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Taken from the barrier around Council works in Steele Park Marrickville South

Around 85% of rainwater that falls on a typical large city will flow into stormwater drains. Our stormwater drains in Marrickville LGA are around 100 years old &, in many areas, totally incapable of managing heavy or prolonged rain. Now that more people will be moving into the area, our ancient drains are going to become a significant problem. Replacing them is a costly nightmare.

Usual type of road flooding in the Inner West

By their nature cities cause stormwater problems because the majority of the surfaces are covered by concrete or bitumen.  You only need to drive around Marrickville LGA when it is raining to see that the stormwater drains cannot cope when it rains.  Substantial volume of water builds up along gutters.  In a heavy downpour many of the streets of the Inner West become dangerously flooded. Half a road can be 30 cms deep in water.  While in the short-term this is great for any nearby street trees, it is not so great for infrastructure, the Cooks River or the safety of drivers.

Many cities worldwide have the problem of old & inadequate stormwater drains. Some of them are tackling the problem in a simple but creative way by replacing bitumen & cement with permeable surfaces. The US city of Chicago has started a Green Alley Program. Mind you, environmental programs that address global warming & create a sustainable, more livable city, are fast making Chicago the ‘greenest’ city in the world.

New permeable paths recently created by Marrickville Council in Steele Park Marrickville South

Chicago’s Green Alley Program established in 2007 is laying permeable surfaces in their 3,058 km (1,900 miles) of alleyways. All up this amounts to 14,163,997 sq metres (3,500 acres) of impermeable concrete in 13,000 alleys. These figures make it much easier for me to imagine the positive impact.

Another issue for Chicago was untreated stormwater flowing into Lake Michigan, affecting water quality.

Permeable surfaces prevent around 80% of water from rushing into stormwater drains by allowing most of the rainfall to flow naturally into the ground. This is important for many reasons, including topping up the groundwater table.

Impermeable surfaces are replaced with crushed rocks, recycled slag or recycled crushed concrete, or, with pavers designed to channel water into the ground. Alleys are still suitable for use by all sorts of vehicles, including bikes & by pedestrians. They won’t become muddy or trap cars in boggy ground.

Additionally, the products that make permeable surfaces in the green alleys are light in colour (high albedo) with light reflecting qualities. They reflect rather than absorb sunlight, significantly lessening the Heat Island Effect.  They also make dark areas brighter at night, as they reflect moonlight & potentiate any street lighting.

Permeable path in Sydney Park

What I find really exciting about Chicago’s Green Alley Program is that they see green alleys as an improvement to people’s quality-of-life.  They work with the cooperation of residents to encourage use of alleys  as an extension of living space where appropriate. Obviously some alleys are frequented by traffic, but others are a rarely frequented space used mainly for the placement of garbage bins. We have the same situation in Marrickville LGA as well as the old ‘dunny runs.’

Chicago encourages planting small bird-friendly native gardens along the edges of alleys & also encourages planting shade trees at the back of people’s property to create shade in the alley. Where it’s appropriate they install rain gardens to capture roof water from a downward pipe that would usually channel rainwater collected from the roof onto the road surface. They also install water tanks & bio-swales where appropriate.

Most alleys have community compost bins for everyone to use.

Expensive? Well yes & no. Obviously staff time is expensive, but there are many ways to start employment programs where the costs are kept down whist giving people a chance to learn a skill. Rainwater tanks are expensive, but this could change.  I imagine bio-swales are expensive to create, however a small rain garden isn’t & the plants could be grown at the community nursery.  Good topsoil around the edges of alleys to encourage residents to plant the area & care for it isn’t too expensive either.

Permeable surfaces in Chicago alleys were costed at around US$45/sq yard.  This has got to be comparable with laying impermeable surfaces.

Chicago alleys have become places where people sit in the sun (or shade) & talk with their neighbours. The alleys stop being places where potential thieves walk to case entry points. Beauty comes into what are often ugly & neglected areas full of rubbish.

Back lanes are often cool places because the wind travels freely unhampered by tall walls. Imagine if they were a nice place to sit, an extension of your back garden.  It’s what they do in many places overseas & have done for hundreds of years. Often new arrivals to Australia find it strange that everyone either sits inside or in their private back garden. They are used to sitting on the porch or near the street so they can say hello to everyone & greet passersby.  Laneways can become places like this. There is no reason why the end or the edges can’t become a community garden. This will offer urban wildlife more sources of food if any planting includes natives.

A typical laneway complete with dumped rubbish

I think we get conditioned to accept the status quo. We view laneways as utility places even when the utility has stopped decades ago. We periodically clean them & store garbage bins there, except in those lanes where this has been prohibited.  Graffiti artists have recognized the need for laneways to be spruced up, though their method may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

2010 recorded the hottest temperature world-wide since they started recording temperature. All the experts believe the heat will get worse which means the Heat Island Effect will get worse.  We will find we are roasting in the oven we created.  I think a time will come when people will willingly rip up the stamped concrete that surrounds their house because power costs to cool our homes will be very expensive & we will be forced to embrace new ways of living.  Actually, they are the old ways of living before King Concrete began its reign.


San Francisco has a program Pavements to Parks instigated by the Mayor.  Unused or ugly spaces are made into Parklets, mini green areas for people to enjoy.  In some places they remove a couple of parking spaces to widen the footpath & allow café trading & eating in this area.  Where there is room, areas in the middle of the road have been made into green spaces for people to use. They are not playing sport, rather sitting alone or in groups talking to each other.

