Work with us!

Research Fellow (RECETAS project)

We are currently looking for a Research Fellow for an exciting, interdisciplinary, 4 year postdoc looking at the use of nature based prescribing to treat loneliness!

  • 1x part time (0.5FTE), fixed term (4 years) position available
  • Salary Level at Academic Level B1 ($100,465) + 17% Super
  • Be part of global multidisciplinary research team within the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies and work on a project investigating the use of nature based prescribing to address loneliness in cities

About the Role and Project
As the Research Fellow, you will work with Professor Sarah Bekesy and Professor Katherine Johnson in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, on the NHMRC Horizon 2020/ EU funded project RECETAS: Re-Imagining Environments for Connection and Engagement: Testing actions for Social Prescribing in Natural Spaces.

Find out more about the role here.

Enhancing biodiversity in cities through design

This article is republished from Cities People Love under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

An interview with Professor Sarah Bekessy

Sarah Bekessy is a sustainability and urban planning academic at RMIT University in Melbourne and a leading voice in Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD).  We interviewed Sarah to understand more about the importance and benefits of incorporating biodiversity and nature in the design and planning of our cities.

What is your role in protecting and enhancing nature in cities?

I have a background in conservation biology and have been working at the intersection of town planning and urban design, and now architecture and biodiversity conservation for quite some time. Biodiversity in cities is predominantly a human-driven concept. Tackling the issue alongside people who are making decisions about the form, design and construction of cities and how people interact with nature is utterly critical to the debate and discipline. It has been an interesting space to be part of over the last decade as it’s gone from being a peripheral issue of minor interest to people through to a completely mainstream concept that is now core to any discussion about resilience and health in cities.

What is the case for enhancing biodiversity and nature in cities?

The health and wellbeing benefits are the most compelling reason for enhancing nature in cities and a remarkable body of research has emerged in the last decade that policy makers find very compelling. Your whole health and wellbeing is influenced by the amount and quality of interactions with nature in cities and a remarkable array of physical and mental health and wellbeing benefits result from having everyday nature experiences. Further to that we know we can cool cities, reduce the risk of flood events, and generate resilience to climate change through nature in cities. If we do it right, cities can sequester as much carbon per unit area as a tropical rainforest. So we can even be part of the reversing climate change solution.

There’s also a really strong argument that unless we engage people with nature in cities we will gradually become disenchanted and disconnected with nature. There is an important educational and engagement opportunity to re-enchant and reconnect people with nature in the places where they’re living, working and playing. Nature in cities is key to place-making and connecting people with the uniqueness of the place where they’re living. Nature is how we can make cities not such homogenous, globalised places but places with their own unique stories.

Nature is also a really important way to celebrate culture. In Melbourne we have a unique opportunity to celebrate the rich Indigenous cultural heritage of our city through telling stories about nature and having return of species of significance. People want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, where you’re generating habitat and celebrating cultural stories through your own front or back garden.

What are the key ways practitioners need to think to better manage, incorporate and enhance nature in cities?

Broadly speaking what we’re asking people to do is turn years of training and concepts of cities on their heads.

We have historically seen cities as places to retreat from nature – safe spaces away from the dangers and threats and perils of nature. A lot of our construction and design thinking is based on that philosophy. It’s big shift to think about how we can design to embrace nature and encourage positive human wildlife interactions.

Step one is actually reframing the way that nature is conceptualised in planning and design because, despite the remarkable benefits I described earlier and the policy commitment at all levels of government, we still have planning policy that on the whole treats biodiversity as a problem and a constraint. We need to reframe biodiversity in the planning world so that it’s perceived of as an asset to be maximised, not a problem to get rid of or offset. And we have to start acknowledging that ecological knowledge is key to this. The emerging evidence is that it is biodiversity, not just ‘greening’, that delivers the maximum level of benefit to cities and the people who live in them.

Delivering biodiversity in cities is not going to be a generic box-ticking process. We have to work meaningfully and deeply with the ecological disciplines to understand what species need to persist, what resources they need, what threats they’re going to face and how to better connect the city so that they can move around and be viable. That requires deep ecological understanding. Historically there has been a strong divide between the world of architecture/design/planning and the world of ecology and conservation and I’m passionate about bringing those worlds together to achieve meaningful benefits through having rich biodiversity in cities.

