Greening Sydney


Chris Johnson distills the ideas and principles from three publications which he has authored – Greening Sydney, Urban Greening and Mid-Rise Urban Living including illustrations and photographs of local and international examples. The central theme is one of balancing the built and natural environment so that buildings, in particular, can incorporate ‘living greenery’ with all of its benefits. 

About the Author

Chris Johnson was the New South Wales Government Architect from 1995 to 2005, when he began championing the greening of cities. His other notable positions were CEO of Urban Taskforce Australia and Executive Director for Urban Renewal in the Department of Planning, New South Wales. Now he is a self-employed planning consultant. He holds masters degrees in architecture, cultural heritage and architectural history and theory. 



Twenty years ago, in 2002, I wrote a book titled Greening Sydney: Landscaping the Urban Fabric as a contribution to the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects conference.1/ Raeburn Chapman, Editor, suggested I write an article for Urban Design Review as he saw it as still being relevant today. Professor Penny Allen was the head of the Government Architect’s Landscape Group at the time and she encouraged me to make an input into the organization of the Greening Cities conference to be held in Sydney. This led to the book and to organizing international speakers to come to the conference, including Emilio Ambasz and Ken Yeang, two champions of greening the urban fabric of cities. This article distills the essence of this book together with that of two further publications of mine that champion the greening of cities, providing examples and drawing conclusions.

In the book preface I said: “As NSW Government Architect I believe it is an important part of my role to contribute to public discussion on environmental issues. It is also important that I drive pilot projects that instigate change, and a number of these are recorded in Greening Sydney”. Fast forward from the book’s publication in 2003 to 2021, where my most recent book Mid-Rise Urban Living referred back to the earlier book in a chapter focused on apartments with green landscapes. This outlined various Sydney projects, including One Central Park and Garden Apartments at Victoria Park, along with the amazing green buildings in Singapore by architects WOHA. Between these two books, in my role as CEO Urban Taskforce Australia, I published the Urban Ideas magazine series, with a special issue in June 2018 titled ‘’Urban Greening”.

This article for Urban Design Review uses material from the three earlier publications to present the importance of balancing the built and the natural environment so that buildings can incorporate living greenery that cleans the air, reduces temperatures and softens the visual appearance of our cities. Twenty years on, the impact of climate change is much more obvious so the lessons outlined in Greening Sydney in 2003 need to be updated.

This publication was distributed to delegates at the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects’ Greening Cities conference, 29-30 April 2003. International speakers included Ken Yeang and Emilio Ambasz, who also spoke at a City Talk at the Sydney Town Hall. Illustration, Mark Gerada.

Greening Sydney devolved into local and international examples of the interaction between soft green landscape and hard brown buildings. For example, Vladimir Sitta built his first green wall in 1988 and wrote often on the importance of greening cities. Penny Allan, within my Government Architect’s office, developed a water sensitive approach to the design of a large housing complex at Victoria Park by collecting water from streets into a central swale that connected to a recycling pond to re-water the landscape. The streets were shaded by gum trees planted along the swale.

To raise the issue more publicly, I developed an image of the often criticized University of Technology tower with new aerial gardens inserted into the building. The image ended up on page 2 of The Sydney Morning Herald over the caption: “No, it couldn’t be…. A re-imagined version of the much maligned UTS building”.

Chris Johnson’s scheme to green the UTS tower, based on a collage by Chris Johnson that appeared on page 2 of The Sydney Morning Herald in 2002. The image created much comment in the media about softening buildings that were said to appear brutal. Illustration, Mark Gerada.

The idea never happened but the image certainly generated much discussion. It also connected me to Dr Ronald Wood, who worked at UTS in the Faculty of Science, where he was researching the impact of indoor plants on cleaning the air. Using kentia palms and other popular indoor plants located in test chambers, he measured the extent of removal of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), particularly benzene, from the air. His research confirmed that plants have a significant impact on indoor quality, leading to a reduction in sick building syndrome.