The Alpha Club who are leasing & renovating the old Marrickville Council building have created an area next to the footpath that allows people to sit in a green area. It's very new, but it is already very nice. My photo doesn't do it justice.

Parklets have been called ‘quality-of-life generating spaces’ & I would 100% agree with this perception.  The presence of Parklets support a pedestrian culture & encourages people to walk or ride. San Francisco intends to establish 35 other Parklets over the next 12 months.

As urbanisation becomes denser with more people living in areas & with new buildings unlikely to incorporate any serious useful green space, Parklets are going to be what builds communities & helps retain sanity.

They are cheap to create & maintain & the sky’s the limit in the creativity & beauty they can bring.  I think they are a great idea & already needed in Marrickville LGA.  We have so many areas that are concrete wastelands.  Parklets don’t have to be along the main shopping strips. They can be created anywhere that has some space. The people will use a Parklet if it is there.

Just last week I saw 2 people sitting on chairs that they had carried from their home to a concreted space that was in the sunshine. They were sitting drinking coffee & talking.  What was noticeable was that they were not near residential buildings.

I believe spaces like these encourage people outdoors. Being smaller than a park, they increase the likelihood that people will speak with each other. Fostering good relations is all part of building communities. Parklets would also encourage people to look after an area in terms of less littering & tagging by creating community pride.

They will also have the added benefit of helping to lower the Heat Island effect & if the plants used provide food for nectar-eatung birds, then the benefits only increase.  To my mind the benefit of Parklets are too numerous to ignore.

There is a 3.44 minute video that shows a few of the new Parklets in San Francisco & I think it is worth the time spent viewing. There is a few seconds that sound like an advertisement.  Ignore this section because better shots of Parklets follow.

The glorious old Marrickville Council building on Illawarra Road is being renovated by the Alpha Club run by the Greek community. So far they have planted Red Flowering Gums & flowering hedges. I think it already looks beautiful

Sections of Dulwich Hill shopping strip are looking much better than they did a couple of years ago

I was sent a link to a truly wonderful website earlier this week.   The website is about greening the footpaths & public spaces in San Francisco which the group Plant*SF call ‘Paving to Planting.’ Volunteers plant the newly created pavement gardens in San Francisco & make barren concrete, hot, ugly areas look wonderful.

Apart from the hard work of removing the concrete & the physical effort of planting, the process of greening an area is really quite simple.  It just needs people, some funds, suitable locations, cooperation, organization & plants, lots of plants or Council could just do it as part of their usual management of the LGA.

Marrickville Council has started doing verge gardens somewhat like those being created in San Francisco & it is a huge improvement to the past practice of a hole cut into the cement for the odd street tree.   Quite a few streets in Marrickville have had much larger verge gardens prepared around or near existing street trees & native grasses & succulent ground cover planted along with heavy mulching.  These changes have occurred during footpath replacement & apart from looking much better, they allow better access to rainwater for street trees. They also cut down the actual amount of concrete, making footpaths easier on the eye.  I have posted about this here –

The ‘Paving to Planting’ projects done by Plant*SF take what Marrickville Council are doing a step further & is what I think Marrickville Council should be aiming for.

The volunteers of Plant*SF not only remove concrete for a garden bed on the verge, they also remove extraneous concrete beside buildings where they plant vines & espalier trees along walls of buildings so the green walls stop reflecting heat.  They leave a good size footpath & plant along both sides.  This is what I remember from my childhood before the reign of concrete became the norm.

They also add planter-boxes & the odd seat encouraging people to use the footpath as a space to congregate & communicate with their neighbours.  Mind you, their planter boxes show there is quite a difference in effect just with the choice of planter box design.

Council have created a number of new verge gardens along Ewart Street Dulwich Hill

The Heat Island Effect is something we ignore at our peril.  Most of the remedies are so easy, though they do require a change in the way we think things should look like. Making changes to our footpaths & cemented or paved areas is relatively cheap to do & have the potential to be quite pretty as well.

This can only be good for the community because it is known that green plants, flowers & trees make people feel good. It’s been proven that a view of trees relieves anxiety & depression, helps kids with hyperactivity, helps girls study, helps people heal quicker & reduces hospital stay for a start. Concrete only where it has utility, garden beds & plants will make Marrickville LGA a far nicer place to live.

If Marrickville Council do decide to do this, I would hope they start on the areas that have fewer trees & more concrete as I keep discovering areas in the LGA that are really in need of serious greening.

An example of the wrong type of green in Gerald Street Marrickville. This street is in serious need of help.

Our shopping strips, now under threat because of the Marrickville Metro expansion, could also be helped with beautification to encourage more people to shop there.

Paving along shopping strips is nice, but better would be regular spaced planter boxes brimming with plants, hanging pots from awnings, street corners or from poles like City of Sydney Council have done along Glebe Point Road. This would also make the shopping strips much nicer & would have to be cheaper than the $60,000 needed to replace the tiled footpath along a short space of shops.  The hanging pots & planter boxes in Glebe are still going strong more than 18 months after they were installed proving that stepping out of the box can have longevity making the initial outlay of money worthwhile.

This is a big topic & I will be writing about other issues.  Please have a look at the website of Plant*SF. It’s a great article & they have a number of ‘before & after’ photos that illustrate what I am talking about.



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