Roof designed to support biodiversity – photo provided by Sarah Bekessy.
Biodiversity driven design as imagined in Fishermans Bend – concept image provided by Sarah Bekessy.

What are some of the tools you’ve been working on that can help practitioners bridge the divide between the built-form disciplines and ecological knowledge?

We have developed a protocol called Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD) to help developers to meaningfully build biodiversity into their designs through investigation, objective-setting, design and evaluation processes. We have been working with the development industry to implement and test the BSUD framework and build an evidence-base to support incorporating biodiversity considerations into the planning, design and construction process.

Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design starts with investigating a development site with the mindset to seeing biodiversity as an asset, then thinking carefully about how you can be regenerative in your designs to bring species back and restore natural processes. We encourage developers to ask questions about the history of the site – what ecosystems used to exist and thrive there – then think about how that history could be reflected in designs moving forward.

Engaging with stakeholders and the community is key to determining objectives about the species and ecosystems that you want to allow to flourish or return to the site. They can be really charismatic and enchanting species or keystone species that will help attract and protect other species. When designing for different species, people often instantly think about parks, green spaces and riverside vegetation. While these spaces are critical to biodiversity in cities, BSUD recommends thinking about building requirements of species into the urban fabric itself as this is key to people engaging deeply and frequently with biodiversity and getting the most out of their interactions with nature.

We want to be building houses that both provide resources for species and mitigate threats. We can create nesting, food and water resources in our houses and gardens. And threats can be mitigated through a range of features, including the lighting that you use, the windows that you choose (i.e. bird-friendly glass), and providing nesting boxes and insect hotels. Having a garden with the features of habitat that species are going to enjoy – rocks and logs and water – or incorporating a range of species from big trees through to shrubs to an understory of herb-rich grassland. All these things are totally possible in small city-backyards. Even balconies can be rich places for providing habitat.

The evaluation of proposed designs to ensure biodiversity is meaningfully incorporated, requires more complex and scientific approaches ranging from expert opinion to technical modelling. This process helps to identify the critical components of the proposed design and any aspects that may interact negatively with other development goals. We encourage all practitioners to think through the BSUD process and consider how they could meaningfully engage with every step of the process in their project.

“For practitioners, thinking creatively and in a sophisticated way about how we can build on-site biodiversity into all of our new developments and retrofits is the key challenge.”
Planting for biodiversity in Clowes Street, Melbourne. The biodiversity impacts of urbanization can be mitigated by Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design. A landscape devoid of vegetation other than a strip of lawn provides little habitat or resources for native species living in the grassland, this compared to a space planted with a variety of native species such as trees, shrubs and grasses.Photo credit: City of Melbourne

What can be achieved when you bring together this multi-disciplinary approach and commitment to biodiversity from the outset?

Most practitioners are linked into thinking about some of the barriers to BSUD being a reality – conflicts with fire, risk and safety issues, infrastructure damage from tree roots, and people’s interactions with nature (i.e. leaves clogging gutters, nature is stinky/noisy).

The obstacles to BSUD are numerous, but we have found design solutions to every identified barrier and we just need to test these to demonstrate their effectiveness and build an evidence base of outcomes.

We’re currently trialing the BSUD framework on two development sites with Lend-Lease and Yarra Valley Water and will evaluate the benefit and outcomes of the process. We see this is a key aspect to mainstreaming BSUD so that people aren’t afraid of the potential negatives to embarking on this process.

The economics of the approach are also important to understand to build an economic case for BSUD. How much does it add to the value of a house? Are people prepared to spend the extra amount? Or does it even cost anything extra to think differently in this way?

We also think BSUD can operate at any scale. We’re working with architects on a range of house and street-scale case-studies. Nature based solutions have become a mainstream concept in the architecture world and most state-of-the-art new building will include some sort of greening or biodiversity consideration.

But we’re still not at the point of proving biodiversity benefits and we don’t have an equivalent evaluation framework in place as you would have for carbon or water for a building. This is why we’re working with architects to build ecological thinking and biodiversity metrics into standard architectural process.

The aim is to see biodiversity evaluated in the same way that we evaluate the carbon footprint of developments and to make BSUD a mainstream approach to design to enhance biodiversity in cities for the benefit of individuals, communities and our sense of culture and place.

Find out more about BSUD, including helpful resources by visiting our BUSD webpage!

Feral Cat Control in Australia – 5-year report

Read the full report here.