Back in 2002, Singapore was the world leader of incorporating greenery into cities. The Singapore National Parks Board had produced a publication on city greening, titled Handbook on Skyrise Greening in Singapore. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, had championed the greening of the city from 1963 with its first annual tree planting campaign. He wanted an attractive city to signal to investors that Singapore was an efficient and effective place. The tropical climate helped this objective with later planning rules giving bonus floor space if landscape was incorporated into buildings.

The Handbook on Greening listed nine benefits of skyrise greenery, based on detailed research from the National University of Singapore:

Reduced temperatures

Hard and dark surfaces on the roof tops of buildings absorb heat creating the heat island effect with direct consequences of global warming. The handbook indicated that Singapore roofs could be as high as 58 degrees Celsius during the day and that this was re-radiated at night into the city. Rooftop greenery could reduce the roof surface temperature by up to 31 degrees Celsius.

Improved air quality

Vegetation on buildings can improve air quality by filtering airborne particles through their leaves and branches.

Improved rainwater retention

Green roofs and green landscape help to retain storm water, filtering rainwater contaminants through the surface and slowing down runoff into the storm water system.

Reduced carbon dioxide

Plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis.

Improved water quality

Greenery can filter heavy metals and nutrients present in precipitation.

Reduced cooling resources

Green roofs with their additional layers of planting and substrate can lead to an increased insulation value of up to ten per cent.

Better acoustic insulation

A 12 centimetre and 20 centimetre layer of substrate can lower sound by 40 decibels and 60 decibels respectively.

Improved corporate image

Marketing research shows that buildings with green spaces become more effective at attracting buyers and retaining tenants and employees.

Improved aesthetic appeal

Vegetation can provide visual contrast and relief from bitumen roads and concrete office towers.



Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser led a major campaign in the late 1960s to attack the sterile modernist architecture of Vienna. He proposed a new profession of ‘architecture doctors’ who could heal sick buildings. One way was to replace people tenants with tree tenants thus adding greenery and individualism to buildings. He craned large trees into window openings of real buildings.

Austrian artist Hundertwasser did not like bland modernist buildings and proposed that mixing man tenants with tree tenants would improve their look. He designed Hundertwasser House in Vienna to demonstrate a more friendly and greener approach to urban living. Illustration, Mark Gerada.

Malaysian architect Ken Yeang developed the concept of ‘Bioclimatic Skyscrapers’. His concept was to incorporate vegetation into the built environment by weaving landscape from the ground up and through his skyscrapers. This often involved researching the local species at ground level and then extending these up through his buildings. Yeang even developed a scheme for the Tokyo Nara tower that took his concept to new heights with a proposed 180-storey building.

Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has developed a building type called the bioclimatic skyscraper. He incorporated vegetation in atriums spiraling through his towers, like this proposal for the 180-storey Tokyo-Nara Tower. Illustration, Mark Gerada.

Emilio Ambasz researched the integration of landscape with architecture over many years. In 1990 he won a competition for a new building in the Japanese city of Fukuoka on a large site next to a park. He designed a solution that stepped the adjacent park up and over his new 15-storey building. Garden lovers could meander through the park and then continue up the building’s terraces to a viewing platform at the top.

Emilio Ambasz won a design competition for a 15-storey building in the Japanese city of Fukuoka by carrying the idea of the adjacent park up a series of landscaped terraces that were open to the public. Illustration, Mark Gerada.



At the end of Greening Sydney, I outlined eight strategies to green Sydney:

Metropolitan Scale

Improve our green landscape corridors through offset schemes.

Local Government Level

Development applications to require green landscape outcomes.

Estate Level

All new housing estates to use water sensitive urban design.

Apartment Level

Encourage apartments to incorporate significate greenery on balconies and roofs as well as in garden areas.

City Buildings

Encourage urban roof gardens.

Office Interiors

Encourage the use of indoor planting to clean the air and lift productivity.

House Unit

Encourage the new water tank.

Ongoing Maintenance

Promote the importance of maintaining gardens.



