On 30 January this year, I attended a public forum to discuss Brisbane City Council’s Green Bridges project.

During the forum, discussion around the competition between urban green spaces and new public infrastructure developments emerged. A competition that our urban greenery seemed poised to lose.

One term was thrown around frequently in these discussions: environmental offsets.

I had never heard this term before, so I set off on a journey to understand exactly what it means.

The answer is not a simple one. Solutions involve weaving together a complex web of competing values and interests.

Most of my enquiries delivered more questions than answers, but here is what I learned.

What is green space?

There are a few different definitions of “green space” bouncing around, but basically green space is a broad term used to describe everything from grass, shrubs, trees, and tree canopy cover.

There are various other terms used as well, like green assets and open space.

It’s important to remember that while the term green space covers a broad range of natural elements, each of them have profoundly different biophysical properties, serve different purposes, and provide unique benefits.

Chair of Treenet – a non-profit organisation advocating and educating on the best practices in the field of urban forest management and research – Dr Lyndal Plant said awareness of the value of green space and tree canopy cover is growing, especially after COVID-19 restrictions saw many of us stuck inside our homes and missing our connection with nature.

“A sort of hot white light has been shone on the value of green space,” she said.

“There’s some great research that’s been happening in Australia in the last five to ten years about all of the wonderful physical and mental health benefits of living near green space, living near trees, and living near parks.”

After hearing of this research, I spoke with Urban and Environmental Planner, Dr Tony Matthews. He told me there are proven, demonstrable benefits which indicate access to good quality green space can positively impact human health, in addition to numerous other social, environmental, and economic benefits.

“If you spend more time in nature or natural settings, it’s going to likely have positive benefits for your physical health,” he said.

You can read more about the benefits of urban green space here.

The loss of our urban green spaces may cost us more than we think


After learning of the countless benefits of green space in our inner-city areas, I began to wonder why we are sacrificing it to make way for new infrastructure.

The answer to this question was a simple one: we have a growing population and a finite amount of space to fit within.

Orleigh Park, West End

The competition for space

Dr Plant said the loss of green space in areas of high growth is real and challenging.

“I think the reason why we have tree cover – as in trees –  or green space being lost in areas of high growth is simply the competition for space,” she said.

“You’ve got a planning scheme on the one hand that has set targets around how much growth in population, and therefore how much dwelling, is expected in an area to cater for population growth. That, in itself, will require space. So, there’s always a competition for how much is left over and how much space is available to grow trees or retain existing trees. That’s really, really hard.”

When I first started on this journey, I came to understand the competition as one that pitted public infrastructure against green spaces.

But when speaking with Dr Matthews, he pointed out a flaw in this way of thinking.

“As a fundamental [green space] is public infrastructure. A public park is public infrastructure, in the same way that a walking track is public infrastructure, or a waterfront,” he said.

“They’re all public infrastructure. They’re all social infrastructure, designed to benefit the broad community. So, if what you’re concerned about in West End is using green space to provide other forms of public infrastructure, then there’s an argument to be made that what you’re doing is really just replacing one form of public infrastructure with another.”

It became clear then that the argument, at its conceptual core, is not about separating the two into distinct categories and choosing one over the other.

If green space falls within the category of public infrastructure, the conversation becomes more about which form of public infrastructure is needed more, and trying to allocate space for the various forms of public infrastructure we need to cater to our community.

A nuanced discussion which, it seems, is not currently taking place.

Current initiatives seem to tend more towards a decision being made by Government or Council about what public infrastructure they’d like to install, and removing green assets to make way for it.

And when it has been determined that these green assets will be removed, environmental offsets come into play.

Dr Tony Matthews

So what exactly is an environmental offset, and how do you do it?

Essentially, an environmental offset involves taking the loss of green space or green assets and replacing it to ensure no net loss of certain values, like open space, biodiversity or tree canopy cover.

Conceptually, this is relatively easy to understand.

However, the particulars of what constitutes an appropriate offset is where things start to become a little murky.

Dr Plant said the offsetting process is not a simple equation.