Since 2015, members of ICON Science have been working with the Office of the Threatened Species Commissioner to assess the national management of feral cats across Australia. This work is part of the wider Threatened Species Strategy, and recognises the significant threat to Australia’s native species that is posed by feral cats.

Taking place across 5 years, this work aimed to document who is engaging in feral cat control, how many cats have been removed and how close Australia is to meeting the ambitious targets set out in the Threatened Species Strategy.

We are pleased to share the final report from this 5-year project, which has involved a cross section of the interdisciplinary team here at ICON Science.

Number of feral cats removed by individual survey respondents in each 2-digit postcode area

Methods
In addition to collated data from government reports and repositories, we undertook strategic online surveys of individuals and organisations who are most likely to be undertaking feral cat control. The 2020 online survey collected raw numbers of feral cats controlled, control area estimates, control methods and information on the type of environment where work has taken place. We also asked participants to indicate the location of their feral cat control activities (see featured map at top of post).

We used the variation in feral cat control numbers collected from the sample of local councils, farmers and shooters/hunters who took part in the survey to project the number of cats controlled on a national scale. This allowed us to provide a bounded estimate for the total number of feral cats removed between 2015 & 2020.

Posterior distributions and 95% credible intervals of a) the mean number of feral cats culled by farmers, and b) the projected total number of feral cats culled by farmers who engage in feral cat control but did not respond to our survey.

Key results
Our final 5-year cumulative estimate for the number of feral cats controlled ranges between 1,493,520 and 1,669,568 cats, with a most likely estimate of 1,581,544 cats having been removed from the environment since 2015.

Other results:
– 2917 individuals completed the online survey, 61% of whom said they were engaged in feral cat management (the survey was targeted at groups likely to be undertaking cat control).
– In our survey sample, feral cat control activities were concentrated in the more populous areas of eastern Australia.
– Non-government organisations engaged in feral cat control activities report most activity taking place in urban areas.
– Individuals are more likely to be operating in farmland or scrubland.

The unique area managed for feral cats as reported by respondents to our surveys, derived from the location data points and area estimates recorded by organisation and individual survey respondents.

Kirk, H., Garrard, GE., Kusmanoff, AM., Gregg, EG., & Bekessy, SA. (2020) Updated assessment of the national effort towards feral cat control. Report for the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. Download pdf

ICON Science does R (and other things)

During the dark times of early 2020, the ICON Science Hacky Hour team decided to take our weekly meetings to the next level!

For those not familiar with the concept, a “hacky hour” is a relaxed opportunity to workshop different problems, share knowledge and ask for help. ICON Science’s Hacky Hour has been running since November 2019, and offers us a regular opportunity to touch base on all things statistics and R (the programming language lots of us use for data analysis).

When the Australian national COVID-19 lockdown hit we moved our weekly meetings to Microsoft Teams and started to run a range of bi-weekly structured workshop/discussion sessions .


The ICON Science Hacky Hour group enjoys a good meme

ICON members took it in turns to lead the sessions, some taking the format of a paper discussion, others a skills-share. Over the last year we covered a heady mix of topics, from data visualisation and creating web-pages in R right through to reproducible research and differences in epistemology. We have even been lucky to snag a few guest-lecture sessions from folks in our wider network!

We kicked our workshop sessions off with an intro to Reproducibility and Open Science (using R), which we built up over a few weeks – you can read a summary of the info & resources we collected here. We were also lucky to hear from Dr Hannah Fraser (University of Melbourne), an expert in how to recognise and avoid Questionable Research Practices!

As an interdisciplinary group, before taking on some topics it was important for us to take a few things back to basics. We started with “why do we even care about statistics and other questions”, presented by Holly and Roshan. This was followed by a great overview of descriptive stats from Katherine.

See Katherine’s slides here!

For those of us raised as “classically-trained ecologists” it was great to have a discussion of different research philosophies, especially as Conservation Science has a strong social component. Emily masterfully introduced different ontologies and epistemologies, helping us to see where our different practices sat and leading us to this excellent “Guide to Understanding Social Science Research for Natural Scientists” from Moon & Blackman (2014). It was only natural to follow this with a comprehensive run-down of qualitative research methods from Matthew and Marco!

