As our city expands and our precious parks and spaces are squeezed out in favour of construction and development, what is the future of Sydney’s green spaces? They’re important not just for aesthetic reasons, but for cleaner and cooler air, social interaction and leisure and community-building projects.

Sacha Coles is the director of ASPECT Studios, one of Australia’s most distinguished landscape architecture and urban design firms. This year, ASPECT won an AILA NSW ‘Excellence in Design’ award for its work at UTS’s Alumni Green. The design was also a candidate in the Domain and Sydney Morning Herald’s Premier’s People’s Choice Award. Other projects have included the incredibly popular Goods Line, One Central Park and Darling Quarter. Fresh from a guest speaker role at This Public Life, part of the Festival of Landscape Architecture, Coles has many thoughts of the importance of our green spaces, and how we can work to improve and maintain them.

Broadsheet: How is Sydney different to other cities when it comes to green space?
Sasha Coles: Sydney is spoilt with its coastal open-space network and its postcard heritage green spaces such as Centennial Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens. However, Sydney, as with all of our major cities, is facing the decline of our urban green spaces. Across Australia, Hobart, Brisbane and Darwin’s central business districts lead our nation’s cities in urban greening with the highest percentage of tree canopy. Sydney and Melbourne – our two largest cities – are falling well behind due to the pressures of urbanisation.

In New South Wales, councils have sold, developed or reclassified more than 20 per cent of urban open space in the past decade. But it’s not all bad news. Sydney boasts one of the largest aggregated urban green spaces in the country. At over 50 square kilometres, the Western Sydney Parklands is a rapidly evolving open space network that will service the demographic centre of Sydney.

BS: Why are our green spaces at risk? What are the consequences if they disappear?
SC: As our cities grow, they become more populated and dense. Green space can often be overlooked in the planning and development. Building in green infrastructure through a network of open spaces has a number of benefits including cooling our cities and mitigating the effects of climate change, providing clean air and usable recreation areas that all communities can enjoy. This directly increases our collective wellbeing making us healthier, happier and more productive, while improving our economy.

A recent strategic document called The Green Grid commissioned by the Landscape and Urban Design unit of the New South Wales Government Architect’s Office aims to create connected open space networks – essentially using urban greenery as green infrastructure to connect neighbourhoods and communities, and uplift Sydney's global standing on the index of liveability.

The Green Grid is important as it works to improve and expand Sydney’s network of open spaces and to reinforce the distinct sense of place that greenery provides.

BS: What are some of Sydney's most important green spaces?
SC: Sydney’s green spaces are important at a range of levels; local, regional, city, state and national, and Sydney has some of the nation’s most impressive open spaces.

The City of Sydney has developed outwards from the Sydney basin, which is framed by the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park to the north, the Royal National Park to the south and the Blue Mountains National Park to the west. These three green spaces are of national significance, not only because of the biodiversity within them, but because they hold the development of the city and retain it from expansion in each of these directions.

Sydney is famed for the scenic qualities and beauty of its harbour and its coastal edge. More importantly, through initiatives at all levels of Government, both the harbour and the coastal edges are uniting as publicly accessible open space networks which allow more opportunity for our harbour- and beach-obsessed population to engage with the water. These are some of the most important and sacred open spaces that we have.

BS: Tell us about your work on The Goods Line, why was this an important project for you?
SC: The Goods Line was a particularly important project for me as it embodies everything that we strive for in design in public places – to connect people with place, to bring people together and to create a high level of social infrastructure for the city. The Goods Line also symbolises a current phase of growth where a space like this former rail line, a post-industrial legacy has been turned into a community asset. It’s now a place for leisure and recreation, but also encourages thriving, creative industries by designing in opportunities to work externally, either in groups at the communal table, or individually in one of the study pods, which are scattered along the line.

BS: What kind of barriers do you come up against when planning landscapes in such an urban environment?
SC: In general people are wary of change. But landscape architects generally uplift the quality of public life by designing new public spaces, so we encounter far fewer barriers to implementing our work, as people are positive about more green space in our cities. Of course, there are barriers in every process, and with The Goods Line the most significant challenges were underground. The construction team had to work around live, high-voltage power lines which run a significant part of the city rail network. As you would imagine, this slowed things down immensely and was a huge challenge to overcome. These are the things that you only discover once the project is underway.

BS: What does it feel like to see communities use and interact with your finished products?
SC: It’s a joy when you hand over a project to the public and the ownership becomes shared. The way people interact and use the spaces we design gives me inspiration for the next project. It’s impossible to think of every interaction or to expect to design for it, and I love seeing people use the project in ways that we never anticipated. The flip side is that when a project is not performing, the immediacy of social media brings it to your attention very quickly.