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‘Living Lab' in Sydney's Inner West Helps Researchers Understand Plant Selection For Urban Spaces in a Changing World

Publication date: 29 January 2019

Hort Innovation creates cutting-edge research and development projects that grow the productivity of the Australian horticulture industry by solving the many challenges it encounters. One of the big challenges is a changing environment, posing a simple question with perhaps a not so simple solution – as our climate changes, which horticulture species will thrive, or struggle, in future Australian urban areas?

A changing climate has ramifications across the whole of the horticulture sector, but in particular for the nursery industry, where the commercial objective is essentially to sell healthy plants that remain healthy into the future. This is what is being addressed by the research project, “Which Plant Where?”, undertaken by Macquarie University and Western Sydney University, and proudly supported by Hort Innovation’s Green Cities Fund (as part of its recently developed Hort Frontiers initiative). This collaborative project is testing a range of plants under various climate conditions to gain a better understanding of what species are going to thrive in a hotter future and which will not. Building on this work, the team will create an online tool that will identify suitable plants for specific urban areas across Australia.

The research has implications for a range of applications, from everyday gardeners who want to make sure their gardens flourish, to larger scale urban precincts where plants will provide cooling and shading for residents. Recently, Sydney’s Inner West Council got on board and have now planted the project’s first “Living Lab”, where specifically chosen plants will be monitored in real-life urban settings. For this first experiment, Inner West Council has provided an area in Underwood Reserve, Summer Hill, where a range of trees and shrubs have been planted in the popular community space. Researchers will monitor plant performance as well as the associated environmental benefits.

The Inner West council plants around one thousand trees a year, and Gwilym Griffiths, Urban Forest Manager for the Council, says it’s crucial that plant choice takes into consideration the long-term. “Urban areas are highly contested spaces, so we need to get it right,” he said at the Living Lab’s launch. “The challenges are only going to increase, with increased heat and the further development of urban areas, so when we plant trees we really need to make sure we’re maximising their success. In partnering with ‘Which Plant Where?’ we hope to achieve this maximisation. We want to make sure that the trees we’re planting are the right trees, and that they’re resilient for the future.”

While the core of the research is to understand how plants will endure in a changing environment, the project extends beyond merely their survival. As Western Sydney University researcher, Paul Rymer, explained; “We have developed the Living Lab to measure the co-benefits plants provide. It will allow us to closely examine what benefits trees provide to the canopy and how shrubs support soil structure. Further, we will measure the difference between basic and complex combinations so we can get a better understanding of the different benefits they provide. By capturing this information we can provide growers, Councils and the general public information about the best combination for capturing pollutants, increasing urban cooling and soil health, and supporting biodiversity.”

The Living Lab in Summer Hill leads the way for other on-ground collaborations to come.  The ‘Which Plant Where?’ Project Manager, Leigh Staas, says “Living Labs are a really fantastic way for our researchers to collaborate with end users. What we’re really trying to do is create confidence for growers and practitioners, by providing evidence-based research of how a plant performs across urban landscapes to growers and nurseries. This means growers can better plan what plants they’re producing in the nurseries and putting into  our urban landscapes.”

Learn more about the project – and meet the researchers – in this video...

Copyright: Copyright © Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited 2019. This (in part or as whole) cannot be reproduced, published, communicated or adapted without the prior written consent of Hort Innovation (except as may be permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth)).



'Which Plant Where?' is funded by Hort Innovation, under the Hort Frontiers Green Cites Fund, and in partnership with Macquarie University, Western Sydney University (WSU) and the NSW Office of Heritage and the Environment.

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Communications Manager
Hort Frontiers