You can access Marco and Matthew’s slides here

It wouldn’t be a true Hacky Hour without occasionally dipping into the knitty-gritty of getting things done in R. In 2020 we solved a few problems, wrote some functions, cleaned a lot of data and had some lively discussions about whether “for” loops are the Best Thing Ever. Holly gave a full demonstration of R’s plotting abilities, including where to find a dreamy selection of ready-made colour palettes and a comparison of base R and ggplot2. You can find her slides here and also the R code she used to generate the demo plots.

Hacky Hour is still going strong in 2021, and so far we still haven’t run out of things to talk about yet!

ICON at #VicBioCon21

By Katherine Berthon and Marco Gutiérrez

Last month ICON Science was a proud sponsor of the 2021 Victorian Biodiversity Conference (VicBioCon). ICON researchers also helped organise and presented at the conference. It was the first time the conference was held entirely online, and, despite some website updates during a tea break, the whole train ran smoothly!

VicBioCon is a local conference that aims to connect industry, government, and practitioners to research, and showcase local efforts to conserve biodiversity in Victoria. This year’s line-up included plenary talks from academics and professionals working with human-nature connection and threatened species conservation. It also included two outstanding panels; one on the efficacy of Australia’s biodiversity laws, and another on the possibilities for nature in the city. In the latter panel, our very own Sarah Bekessy shared her passion for creating everyday nature in cities, a topic that is especially important given continued covid lockdowns.

Plenary highlights included Euan Richie talking about what gives him hope in conservation, in a time of climate and political challenges.

Minda Murray shared about her story and the struggle of Indigenous Peoples to have their knowledge and cultural existence recognised. She ended by encouraging for collaboration and relationship building across Indigenous organisations and non-Indigenous allies.

Chris McCormack gave us two tales of development and encouraged us to build empathy for human-nature relationships through storytelling.

Lindy Lumsden delivered a passionate talk about her work with Australian bats and their conservation.

An equally important part of VicBioCon is the student and early career researchers talks which give postdocs, PhDs, and master’s students alike the opportunity to network and share their research. This year, ICON researchers participated in sessions on urban ecology, science communication, and environmental policy.

On Friday morning, in the Urban Ecology session, Katherine presented her research on using metabarcoding to determine pollinator preferences in Melbourne parks.

On Friday afternoon, in the Science Communication session, Matthew shared his expert elicitation work on cost-effectiveness of cat containment and wildlife gardening programs on conserving small mammals; and Emily mapped out the ethics behind strategic conservation messaging. Both have papers in prep, so stay tuned!

Alongside in the Environmental Policy session, Marco gave his critical analysis of the Melbourne Strategic Assessment, and Lily van Eeden (our latest ICON recruit) talked about research strategies, and collaborations necessary to encourage Victorians to value nature.

We look forward to the next edition of VicBioCon in 2022!

Our favourite conservation journal articles of 2020

As part of the final work week of the year, some of us from ICON wanted to share our fav journal papers of the year. A synopsis of each paper is provided below, and as you would expect from an interdisciplinary group, they cover a diverse range of topics.

Have a safe and healthy end of the year and we look forward to connecting in 2021.

Sarah Bekessy  

Sheldrake, M. 2020. Entangled Life. Penguin Books

My favourite science read was a book – Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake (How fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures). Read the New York Times review of the book here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/books/review-entangled-life-fungi-merlin-sheldrake.html

Katie Berthon

Mills, J.G., Bissett, A., Gellie, N.J., Lowe, A.J., Selway, C.A., Thomas, T., Weinstein, P., Weyrich, L.S. and Breed, M.F., 2020. Revegetation of urban green space rewilds soil microbiotas with implications for human health and urban design. Restoration Ecology.

In a time of global health crisis, the knowledge that biodiverse urban environments can help increase our health and immunity is one of the best good news stories this year. While the links between biodiverse environments and gut health are old news, this study shows that it is possible to rewild our cities enough to restore biodiverse microbiota and will give us the necessary exposure we need to develop healthy and well-functioning immune systems. The authors compare the microbiota of different greenspaces in Playford, South Australia and find that restored sites with more diverse plant communities were able to get close to remnant or pre-city condition of microbiota. The nuances with soil are complicated, but my key take away is – rewilding can restore communities!

Ascelin Gordon

Waddock, S., 2020. Reframing and Transforming Economics around Life. Sustainability, 12(18), p.7553.

