Local Government Magazine

Green spaces clean places

Carbon Landscape Collective founder Craig Pocock was back in this country last year to present the Carbon Landscape Roadshow. Here are his observations.


The carbon landscape identifies the carbon cost of design, implementation and management of public spaces and landscapes including the disproportionately high carbon cost of public space renewal.

It also outlines ideas for mitigating these carbon costs. The carbon landscape offers public space managers and designers transparent carbon costs insights so they can make informed decisions.

Not all local government members believe in climate change, not all community managers are working on the issue at the same speed and most have not considered the carbon embedded in their biggest asset: their green infrastructure. These are my big-picture take-outs from a national roadshow on carbon landscapes undertaken last year.

Initially, the roadshow was planned for four centres; Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. Perhaps driven by the likely adoption of a Zero Carbon Act, the roadshow burgeoned into 10 venues attracting a total of some 700 attendees.

Local government, designers and the material industry were engaged and looking for carbon mitigation answers.

There was a request for a recorded version of the presentation for councils to distribute to staff unable to attend. With help from New Plymouth District Council, the carbon landscape presentation was recorded in the Len Lye Centre. (To access the recording free of charge go to www.carbonlandscape.com)

The composition of the audiences highlighted the wide range of professionals currently managing issues around carbon mitigation. Attendees included mayors, councillors, officers from regional councils, planners, local government resilience managers, airport managers, health board members, NZTA, recycling managers, Housing NZ, education providers, engineers, architects and landscape architects.

It was heartening that, after the presentations, many people wanted to continue to discuss issues and look for shared solutions. In most cases, individuals had not been considering the carbon impact of their landscape management.

Here are my three big-picture take-outs from those conversations.

1 The value of science-based dialogue

I met a few local government professionals and community leaders who still doubt the science behind climate change. These are decision-makers who occupy positions of influence in the community.

There would be significant value for local government organisations to conduct an annual climate change 101 refresher course for all staff and elected officials.

Sessions could convey some basic information: the science behind climate change; the difference between weather and climate patterns; climate patterns since the beginning of the industrial revolution; and how climate change is likely to impact on their local region.

The refresher needs to be short, concise and science-based. Climate change is the single biggest threat to New Zealand communities. It is hard to be a decision-maker for a community if you don’t understand climate change science or lack the ability to explain this complex problem in an accessible way to a community member or group. Local government should invest in this key tool.

Not everything that is green is carbon friendly. A meadow is mown about five times less often than a typical park. The public needs access to both types of open spaces but councils need to consider the carbon costs of these spaces and where it strategically makes sense to pay the higher carbon and financial cost of mowing.

2 Climate change inequality

While some local government organisations are focused on addressing the carbon mitigation issues in their area, others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

The more hesitant community leaders tend to be in locations not currently under pressure from climate hazards such as flooding, coastal erosion, wild fires and droughts.

They believe they have the time to move more slowly on the issue and avoid generating potentially unpopular policies – especially those around climate change adaption and future land zoning issues.

This wait-and-see approach fails to understand that climate change is not discriminatory. The carbon produced in one area does not limit its impact to that area. It is all added to the same carbon debt that affects everyone.

Not managing the carbon of a region, city or community equates to intergenerational theft. It reduces the ability of future generations to enjoy the same quality of life we have today. This highlights the importance of nationwide monitoring as an equaliser: something that is key to the success of a carbon zero policy.

We live in an era of climate change inequality. Some areas of the country are facing more significant climate change impacts than others. Some areas are having to work harder to adapt and mitigate while other parts of the country can take a more passive role and not incur the same associated climate change management costs, especially those around infrastructure.

This sets up a climate inequality for some communities and regions based on geological location, local weather patterns and infrastructure on hazard-prone edges such as coastlines.

But climate change is a national issue and, arguably, needs to be funded at a national level if we are to equalise the playing field and avoid climate change inequality.

3 The tyranny of scale

Councils manage significant numbers of buildings: from council offices and libraries, to community halls and pump stations. They all have a carbon footprint which is easy to focus on and understand.

Buildings are neat little packages that have easily measurable energy and carbon values. Hence 99 percent of council’s carbon mitigation focus is on buildings: often followed by a focus on vehicle fleets.

In most cases, councils are missing the highest carbon generator in their community because it looks green. Councils’ green infrastructure – such as open space networks, roads easements, urban public spaces, parks, cycleways, riparian edges, sports fields and stormwater management land – has a carbon cost based on how it is managed.

This land may not generate the same carbon footprint intensity per square metre as buildings. However, council’s open space network is a much bigger area than all council buildings combined. This is the tyranny of scale.

Landscapes and open spaces are predominantly built and managed with fossil fuels. Examples include building sports fields and streetscapes, mowing lawns, and applying fertilisers and pesticides. These all have associated carbon costs that can be managed and reduced.

Consider the example of mowing lawns. A large town or small city probably mows 13,000 hectares of land a year (the mown open space area multiplied by mowing frequency). Mowing 13,000 hectares of grass generates about 35 tons of carbon per year. This is a conservative figure but serves to illustrate the idea.

The way land is maintained comes at a carbon cost that, if reduced, also has the additional benefits of saving labour and machinery costs.

Local government needs to consider its landscape assets as part of its carbon responsibility. This involves surveys and analysis, and a review of current landscape management standards to develop low-carbon alternatives that the community will accept.

This is possible. We need to consider a wider range of landscape typologies to be applied to our open spaces. A typical park is mown 18 times a year: a meadow is mown four times.

The tyranny of scale. This diagram shows in red what is typically considered within a council’s carbon mitigation planning – predominantly building energy systems, waste, procurement and public transport.
This diagram shows the landscape infrastructure not typically considered when a council plans for carbon mitigation.


There is an opportunity for local government to lead the carbon landscape management process from data collection, analysis and synthesis to final policy creation. This would ensure more efficient use of carbon within communities. And carbon efficiencies also often equal economic efficiencies.

Councils could consider using their market value to encourage the landscape industry to provide more carbon-friendly design approaches, materials and management processes. A council’s Capex budget may be its most significant tool to gain access to lower carbon landscape options.

Let the free market resolve some of councils’ issues by requiring carbon-sensitive design, products and management schedules through procurement and RFP processes. This would simulate research and the development of better practices by the design and manufacturing industries.

• Craig Pocock is a Fellow of the Institute of Landscape Architects. He is an award-winning landscape architect and founder of the Carbon Landscape Collective. www.carbonlandscape.com

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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