when the current council requirement was just 10 per cent.
Further afield, a Victorian property developer has plans for a “sustainable shopping centre” at Burwood in suburban Melbourne.
Frasers Property group is building a 2,000 square-metre urban farm on the shopping centre’s rooftop, which it said is a first for Australia.
Failure to move quickly hampering rooftop landscaping
The Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) agreed the BCC’s failure to move quickly is hampering rooftop landscaping in Queensland.
UDIA Qld CEO Kirsty Chessher-Brown said currently there was “really no incentive for our members to be able to do this — it’s actually disincentivised”.
“The current situation is that our members can provide communal space on rooftops, but the minute that any roof structure is added to that rooftop space, it’s then considered to be an additional storey to the building.
“That then impacts on our members’ ability to comply with acceptable rules for building heights.
She said these spaces provided “really critical opportunities for landscaping”.
“People can provide community or productive gardens and the real lure is being able to reduce some of the heat-island affect, traditionally associated with built-up environments,” she said.
Ms Chessher-Brown said there was also a need for further incentives for developers.
“The next step is to replicate other programs in place across the world including Singapore, where there’s actually a program to encourage developers to consider greater landscaping and use of planting on rooftop spaces,” she said.
Legislation needed for developers to do rooftop gardens
In 2009, Singapore introduced its Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises (LUSH) Program, which encouraged developers to provide green roofs in all new developments and gave financial incentives for those that went beyond the minimum requirements.
The Property Council of Australia (PCA) is more forgiving of the council for the delay.
Acting Queensland deputy executive director Nathan Percy said the PCA supported the action contained in the BCC Brisbane Future Blueprint to make it easier for new developments to include rooftop gardens.
“We are working with Brisbane City Council on the implementation of this action, but it is important to remember that planning amendments do take time,” he said.
In a statement, BCCs planning chairman, Matthew Bourke, acknowledged there was a need for rooftop gardens but admitted it would take until the end of the year to make changes.
“Brisbane is a great place to live, work and relax, and we are increasingly seeing residents and visitors enjoying the city’s vistas and subtropical weather from the rooftops of inner-city dwellings,” he said.
“Increasing green spaces means a healthier and more sustainable city and Brisbane City Council has proposed an amendment to make it easier to include rooftop gardens for new developments as part of its review of City Plan.
“Investigations, research and drafting of the amendment package is underway and Council plans to be able to send it to the State Government for review soon, before opening up the proposed amendment for public consultation in late 2019.”