As many of us know, economic considerations are vital when trying to work on biodiversity conservation. More and more people are pointing out the fundamental problems with our current neoliberal economic systems, with their primary focus of on continual growth and failure to decouple themselves from increasing environmental impacts. This paper offers a new “framework for economics that affirms life”, and through this presents some radical and fundamental changes we need to make a society. These are the types of changes that would treat the fundamental causes of biodiversity loss, rather than just working to alleviate the symptoms.

Emily Gregg

MacFarlane, D. and Rocha, R., 2020. Guidelines for communicating about bats to prevent persecution in the time of COVID-19. Biological Conservation, 248: 108650.

I think we all find it fairly impossible to think back over 2020 without thinking about COVID-19, so for me the paper that stood out this year was definitely Douglas MacFarlane and Ricardo Rocha’s perspective piece ‘Guidelines for communicating about bats to prevent persecution in the time of COVID-19’. As well as being timely and straight to the point in terms of communicating some conservation messaging tips, it also furthered the conversation on how we need to consider the impact of our own messaging on reenforcing unhelpful narratives in the media and our own communities.

Cristina HernĂĄndez SantĂ­n

Apfelbeck, B., Snep, R.P., Hauck, T.E., Ferguson, J., Holy, M., Jakoby, C., MacIvor, J.S., SchÀr, L., Taylor, M. and Weisser, W.W., 2020. Designing wildlife-inclusive cities that support human-animal co-existence. Landscape and Urban Planning, 200: 103817

This paper provides a framework to integrate the needs of wildlife in city planning. It helped me envision a city that is actively acting from a biodiversity conservation perspective. What I love about this paper is that it is fauna centric and with the explicit goal of protecting species displaced by urbanization, not those adapted to urban environments. Similar to other design/planning frameworks with an environmental focus, the authors call for transdisciplinary collaboration in identifying areas in the city and setting biodiversity targets. Additionally, they recommend that projects should consider the target species’ life cycles and budget for the post-occupancy phase with monitoring and environmental management considerations in place. Finally, it asks for a participatory approach to work with the community and actively resolve any disservices or perceived threats.

Holly Kirk

Birch, J., Rishbeth, C. and Payne, S.R., 2020. Nature doesn’t judge you–how urban nature supports young people’s mental health and wellbeing in a diverse UK city. Health & Place, 62: 102296.

I read quite a few urban nature & human wellbeing papers this year, but Birch et al’s really stuck in my mind as it focussed on the how young people articulated their relationships with urban nature.  I enjoyed reading the young people’s descriptions experiencing urban nature in their own words and the surprising array things that created a connection with nature. The paper also underlined for me the importance of maintaining & enhancing natural spaces in cities – many of the young people described how seeing the deterioration of childhood parks made them feel worse. There is a strong need to provide high-quality everyday nature experiences, which should be prioritised in areas of higher urban deprivation. Access to urban nature cannot be seen as a luxury.

Alex Kusmanoff

Krpan, D. and Houtsma, N., 2020. To veg or not to veg? The impact of framing on vegetarian food choice. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 67: 101391.

 This paper experimentally tests three alternative ways of framing vegetarian meal options on menus, and finds that pro-environment, social, and neutral framing are all more effective at eliciting vegetarian meal choices from non-vegetarians than ‘vegetarian’ framing. Overall, this study reinforces an important point how you say something can be as important as what you say. However, it should be noted that these studies were undertaken online via respondent surveys, and did not measure the actual behaviour of diners; it would be great to see if this effect is replicated in the field restaurant. In the meantime, this paper offers insights into how framing may be applied to promote vegetarian food choices.

Matthew Selinske

Ecker, U.K., Butler, L.H., Cook, J., Hurlstone, M.J., Kurz, T. and Lewandowsky, S., 2020. Using the COVID-19 economic crisis to frame climate change as a secondary issue reduces mitigation support. Journal of Environmental Psychology70: 101464.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has generated a lot of thought and consideration of what the post crisis world will look like. Will governments double down on fossil fuel use in a bid to jump start economies or will we be compelled to take a greener path forward? In their paper Ecker et al. tested different framing effects of COVID and climate change messaging on climate change concern and mitigation support. They tested two framings 1) our response to the COVID crisis is ‘trial run’ for future climate action and 2) that climate change action should take a ‘back seat’ to more immediate economic concerns post crises. The trial run framing did not as expected increase concern or mitigation support for climate change and the back seat reduced both concern and mitigation support. I liked the article as it was a good reminder that we should be considerate of how we talk about moving conservation forward during and post crisis. As my colleague Alex Kusmanoff is fond of saying how we say stuff matters.

