Nature strips, kerbsides, footpaths, verges. Whatever you want to call them, they 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 don't 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 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 else could get upset. Is it any wonder that urban greenspace projects are done elsewhere?
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 – unless we bypass this hyperlocal connection by driving from a garage straight to the road in car-dependent, dormitory suburbs.
Bringing nature into this space means that we interact with it every time we leave and arrive home. It is part of our everyday lives, unlike a park which is a separate destination we may 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 and maintenance 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 and maintenance 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
- 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.
Individual volunteer verge gardens + funded verge gardens + sponsored verge gardens = maximum coverage in the shortest time