“The approach to offsetting is many and varied throughout the country, and certainly in Brisbane. Probably the most obvious or the clearest regulations around offsetting applies mostly to biodiversity values,” she said.

“There are areas that are no go, like ‘don’t even touch it’. Then there’ll be areas like, try to avoid the loss through a very soft landing design and if you can’t, you will have to achieve what they call a net gain in biodiversity values and they have some formulas around that that have been issued by the state government.”

Brisbane City Council Environment, Parks and Sustainability Chair Fiona Cunningham said Council is continuing to grow Brisbane’s green space by investing in parks and protecting new bushland.

“This includes delivering Brisbane’s biggest new park in fifty years at Victoria Park and continuing our Bushland Acquisition Program and restoration works which is getting Brisbane on track to have 40 per cent natural habitat cover by 2031,” she said.

“We have environmental offset provisions in the Brisbane planning scheme, City Plan 2014, which require any vegetation removal to be approved, with appropriate offset planting and rehabilitation required.”

However, clear guidance on these approval processes and offsetting methods do not appear to be easily accessible to the community.

Understanding the process of offsetting environmental losses

After speaking with a number of experts, reaching out to Brisbane City Council, and pouring over planning documents available online, I found identifying a clear process or criteria for environmental offsets quite challenging.

When asked what the current process is, a Brisbane City Council spokesperson said information about the criteria for environmental offsets could be found in their City Plan 2014 document.

“The City Plan 2014 has separate provisions for environmental offsets. Within the City Plan, environmental offsets are required for applications that interfere with vegetation that is mapped in the Biodiversity area overlay mapping, namely areas of ecological significance.”

But both locating and understanding these provisions proved a difficult undertaking.

After a number of hours clenching my jaw, pouring over the document, and growing increasingly closer to tearing out my hair, I found I had been left with more questions than answers.

Dr Matthews said my difficulties may have arisen from the fact that there is a difference between plans and processes.

“Oftentimes, the plans are not fully specific about the implementation mechanism. The plan is like the vision … realising the vision is much more complicated,” he said.

“The more particular means to realise the vision are much more nuanced and forensic than would be set out in the plan and are subject to a whole bunch of other processes, requirements, and restrictions.”

With this in mind, I had another go at looking over the City Plan, and this is what I found.

SC6.22 of the planning document stipulates that Council’s offset requirements are underpinned by the premise that impacts are avoided, then minimised, before considering the use of offsets for any remaining impacts.

It then directed me to the Biodiversity areas planning scheme policy for guidance on identifying unavoidable, negative ecological impacts resulting from development.

This policy indicates that in order for a development intrusion into mapped areas of the Biodiversity areas overlay to be considered unavoidable, the application must demonstrate that their proposal meets two criteria:

  1. The applicant must demonstrate that the locational requirements necessitate its location within an area mapped in the Biodiversity areas overlay.
  2. Must prove that all development design mechanisms have been adopted to minimise intrusion or vegetation clearing.

It then states that if the loss is considered unavoidable, environmental offset procedures will apply in accordance with the Environmental Offsets Act 2014.

The City Plan 2014 document also states that “there is no requirement for the environmental offset to deliver the protection or restoration of the same regional ecosystems as those at the impact site.”

I asked Dr Matthews about this particular section of the document, as it read to me like lost vegetation did not need to be replaced like for like, and indicated a lack of clear criteria for determining what kind of vegetation should replace what was lost.

“If they’re saying straight up that they’re not in the business of doing like for like, then I would say they have been pretty honest about their intentions,” he said.

“I think the point that’s being made there by Brisbane City Council is ‘if we remove a section of green space that is primarily made up of gum trees, that doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to put gum trees back someplace else. We might remove an acre of land in West End that has gum trees on it and we might provide an acre of land in Belmont but it’ll be grassland.’”

“So, yes it’s technically green space but it’s not the same type, and because it’s not the same type, it has all kinds of other properties and works differently in terms of biodiversity and things like that.”

According to the City Plan an environmental offset can be delivered through one of three methods: a financial settlement offset, a proponent-driven offset, or a combination of both.