Hugh Stanford

Cooke, B., 2020. The politics of urban greening: an introduction. Australian Geographer, 51(2), pp.137-153.

The editorial by Cooke 2020 provides an overview of the role politics plays in shaping urban greening outcomes. The paper encourages a more critical lens be applied when undertaking urban greening research and challenges often dominant technocratic and apolitical perspective of urban green space planning. Given the growing body of research on the potential social and ecological benefits provided by urban green spaces, Cooke 2020 capitalises on the opportunity to take stock of how the academic discourse has evolved so far and proposes a more robust and socially minded direction in which the field of urban greening research can proceed.  Given all that’s transpired in 2020 and the way in which we’ve all relied on our public green spaces, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate time to start conversation about what we as a society wish to get out of urban greening and how best to go about achieving it; in this way, Cooke 2020 hits the nail on the head.

Celebrating NAIDOC Week 2020

Photo Credit: Holly Kirk

2020 has been a year for reflection and delays, and in due style last week we celebrated a delayed NAIDOC Week. This is a time for delving deep, recognising and reflecting on the culture and peoples who have shaped this land through centuries of change.

Always was, always will be


That was the theme for this years’ NAIDOC week, which pays homage to this land and the peoples that shaped it before it had the name ‘Australia’. It refutes the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ that led to mass-scale dispossession and often violent conflicts between Indigenous people and colonial settlers.

The idea that you are standing, sitting, sleeping or reading this post while on stolen land is a disconcerting one, especially for those who are the descendants of colonial settlers or new migrants since. How do we sit in this discomfort and what action can we take to reconcile this past?

A good start is to acknowledge the past and understand the impact of past injustices. Though criticised for its lack of action, the Rudd apology in 2008 was a turning point in the discourse at the national level – at least now we had stopped denying the truth.

We are the stories we tell ourselves.

The quote has been repeated so many times in various ways, it’s hard to know who is first to have said it. The stories we tell ourselves become the reality we live. We too can help change our own internal discourse by learning more about the history of this country, its peoples and their culture, as well as our place in it.

Whose land are you on?

Mount Donna Buang, Yarra Ranges NP, Victoria.
Photo: Holly Kirk

One of the biggest misconceptions about Aboriginal Australia is its expected uniformity. Prior to European settlement, there were 300-500 Indigenous nations, each with their own languages and customs. Sadly, many of these languages are becoming or are already extinct – something you might not think possible given our current ability to document everything online.

These language groups and their geographical bounds are often what we refer to when we think of Indigenous Country. Connection to Country and Caring for Country are phrases you might have heard, but not stopped to think about what they meant, or been able to consider the reality that there are actually many Countries.

Imagine the stories you tell about the places you have been. I was born here, I grew up there, this is where I met my future partner. In Australia we use a mix of place names, original or derived indigenous names like Wagga Wagga and Mallacoota, as well as those that came long after the first peoples already had named them.

We at ICONScience live and work across Melbourne and its outskirts, Perth, and regional Victoria. Said differently, we live and work on lands of the Dja Dja Wurung, Woiwurung, and Boonwurrung language groups of the Kulin Nations, Wajuk country in WA, and Jaitmatang country in regional Victoria.

Can you imagine how your story would change if you mapped your life according to the Indigenous Country you stood on? There are many tools out there to help you, like this map from AIATSIS that covers all of Australia, or the Welcome to Country App (on Apple phones only) that gives you location specific information.

Paying the rent

It is both politically unpalatable and personally unsettling to talk about Australia as being unceded land. What do we do with that knowledge? How do we reconcile it with our current lifestyle?

Melbourne city skyline. Photo: Holly Kirk

It is difficult for the average Australian, who right now might be jobless or struggling to pay rent, to imagine providing restitution for the misgivings of their ancestors, or those they live with. It is hard to feel how privileged we are.

And yet, acknowledging the past does not remove its ongoing effects. Indigenous people are half as likely to own their own home, more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated, and have a lower life expectancy (for more information see Australia’s Welfare 2017 report or the Closing the Gap campaign). Never again, we said in 2008, but in 2020 more children than ever are being taken from their families under controversial child protection policies.

