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Educating for sustainable urban landscapes

Volume 4 Number 2 - October 2007

Sheryn Pitman

French: Education pour un paysage urbain durable

Spanish: La educación hacia los paisajes urbanos sostenibles


Wherever we live in the world today we are, or soon will be, affected by the changing climate. Our urban landscapes, including parks and gardens, are not immune and must no longer be resource-intensive oases in which we hide. Urban landscapes are rapidly growing environments with the potential to make enormous positive impacts on resource use and sustainability.

The Sustainable Landscapes Project is a collaborative partnership between private and public enterprise, hosted by the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide. The project educates and assists the South Australian community to design, build and manage urban landscapes in more sustainable ways. It demonstrates and promotes appropriate park and garden design, plant species selections and sustainable horticultural practices including effective, efficient and appropriate water use.

Many communities in the world today are affected, to some extent, by the changing climate and increasing environmental costs of natural resources. Cities and towns, countryside and coastlines, deserts, forests and oceans are all facing change. And our urban landscapes, including parks and gardens, are not immune and should no longer be unsustainable resource-intensive oases. Urban landscapes are rapidly growing environments where we can and must make an enormous positive impact on resource use and ecological sustainability.

The Sustainable Landscapes (SL) project is a timely recognition of the need for urban landscapes, including all gardens and parks, to cease generating such a significant ecological footprint, and to become more responsive to the environmental challenges of the 21st century. The project is an acknowledgement of the high demand for and consumption of resources in urban landscapes. Far from being environmentally friendly, parks and gardens, both public and private, are all too often consumers and contaminators. The SL project is a collaborative partnership between private and public enterprise, hosted by the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide (Department of Environment and Heritage) in partnership with the Land Management Corporation, Innovation and Economic Opportunities Group (through the Mawson Lakes Economic Development Project), Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board and SA Water Corporation. The work of the project is to educate and assist the community to design, build and manage urban landscapes in more sustainable ways. It demonstrates and promotes appropriate park and garden design, plant species selections and sustainable horticultural practices to suit South Australian environments including effective, efficient and appropriate water use. In South Australia, accessing enough fresh water to sustain the population is a big issue. The ailing River Murray and our unreliable and possibly diminishing rainfall, combined with biodiversity decline, invasive species increase and the fact that our gardening practices are rarely harmonious with our natural environmental conditions or landscape character, result in urban landscapes taking a lot more than they give.

A significant aspect of this innovative project is that it brings together the diverse elements of urban landscape sustainability into a user-friendly set of eight principles for designing and creating parks and gardens of all types. The project defines a sustainable landscape as a healthy and resilient landscape that will endure over the long term without the need for high input of scarce resources such as water. A sustainable landscape is in harmony with local environmental conditions, including climate, topography, soil and water.

The eight sustainability principles applicable to all urban landscapes, public and private, include:

  1. Design for local environmental conditions
  2. Plant selections that require little supplementary water
  3. Non-invasive plant selections
  4. Minimal chemical use
  5. Provision of habitat for local native fauna
  6. Water conservation measures
  7. Minimal non-renewable energy consumption
  8. Use of sustainably and locally sourced products and materials.

Simple to understand, to incorporate in planning and to act upon, these criteria are packaged and promoted in different ways for different audiences, with the ultimate goal of improving the ecological awareness, literacy and behaviours of urban communities.

The major areas of activity of the SL project are demonstration, research, education and communication. Through these focus areas the project strives to effectively engage with many sectors of the community.


The SL project identifies and develops demonstration sites that showcase a wide range of landscape types and styles. They range from public parks, gardens and community spaces, reserves and roundabouts, median strips (dividing areas between opposing lanes of traffic), road verges and home gardens. This work is undertaken in close association with landowners or managers of sites, and is supported by interpretive signage.

An example is the Loxton Mill Corner sustainable landscape project. During 2006 a major road redevelopment resulted in 14 large traffic islands and verges extending for over a kilometre along the major highway through the Riverland town of Loxton. Some verges are almost 200 metres long and 15 metres wide.

During 2007 the SL project has worked closely with local government to design a rather unique landscape treatment that involves the wider community. Almost 9000 local indigenous plants from 50 species have been selected for their low water use and aesthetic values. Most are shallow rooted and low growing due to the extensive services infrastructure below the surface. Subsurface drip irrigation using water sourced from the nearby stormwater detention pond provides water to the plants in dry weather. All areas are mulched with street tree prunings while a variety of water retention products, composts and fertilisers are trialed, in various combinations, in each of the islands and verges. Local surplus rock salvaged from development excavations is designed into feature areas for interest and variety and each island and verge forms a microhabitat environment for local fauna such as small birds, lizards, insects and bats.

Students from the local high school are in the process of planting the project. They will also help to monitor and maintain the landscape. Attractive interpretive signage that tells the landscape story, outlines sustainable landscaping principles and encourages residents and business to use a similar landscaping approach, is in the process of being designed.

