We use cookies to personalise your experience. Learn more

Grey vs Green Infrastructure – a battle of space for trees in our cities

Date: Jul 27, 2023
Category: Insights
To mark National Tree Day on July 30, Senior Associate Erwin Taal and Graduate Designer Emily Whinfield, both based at ASPECT Studios in Melbourne, explain how we can help trees thrive in the inhospitable home we have made for them.

In building our cities we have managed to create the harshest possible conditions in which plants can grow. Trees are faced with increased temperatures, modified hydrology, substantial surface impermeability and infrequent irrigation. They contend with these challenges from the limited available space left for them between hard surface areas, and underground they compete with pipes and cables for soil. This is the urban condition we have created for plants, and from that perspective it is surprising that our cities are as green as they are.

The benefits of trees to cities and the people who live in them are well documented. If we really want more trees, then we need to find space for them.

Historically, urbanisation has followed a formula when it comes to planting. For several reasons, it involved removing topsoil and replacing it with subsoil covered in concrete. Subsoil does not have the necessary chemical and physical properties to support plant growth. Plants need the soil to physically support them and stimulate essential biological processes. Key important factors can include the absence of air gaps in the soil, sufficient water availability, and minerals. Then there are the active microbial constituents of topsoil – like fungi and other microorganisms that synergistically enable exchanges between the soil, water, nutrients, and roots. Trees cannot, in other words, grow in anything.

Trees also face competition for space, both above and below ground. Electricity, water, sewers, and communications services tend to end up in the same spaces earmarked for trees and other vegetation. In this competition the engineering services and traffic requirements usually win out. Trees are thought of as nice to have, rather than a necessity of urban living.

RESIZED Aspect City Street 12
What can we do to help?
To help navigate these limitations, there are tools that can be used to ensure optimum growth before a tree is put in the ground. An analysis of the site and its soil should inform the design of the landscape, increasing the chance of a more successful outcome. Using tools like Elke’s Soil Volume Simulator, we can calculate minimum soil volume quantities and conditions for a tree to thrive – the landscape can be optimised before it has even been built.

The two main approaches to improving the growing environment underground are using structural cells or structured soils.

Structural cells, of which Citygreen’s proprietary Stratavaults are the most widely known system, are a geometric system of interlocking engineered modules made from recycled plastic that allow soil to be filled in and around the structure surrounding a tree. Structured soil, on the other hand, is made up of a mix of large aggregates to carry the heavy loads applied by pavements above, and filler soil in the voids between the rocks for air, moisture, soil and roots. Each system ensures that soil is not compacted to a level that will hinder root growth.

Structural cells allow for more control in specifying an appropriate soil volume, structural soils allow for easier access to modify underground conditions, for example when new services may be required, however do not provide as much useful soil volume.

ASPECT Studios employed Stratavaults to support trees across the tight spaces of the New Student Precinct at the University of Melbourne, which was the subject of a case study for masters’ students in the Urban Soils, Substrates and Water class. Plans of the precinct, designed and provided to students by ASPECT Studios, were used to examine soil conditions and quantities with existing trees and proposed vegetation.

ASPECT Studios has been wrestling with the development and application of measures like these for many years.
Mary MacKillop Square – 2013
One of our first uses of a soil vault system took place on a former industrial site in Fitzroy, installed atop a capping layer over contaminated fill, using one-metre-deep connected vaults with structural cells. Quercus rubra ‘Red Oak’ were installed as advanced three-metre-high specimens. Ten years later, the trees are all healthy, with signs of vigorous growth and reasonable height and canopy spread for a contained growing environment. However, these trees are located within an area of minimal services penetration, so they have the luxury of space.
Halpin Way, Dandenong – 2013
A shared street designed for the Central Dandenong Revitalisation project in 2013, Halpin Way was one of our earliest projects that used engineered solutions to overcome the spatial constraints of a narrow, highly serviced street to install considerable tree canopy. Structured cells within a contained area were used to achieve the soil volumes required for a variety of evergreen and deciduous species and allow for future connection of underground services.
South East Water Headquarters, Frankston - 2015
Built on the edge of Kananook Creek, large Ficus hillii evergreen trees were planted along the Creek promenade to provide mitigation from the strong coastal winds. Located in a tidal zone prone to flooding, the landscape needed unimpeded emergency vehicle circulation alongside frequent user access to ground floor facilities. The only viable solution was to create a "bathtub" that sat flush with the promenade level to prevent inundation. A combination of Structural and natural soil volumes were carefully assessed to ensure the selected trees would reach the heights required to provide successful mitigation.
1 Collins Wharf, Victoria Harbour, Docklands – 2019
Parts of the redevelopment of this man-made Victoria Harbour peninsula sit on an elevated wharf structure with limited loadbearing capacity. The extension of Collins Street required a technically driven approach to attain sufficient growing volumes for the new avenue of native Melia azederach to be installed. Working within council requirements and structural and level constraints, several street trees were installed within Structured soils engineered to minimise weight and maximise volume and nutrient content to provide a seamless pedestrian surface above.
Melbourne Park – 2022
The third stage of this major redevelopment of Melbourne Park involved a complex combination of techniques to provide sufficient growing volumes to introduce an array of Corymbia citriodora, providing urban shade and satisfying the council’s requirements within a podium landscape environment. ASPECT used Stratavault planting, raised berms and planting in permeable soil flush with the pavement to layer trees in a tight space.
Today, ASPECT Studios continues to refine its thinking and practice around ensuring the long-term viability of urban trees. At the same time, the requirements and challenges have become more difficult and complex.

For example, in a current project involving an inner-city brownfields redevelopment, we are working with the council to install trees that meet the requirements of biodiversity (a maximum number of trees of each species, genus and family) with sufficient growing volumes as determined through the Elke Soil Volume Simulator to attain a satisfactory canopy coverage (a 40 percent minimum coverage in a street and park environment), while mitigating a heavily contested sub-surface environment (including the provision of future-proofed services and their offsets). Projects like these can quickly become extremely complicated.

With the council preferring structural soils to be used to allow future access to underground services, the resultant growing volumes, once access to underground services are considered, almost giving us the resultant canopy coverage required - but not quite. The reduction of any component requirement will have a downside. We know that we can create optimal growing environments for trees using a combination of these measures where space is available.

When space is at a premium, we lose trees. Reduced tree numbers give us less pleasant cities, hotter cities, and unhealthier cities. Reduced growing volumes result in smaller trees with shorter lifespans that may not give us the canopy coverage we hope for in the long-term. Reduced clearances to services may increase long-term maintenance costs and impact on the health of trees when roots are disturbed.

Techniques like soil vaults solve part of the equation, but the essential problem remains: in many key urban environments there is not enough space.

Are we up to a compromise?