A movement that acknowledges the political complexity of restitution is the notion of “Paying the Rent“. First born out of NAIHO (now NACCHO) and a team of dedicated activists in Victoria, the movement urges for governments to pay a percentage of the Country’s income to Aboriginal peoples while allowing for self-determination and governance on how that money is spent for repatriation.

But you don’t have to wait for the government to act. You can pay the rent yourselves through this Victorian website.

Other steps

Sunrise at Rowles Lagoon, WA. Photo: Holly Kirk

This is a good point to acknowledge that money cannot fix everything. There are other things that are needed in the process towards reconciliation with First Nations people.

High on the list are calls to allow Indigenous voices to be heard in parliament (e.g. the Statement from the Heart) and other governance processes; an official treaty that gives Indigenous Australians the power for self-determination; and integration of the true history and understanding of Indigenous cultures into our education system.

If respect for indigenous culture was embedded into the fabric of the Australian way of life, we wouldn’t need this moment to reflect during NAIDOC week, we would see it reflected in our everyday.

Resources

If you want to explore beyond simply acknowledging Country, there are a range of resources designed to teach you and help you connect to Indigenous culture, history, music and language – check out this list here.

There are also many great books to read including Dark Emu by Bruce Pasco, who uses settler colonial accounts to dispute the idea that Aboriginal peoples were simply hunter-gatherer societies.

Claire Land’s book Decolonising Solidarity is also a great book club read with lots of associated resources to help you to have those difficult conversations about how to act as a non-Indigenous ally.

For those interested in conservation and engaging with Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Knowledge, have a look at CSIRO’s Our Knowledge Our Way guidelines, and the Three Category Approach Workbook by the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub

We don’t need to import rare parrots – there are so many better ways to get close to nature

This is a Scarlet Macaw – one of the many magnificent species of parrot endemic to south and central America. An Australian Government study is considering whether it is appropriate to allow imports of these birds, following pressure from the local pet trade.  

Image credit: Jay Warburton- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scarlet_Macaw_(17275987).jpeg

Importing parrots from overseas has been banned since 1995. This is because importing birds, even when they’re spectacular, is a spectacularly terrible idea. I spoke to the ecologists in our group and they gave me some clear reasons why.  

First – and this is the one the government is looking at seriously – moving birds internationally might mean we see movement of diseases too.

The risks include avian infuenza, parasites and mosquito-borne diseases. These diseases aren’t just a risk to humans, but also our wildlife, and there have been disasters in past. The fungal plant disease, Myrtle Rust (Austropuccinia psidii) passed all of our border controls in 2010, and spread through the country, killing substantial areas of native vegetation. Several native plant species went from common to critically endangered as a result. For the 12 species of Australian parrots that are already endangered, any outbreak could lead to extinction. The government notes quarantine as a key risk management strategy – which we have recently learned the limitations of quite intimately, being a Melbourne-based lab in the age of COVID-19. 

On top of disease risk, there’s the damage that the pet trade can do by promoting poaching and smuggling. This hasn’t been addressed directly by the Australian government’s enquiry, but for a number of South American parrot species, trapping for the pet trade has compounded the enormous pressures these birds face from deforestation, with many species already at the brink of disappearing altogether. Spix’s Macaw (star of the 2011 film Rio) is now extinct in the wild, and over 40 species of parrot in the region are endangered or critically endangered. Opening new markets that could encourage poaching is the last thing these birds need.  

On top of that, we’ve got a long history of disastrous examples of imported species getting out and going feral (you’ve probably seen a common or Indian mynah today, and then there’s the infamous cane toad).  There is also the ethical question of whether it’s fair to take wild, sociable tropical birds with large home ranges and keep them alone in cages.  

Stack up all these considerations and a pet macaw isn’t just risky – it’s unconscionable.  

The good news is that we’re an island with masses of amazing endemic species, including some truly spectacular parrots and cockatoos. Really, with locals like this, why would you go abroad? 