It states that implementation of the delivery must commence as soon as is feasible.

If the proponent-driven offset method is chosen, the developer delivers the offset requirements themselves. This includes acquiring land, obtaining approvals, implementation, maintenance, and reporting.

Such an offset must be delivered on private land and Council-owned land will not be available for the offset.

If the financial settlement method is chosen, the developer makes a financial payment to Council, who will deliver the environmental offset on their behalf.

But Landscape Architect and Urban Designer, John Mongard, is dubious about the efficacy of this method.

“I don’t trust money going into a government bucket,” he said.

“Quite often, in the local area, developers contribute money for open space but that money doesn’t stay in the neighbourhood. It goes into a big bucket to be used anywhere in the city. That’s why the open space does not keep up with the population in West End.”

John Mongard

Where should it go?

Mr Mongard said offsetting an environmental loss in a different neighbourhood is fundamentally flawed as an idea, and any offsets should occur within the same area.

He mentioned the Green Space Strategy created by the West End community. The strategy was a response to Kurilpa’s population, future growth, and demand for open space.

“Kurilpa’s like a big bucket that you can just keep putting more housing into because there’s no limit to the bucket. So, the number of houses and people resulting from that was going to be so high that it would – from memory – require another South Bank, in terms of public open space within our neighbourhood,” he said.

“Obviously we don’t have room for another South Bank, so the Green Space Strategy was actually around reclaiming [street] verges and unused road reserves.”

Mr Mongard said these verges and road reserves accumulated to roughly 11 hectares of land.

“My argument is that offsetting should happen in Kurilpa because we’re already short of space now, irrespective of future population,” he said.

“It should happen in our own road reserves and public lands that we’re not using for park land.”

He gave the example of the large fig tree and goanna on the corner of Boundary St and Russel St  which measures approximately 150 square metres.

“We could easily fit another 50 of those in similar locations around the neighbourhood without any loss of traffic movement or private land,” he said.

“We could put a big fig tree on 50 different street corners with a little pocket park, or we could put a big linear park on Hampstead Road, which was one of the big moves in the Green Space Strategy.”

“From memory, that is more than a hectare of land and unused road reserve that we could turn into park land by taking away the width of the road and having a linear path. We’ve already drawn it. We’ve already designed it. So, there’s lots of places it could go.”

Dr Plant agreed that there is a lot to be said for losses being offset in the same neighbourhood they were lost from.

“Especially with a more dense population in one area. They would have greater need for green space than a different population density. So, it should all be driven by respecting the needs, or the demand for green space in the local area,” she said.

Dr Lyndal Plant

Do environmental offsets work?

There is a general consensus among the experts I spoke with that the offsetting process in urban landscapes is not overly effective as it stands today.

Dr Matthews said the process is extremely complex, and is not a satisfactory management solution.

“The whole offsetting thing is not very reliable, or very sophisticated, and it’s certainly never really like for like. The other problem is, there’s little enough green space around to begin with, so once you start using it for other means and converting it to other things, you can’t really put it back,” he said.

“If we get rid of a hectare of green space in West End, and we provide a hectare of green space elsewhere in Brisbane then there’s no net loss. That is true at the city scale, not true at the neighbourhood scale. So offsetting is not necessarily a very sophisticated response mechanism.”

“Sometimes it’s just playing to the gallery.”

Dr Plant said it’s likely a combination of different factors that contribute to the complexity of the offsetting process and overall, the position of offsetting is not preferred.

“The first position is to retain, especially with trees as they take a long time to grow. You want to consider all possible options to avoid removal, especially if they’re valued and worthy trees. Then, after that, if you’ve exhausted every possible design alternative, we get into this business of offsetting to achieve the best possible outcome,” she said.

“The preferred position is to leave the tree where it is and design the structure to be sympathetic with the tree.”

While it proved difficult to get to the bottom of what the current process is, many have views about what the process should be.

Mr Mongard said the approach should be pragmatic and any loss should be costed, relocated, and worked into the plan at the beginning stages of planning.