On becoming CEO of the Urban Taskforce in 2011, I became a champion of the development industry by promoting quality projects and issuing a magazine titled Urban Ideas to politicians, senior public servants and the broader community. One issue of Urban Ideas focused on ‘Urban Greening’, with the subtitle ‘How the development industry is leading in greening cities’.2/

The June 2018 edition of Urban Ideas focused on ‘Urban Greening’ and profiled a number of developer-led projects that incorporated significant greenery; notably One Central Park in Sydney.

The content came from an Urban Taskforce mini-conference where Barbara Schaffer, Principal Landscape Architect at the office of the NSW Government Architect, outlined the document Greener Places. Included was the idea of a Green Grid across Sydney that would include a network of green spaces and natural systems. This would expand Sydney’s tree canopy from 16% to 40%.

The cover of our magazine illustrated a project at One Sydney Park by architects Silvester Fuller and MHNDU for HPG that covered the building in green landscape. Also illustrated was Crown Group’s Waterloo project by Japanese architect Kenzo Kuma that included significant greenery on stepped floors of the 23-storey building. The key example in the magazine was Frasers Property and Sekisui House’s 33-storey Central Park by French architect Jean Nouvel and landscape architect Patrick Blanc. The building is dripping with green landscape and has an integrated maintenance program to manage growth.

Designed by a French team led by Jean Nouvel and Patrick Blanc, One Central Park was distinguished by a densely vegetated facade. The landscape is maintained by a company called Junglefy. The Urban Ideas issue outlined how they looked after the plants. Photo, Chris Johnson.



During Covid lockdowns over 2020 and 2021, I decided to write a book with London publisher Lund Humphries, titled Mid-Rise Urban Living. 3/ This champions the 6 to 8-storey scale of cities like Paris and Barcelona but in a modern context. 

My 2021 book, Mid-Rise Urban Living, promoted the 6 to 8-storey scale of Paris and Barcelona as a more acceptable growth solution compared to high-rise towers or houses. Case studies from the UK, Europe, Asia, USA and Australia showed current versions of this building type. Cover photo, Chris Johnson.

Mid-Rise Urban Living includes case studies by type with a chapter titled Apartments with green landscapes. This referred to my earlier book Greening Sydney: Landscaping the Urban Fabric with reference to the Garden Apartments we proposed for Victoria Park in Sydney and included a contemporary photograph that can be compared to the drawn image in the 2003 book.

The key project that illustrated the greening of buildings in the Mid-Rise book was Kampung Admiralty by Singapore architects WOHA. The architects aim to ensure that each project includes the same amount of greenery as the site once had before any development occurred. With Kampung meaning ‘village’ in Malay this led to a mid-rise building with a stepped form that was covered in greenery. The ground floor included street markets and up in the landscaped layers is a pre-school to add interest for the older citizens in the complex. This very green building was named “World Building of the Year 2018” at the World Architecture Festival demonstrating its success.

The Kampung Admiralty project in Singapore, by architects WOHA, incorporates as much landscape on the building as was on the site before any development occurred. Over various roof levels, trees, gardens, water features and even a children’s pre-school add interest for the residents. Photo, Patrick Bingham-Hall.



This article has traced three publications which champion the greening of cities. They were written initially from my position in government, then representing the private development sector and finally as a semi-retired citizen. They continue the theme over two decades and highlight many quality projects that are greening not only Sydney but many cities around the world. In Sydney, these developments have been supported by the planning system. In another 20 years, Sydney could take on a new look as one of the greenest cities in the world.


Notes & References 

1/ Chris Johnson. Greening Sydney: Landscaping the Urban Fabric, Government Architect Publications, 2003. Illustrations by Mark Gerada. ISBN Number: 0 7240 8881 4
2/ Chris Johnson. ‘Urban Greening: How the development industry is leading in Greening Cities’, in Urban Ideas – A public interest magazine from Urban Taskforce Australia, June 2018.
3/ Chris Johnson. Mid-Rise Urban Living. Lund Humphries, 2021.