While you’d need to take a bit of a drive to see the magnificent Pink Cockatoo in its mostly arid inland habitat, you don’t need to go far to have wonderful experiences with nature. Even for city dwellers, there are a lot of positive, rewarding ways you can get into contact with our bird life, sometimes without even leaving the house. This week, members of our lab engaged in Birdlife Australia’s ‘backyard bird count’ – spotting species including black cockatoos, musk lorikeets and galahs. If you want to learn more about the wildlife right on your doorstep, a great way is to get involved with one of the accessible citizen science projects running across Australia as we speak. Spring is a great time for this, as other national recording events are taking place, including Frog ID week (6th – 15th November) and the national pollinator count (8th-15th November). Many of these citizen science projects have free identification apps attached, helping you recognise common species and making it easy to record your findings. The most famous of these is iNaturalist, but there are others you might not know about: BirdCount, Spidentify, FrogID, and Butterflies Australia. For each Australian state you can also find excellent free field guide apps to all groups of common fauna. 

If you have a keen green thumb, you can also start cultivating your own little patch of wilderness that the birds will love. Many native species rely on private gardens for foraging or nesting resources, and you can do your bit by increasing the number of native plants, building a bird box or providing water (especially during the next hot, dry summer). Check if your local council has a wildlife gardening program, which often have free resources and sometimes offer free plants to help get you started.  

If you have a bit of extra time, or a bit of extra space, there are a range of active volunteer groups that you can join â€“ whether it be providing care for injured wildlife through Wildlife Victoria/WIRES NSW, or maintaining habitat through the â€˜friends of’ group for your local park (e.g. Friends of Westgate ParkRoyal Park or the RBG in Melbourne, or similar groups in Perth and Sydney). Not only will you learn loads about the local wildlife in your area, but you can actively participate in programs to encourage them to be healthy and thriving – while making like-minded friends along the way! 

Once you know a little more about who lives in your backyard or local park, the best way to connect with your local wildlife community is to spend some time outside. Take 5 minutes to look closely at a flowering plant, or watch a patch of water and you might be surprised at what you notice! Tiny native hoverflies visiting for a meal, or a family of wood ducks washing. Taking a little more time to watch the world around you will open a whole new window onto your own personal wildlife documentary. Check out some of the special and unexpected connections people have made with urban nature here.  

Getting to know your locals can also prevent unfriendly encounters – magpies, for example, are less likely to swoop you during breeding season if you’ve got to know them beforehand, and sometimes will even introduce you to their babies

Of course, having a pet in the house is lovely too. For many of us that have faced loneliness through lockdown, companion animals are something we value more than ever. The thing is, there are plenty of loving animals that really need homes – we really don’t need to plunder distant jungles (at risk of plague, extinctions, feral outbreaks and general animal cruelty) to find a bit of company. Adopt a pet at your local shelter instead; it’s much less likely to learn to swear at you.  

ICON tells Victoria’s Parliament to ‘walk the walk’ on urban greening

The ICON Science group has submitted our response to the Parliament of Victoria’s ‘Inquiry into Environmental Infrastructure for Growing Populations’. Our city has grown rapidly – has our access to nature kept up? 

It’s commendable that our leaders have turned their minds to this topic, as COVID-19 has reminded us of the enormous importance of natural capital such as local parks to people’s well-being. While green open spaces kept many of us healthy and happy through lockdown, Melbourne’s ‘environmental infrastructure’ could be better. RMIT research demonstrates that the city lost 2000ha of tree cover between 2014-2018, and many residents do not have a substantial green space in walking distance of home, as demonstrated by research by our colleagues in the Australian Urban Observatory. Many of the parts of the city with the least access to environmental infrastructure are also the city’s most socially disadvantaged, as demonstrated in the grey areas in the map below, prepared by researchers at ICON lab.  

It’s clear that we have some catching up to do, but how we do that is important. In our submission to the Inquiry into Environment Infrastructure, we wanted to ensure that tree canopy was considered ‘environmental infrastructure’ – there’s much more to urban nature than just grass and footy ovals. We have also highlighted that while efforts to increase green infrastructure should be ramped up, ensuring that they are of value to biodiversity and are easily accessible is equally important. These assets not only deliver health and social benefits, but also generate jobs and promote economic activities. In fact, they build safety nets and strengthen resilience of people, biodiversity, and ecosystems to shocks.

Many of the pieces are in place to improve the city’s environmental infrastructure. Melbourne has developed high-quality plans for urban nature, such as The Living Melbourne Strategy and the draft Metropolitan Open Space Strategy – we have the right words on paper. In the wake of COVID, now is the time “walk the talk”. Quick translation of such plans into action through expedited funding, resourcing, and removal of institutional barriers is of paramount importance.

You can read our submission here