Nature strips, kerbsides, footpaths, verges.
Whatever you want to call them, these strips of land provide a lot of problems, or a lot of opportunities, depending on your viewpoint.
They are public land, controlled by councils, but almost always maintained by the residents. Councils sometimes plant and maintain street trees, and sometimes provide concrete footpaths. Residents are expected to mow the grass.
Most people forget to include them in their definition of greenspace. That's reserved for larger public spaces like parks, sporting grounds, etc. And to be honest, most verges are pretty barren places. Flat and neat if viewed from a passing car.
They are not currently seen as meeting places, or playing areas. If used at all, they are for walking the dog or passing through to get somewhere on foot. Spending undue time in front of someone's house could be seen as loitering and suspicious.
Recent moves to plant on the verge have caused issues between residents and councils. The drama usually starts with a complaint from a neighbouring resident. There are unwritten social mores at play and if you seem to be appropriating the land for your own use, you've overstepped the line.
So it's yours if you don't mow the grass, ours if you overstep, mine if your dog leaves a “gift”, and Council's if the path needs fixing.
Whatever anyone does, someone could get upset.
However, this mixed ownership also makes the nature strips rich with meaning and opportunity.
It is the place we move from our private realm into the public arena and become citizens of our neighbourhood.
Bringing nature into this space means that we interact with it every time we go out and come home. It is part of our everyday lives, unlike a park which is a separate destination we must choose to go to.
If we are to have cooler suburbs and walkable streets, where walking is a core part of active transport rather than an optional leisure activity, it is these spaces that most need shady street trees and understory planting.
How it could be
Streets are cooler because they are lined with shade trees. Gardens with native shrubs and flowers on verges and under the street trees provide habitat corridors. The trees in the gardens thrive without having to compete with grass and whipper-snippers
Footpaths with trees and nature strips make streets walkable – cooler and more interesting. Connecting with nature as they go about their lives is beneficial to the mental health of adults and children
Creation of the verge gardens is done by local employees of local social enterprises, local micro-businesses, local organisations.
Funding comes from a range of sources for ongoing projects which are for transformation of entire streets rather than rushed jobs for individual householders.
These are local jobs close to where people live so there is no commuting or extra traffic on the roads. Hours are flexible. Part-time and full-time jobs are available.
Workers can access education and training in horticulture, administration, marketing and other fields within the social enterprises. They can move on to other jobs if and when they are ready.
Residents also learn more about nature from daily exposure to these gardens and diverse planting that changes with the seasons.
Community pride and participation in the public space is enhanced.
More children walk to school with associated benefits to health and traffic reduction.
Each local project has links to others as part of the Shady Lanes Project while maintaining their own independence. This allows sharing of information, experience, data, and resources, without losing the ability to adapt to local situations.
So What’s Stopping Us?
Nothing! Many councils have already got the policies in place to allow ratepayers and residents to convert their verges. A few councils are proactively encouraging residents to adopt verges and transform them.
All that has to change is the way we think about it and how we work together