“If we’re losing 10 big trees and half a hectare of land, then that should be replaced, and it should be replaced in the beginning of the work not at the end of it. We shouldn’t be waiting 10 years for that replacement. Quite often they’ll promise something and say, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that’, and then don’t do it. So the money should be set aside up front.”

“It’s not hard to do. There’s no magic to it,” he said.

“This idea of offsets is good in a broad sense, as a system, but in a practical example, like a bridge taking out half a hectare of park land and big trees, I think it could be immediately offset by planning open space to replace it at the same time as planning the bridge.”

Green space vs. Development: The big picture

A Brisbane City Council spokesperson said Council has a goal to achieve 40% natural habitat cover in Brisbane by 2031 and is well on track to meet this target, with 38.9% natural habitat cover currently.

“With more people moving to Brisbane to take advantage of our fantastic lifestyle, our priority is balancing the needs of our beautiful natural environment with those of a growing city,” they said.

“The guidance of the Brisbane Clean, Green Sustainable 2017-2031 and the requirements of the City Plan 2014, help ensure there is no net loss of existing public open space and greenspace across the Brisbane region.”

Brisbane City Council Environment, Parks and Sustainability Chair, Fiona Cunningham, said building new playgrounds, park shelters, or access points in a park may show as a small change in the space but is enhancing access, facilities and enjoyment of the parks.

“We take great pride in our parklands and want to make them accessible to more people so they can get outside and enjoy Brisbane’s great lifestyle,” she said.

“Improvements in infrastructure, like green bridges, enhance and better connect our green spaces.”

It may be true that infrastructure like green bridges improve the accessibility of our parks by opening up easy access to different areas of Brisbane, but it does raise one key question for me.

If we are already short on green space for the current population of Kurilpa, does increasing access to our parks actually deliver beneficial outcomes to our community?

It may allow members of other communities to utilise our parks, which is great for them, but we need more green space for our community as it is.

Mr Mongard, for one, doesn’t think the loss of green space is ever a necessary price to pay for new infrastructure.

“If we had a profusion of green space compared to the population need, that would probably be arguable. But given that we’re so short of green space assets, you can’t really make that argument,” he said.

For some, the current status of planning schemes may come down to a problem of perspective.

Dr Matthews said many are trying to alter the way councils and developers perceive our urban green spaces.

“Local councils and property developers often look at green spaces as unrealised assets. Like, it’s just green space but it could be houses or could be a shopping centre. What they don’t do is look at it in terms of the dollar value that it’s generating in its current state,” he said.

He said Brisbane is lagging behind cities like Sydney and Melbourne in their approach to green space strategy.

“From my personal perspective, I think Brisbane could be a little bit more sophisticated about understanding the value and necessity of green space preservation and provision,” he said.

“I think [Sydney and Melbourne] are taking this more seriously and have clearer priorities around this, and have various programs in place to support meeting those priorities… Whereas in Brisbane, I feel like there’s an appreciation of green space and there’s an appreciation of the need for green space, but I do not see it as being as urgent to the overall urban development agenda and urban planning agenda as I do in those other two cities. I think there’s more work to be done here.”

According to Dr Matthews, the pressure on green space comes primarily from residential development, and to some degree, precinct level development.

He said in this regard, Council’s solution to avoiding the loss of green space is often to go to higher densities.

“Honestly, Australian Councils generally are kind of slow-witted when it comes to how to achieve density in an elegant way,” he said.

“Usually, they want to just go up. And the argument will be, we have population demand, we need to develop the land that we have, and if we’re not going to develop all of it – nor lots of green space – then we need to go into higher density which usually means higher heights.”

“And it’s kind of like, ‘take it or leave it’ and that kind of puts it back on communities. That sort of forces them to agree to a way forward as opposed to being a more nuanced solution worked out by everybody.”

When it comes to new developments, community consultation is frequently involved in the planning process.

But I am left wondering if our community is able to give meaningful feedback about how and where development should be placed, and how any environmental losses are offset, if the information available to us is confounding at best.

Environmental offsets sound like a good solution but do we really understand what this means in the grand scheme of things?

After talking with some of our best experts, I’m still not sure.

Feature image by Jan Bowman