Melbourne’s leafy east loses its trees as residents expand their homes

Associate Professor Joe Hurley, from RMIT’s Center for Urban Research, said around two-thirds of losses on residential land were not the result of “capital D development”.

Often this is done gradually. Hurley said residents could cut down a tree to protect their view or build a two-car garage.

“It’s the patio, it’s the pool, it’s doing too much damage, it’s messing up my foundation.”

He said all properties should contribute to the wider livability of neighborhoods.

“If everyone pulls out individually and says, ‘Well, this is my yard, I want to have a new outdoor dining area,’ cumulatively we’re losing infrastructure that we really need.”

Whitehorse council, where canopy cover has fallen 2.3% in four years, believes one source of the problem is the VicSmart process, designed to simplify and speed up small-scale planning permits.

Landlords can seek to remove a tree through the process, requiring a council to determine requests within 10 working days without announcing the request to neighbours.

Whitehorse Mayor Tina Liu, whose council includes Blackburn, Burwood, Box Hill and Mont Albert, said the system was open to abuse as landowners sometimes made multiple requests rather than removing a single tree like the system predicted it.

In one case, six trees were pruned on a property through separate requests.

In the Yarra Ranges – which lost more canopy trees than any other local government area in Melbourne between 2014 and 2018, and another 25,000 trees in the deadly June storms of last year – the council does not was unaware of several tree removals under the VicSmart system in the past five years.


Victoria Greens leader Samantha Ratnam and Sustainable Australia MP Clifford Hayes were alerted to concerns about the VicSmart system at community meetings after a full parliamentary inquiry into the planning system was delayed.

“Victoria’s planning system is broken in so many ways and without a full-scale investigation we won’t even scratch the surface of what needs to be done to fix it,” said Ratnam, who calls for the investigation complete be carried out.

Melbourne’s western suburbs gained a modest 275 hectares of forest cover between 2014 and 2018, RMIT found, but improvements have been almost exclusively on public land thanks to campaigns such as Green West.

Some local councils in the west have taken strict measures to increase canopy cover. Brimbank requires two-lot subdivisions to have two trees in the front and one in the back of a property.

Hurley said tree canopy losses tended to be the same whether a detached house was rebuilt or replaced with an apartment complex.

“Development is a loss factor. But it’s not like a big development is a bigger loss factor. In fact, it’s very similar and it makes a strategically important contribution to our urban environment, which is housing supply,” he said.

The Department of Environment, Lands, Water and Planning has approved targets for each Melbourne region of up to 30% canopy cover by 2050.

A Victorian government spokesman said plans were underway to grow urban forests and improve livability “while ensuring future housing growth”.

The Housing Industry Association has avoided canopy targets, which it described as aggressive and arbitrary, believing they could undermine its ability to build for a growing population.

The industry body has instead called for a no net loss principle for private development, arguing that design plans ensure that most new developments already include appropriate vegetation.

Danni Hunter, Victorian executive director of the Property Council, said most developers were aware of creating good amenities.

“It’s not about one or the other. It’s not “more trees or more houses”.

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