At the other end of the spectrum a different approach involves working with the state’s major land developer, the Land Management Corporation (LMC), to embed the ‘sustainable landscapes’ principles in the landscaping guidelines for both builders and residents. Lochiel Park, a new LMC residential land development in Adelaide, promotes and provides appropriate guidelines to all builders and residents.


The SL project has recently secured a grant from the Local Government Association Research and Development Scheme to research, collate and publish recommended plant species lists for the many biophysical zones of the greater Adelaide metropolitan region. One of the key needs of both local government and the community is easy access to recommended non-invasive and low water use plant lists for each local area. This information will be available on the internet in January 2008 and will enable councils and residents to more effectively and efficiently develop sustainably landscaped parks and gardens that will not pose an invasive plant threat to waterways, bushland, dunes, farmland or other vulnerable environments or ecosystems. The lists will include local indigenous, Australian native and exotic plants and incorporate diverse data fields containing useful plant information including habitat values, cautions and special features.


Education for community, business and industry, government and schools is a critical part of the project. An example of an achievement in this area is the successful incorporation of Sustainable Landscapes into the Year 11 and 12 (final secondary school years) curriculum through the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia (SSABSA). Sustainable Futures is a new senior secondary schools subject and we have worked closely with the Education Department of South Australia to successfully include Sustainable Landscapes within the course.

The SL project contributes to many courses, seminars and conferences throughout the city, state and country itself. Schools, universities and adult learning centres, and industry professionals are all targeted as critical audiences for the sustainable landscapes messages.


A wide selection of written and visual communication materials has been designed to raise awareness and understanding of ‘sustainable landscapes’. Seminars, lectures, workshops, conference presentations, brochures, fact sheets, posters, website, electronic and print media and, very importantly, well-interpreted demonstration landscapes all contribute to comprehensive education and communication activities throughout the community.

One example is the Pocket Guide to Environmentally Friendly Gardens produced by the SL project and partner SA Water, currently in distribution via water rate notices to all residents of Adelaide city and beyond. While it has a focus on low water use and water conservation methods, the pocket guide deals with all eight sustainable landscaping principles and hints.

The SL Project acknowledges that we are all managers of our landscapes. Everyone including developers, architects, designers, builders, businesses, industries, government agencies, horticulturalists, families and home gardeners, manage landscapes. To make urban areas sustainable every phase including planning, design, construction and maintenance needs to be informed and guided by sustainability principles and practices.

The challenges that people face change with here in South Australia may not be so different from the challenges in other places. They include the power of European influences on a landscape with very different biophysical characteristics, the power of fashion, media and the market, the often-insufficient levels of ecological understanding and respect for land and water within the community, and the lack of availability of appropriate plants and materials. It seems though that the greatest reassurance people need is that more sustainable landscapes can still be beautiful.

This partnership work being undertaken in South Australia is leading a gradual cultural shift towards more sustainable attitudes, practices and behaviours. It demonstrates a powerful model for engaging, educating and assisting the community to make more informed and ethical choices about resource use, develop sustainability knowledge and skills, and work in greater harmony with natural environmental conditions.


Partout où nous nous trouvons dans le monde aujourd'hui, nous sommes, ou nous serons bientôt, affectés par le changement climatique. Nos paysages urbains, y compris parcs et jardins, ne sont pas à l'abri et ne doivent plus être considérés comme des oasis aux ressources abondantes dans lesquelles nous nous réfugions. Les paysages urbains sont des environnements à croissance rapide ayant le potentiel d’avoir d’énormes impacts positifs sur l’utilisation et la viabilité des ressources.Le projet de "paysages durables" est un partenariat collectif entre les entreprises privées et publiques animé par le Jardin Botanique d'Adélaïde. Le projet informe et assiste la région d'Australie du Sud à prévoir, aménager et gérer le paysage urbain dans une voie plus durable. Il fait la démonstration et la promotion d'un aménagement de parcs et de jardins adapté, d’une sélection de plantes et de pratiques horticoles durables intégrant une utilisation de l'eau efficace, économe et appropriée.


Donde quiera que nos encontremos hoy en el mundo, estamos afectados por el cambio climático, o pronto lo estaremos. Nuestros paisajes urbanos, incluyendo los parques y jardines, no están inmunes a esto, y ya no deben ser oases de recursos intensivos donde nos escondemos. Los paisajes urbanos son medios de rápido crecimiento con el potencial de tener impactos enormemente positivos sobre el uso de recursos y la sostenibilidad.

El Sustainable Landscapes Project – proyecto de paisajes sostenibles – es una colaboración de iniciativas privadas y públicas, con el jardín botánico de Adelaide como amfitrión. El proyecto instruye y ayuda a la comudidad sur-australiana a diseñar, construir y gestionar los paisajes urbanos de manera mas sostenible. Demuestra y promueve los diseños aporopiados de parques, la selección de especies, y las prácticas horticulturales sostenibles que incluyen el uso efectivo, eficiente, y apropiado del agua.

Sheryn Pitman
Sustainable Landscapes Project Officer
Sustainable Landscapes Project
Botanic Gardens of Adelaide
North Terrace
South Australia 5000