A metal filing cabinet stands at the end of a thin corridor, rarely frequented by other bureaucrats who otherwise fill the sparse office floors in the 37-storey building. Ministerial briefs are stored in manila folders that accumulate like a library of forgotten administrative details, which were important for a moment in time. I file a recent planning approval amongst the hard copies of Acts and other policies, which inform our work. As I turn to leave the 1987 █████ Act makes eye contact with me. I take it, noticing how small and unimposing it is with its flimsy green cover; the exam anxiety it once elicited now seems trivial. As I flick through its pages, re-digesting the amendments and special provisions, it slowly occurs to me that a Law designed to protect nature is made from trees. If paper still comes from trees. I can’t be sure if it still does: most of my professional transactions are electronic, which makes the experience of touching the Act with my fingers feel transgressive. Am I touching a dead tree, or has technology pacified these aspects of environmental degradation and I’ve just forgotten, lost ruminating in the cyclical blur of professional development and global environmental debate.

In the new knowledge economy, urban planners must move rapidly through technical and political processes in the development of cities and regions. Trends compete for attention in a frenzied 21st century where basic things, like people, often fade into the background. These tensions were exasperated at a conference where design professionals clamored for front row seats in the atrium at Fed Square, anticipating the US strategist, the keynote speaker, fresh from Brooklyn’s industrial revitalization. She explained to the audience that the future of cities is: {wearable technology which moderates climate change hot spots, robotic, 5G, driverless, blockchain, focused on air space (because there’s no land space left), skies thick with drones and data driven because the internet is everything.}

In this tech revolution, I assume that eco-conscious entrepreneurs have developed treeless paper. And if they haven’t, then the solution to the killing of trees must be hidden within the 1987 █████ Act, which states that:

The purpose of this Act is to establish a framework for the protection of land in Victoria in the present and long-term interests of all Victorians.

Trees are of interest and underpin our long-term livelihood but, as I skim through the pages, no clause or section directly references the protection of trees. Do they deserve their own Act? Or is their preservation coded in legislative language, buried amongst the references to the metropolitan green wedge and the declaration of distinctive areas and landscapes? The Act is lengthy and just as I grasp one section there is always another clause to the paragraph, which is disorienting. And there are no images of trees or other remnants of the natural environment, which is strange. Does the Act assume trees will always be here, growing along train lines, on the edge of freeways or on high-rise roof tops?


A landscape architect invites me to speak to his students in a class—the Politics of Public Space. The idea of landscape architecture sounds like a peculiar contradiction, not dissimilar to the concept of legislating nature, something that should live above the law—but still, I agree to participate. We meet in a new building and don’t talk about trees. His students are eager to discuss ideas of gender and race in the built environment as we critique a new building on Swanston Street. Cities are large and unruly, and we struggle to retrofit them into the latest thematic buzzwords, but the students move eagerly through the building trying to assess its impact on our humanity. It meets most of our criteria appallingly, despite its architectural form and porousness, distinctive of inner-city Melbourne. From some angles you can almost see the trees that grow along Swanston, the city’s spine. But their presence is like wallpaper, decorative but not cultural or nourishing.

The landscape architect moves us into a small tutorial room for the second half of class. I’m asked to lead a discussion on the ARM Portrait building of William Barak and I begin by reading an essay referencing Linda Kennedy. Kennedy conveyed the irony of a blak figure in the built form with menacing honesty. Her words cut into my own internal flux: that it is bewildering to be an urban planner of Ballardong Noongar descent living on another mob’s country. But a spark or gut feeling tells me to keep pushing within these professional borderlines even as they oppress. And, if I don’t suffocate in the process, then dismantling the borders which both restrict and determine livelihood will seem worth it. I’m aware that this is difficult terrain as the landscape architect catches me on the intersection, questioning why I work in land use policy and not art or academia. Part of the answer is that I see different struggles in these industries that are equally damaging. And I am more interested in border crossing, spilling into these disciplines at night, leaving an imprint then returning to my desk in the 37-storey building in the morning. Moving across borders is dangerous but claiming one spot has never felt comfortable, either.

We keep talking about the space between buildings and the ones contained in textbooks, like there’s a real difference. Another guest speaker asks if I’m frustrated by the industry’s obsession with preserving “heritage” buildings in spaces like Fed Square while birthing trees are at risk of vanishing. The answer is horrifyingly visible in the Australian landscape where terra nullius quietly persists, where western architecture is revered and western trees—those clean British Oakes and Elm trees which line St Kilda Rd Boulevard—are not threated by tunnels. Cultural ignorance seeps into the industry. But while it is easy to critique, I still see change at the juncture of art, activism, architecture, academia and policy, even if the concept of meaningful co-existence seems distant and challenging.

Working in the mechanics of a foreign operating system and trying to manipulate the law from within is overwhelming. But I see trees growing in urban areas and understand that they were here before the western law that attempts to protect them. Trees are visible through the windows of packed trains crammed with office workers. And in the language of Lisa Bellear’s Beautiful Yuroke Red River Gum and Jeanine Leane’s Bride Over the River Memory. Trees grow in unlikely places beyond planning strategies, urban design theory, legislation, tech revolutions, environmental activism, and art. They speak to each other through complex root structures beneath city streets. When we draw lines across our own professional borders, new messages emerge and the possibility of something different grows.


Timmah Ball is a non-fiction writer whose work is influenced by working across urban planning, zine making, and other creative forms. She grew up in Birrarung-ga/Melbourne but her heritage is Ballardong Noongar from Western Australia on her mother’s side. In 2017 she won the Westerly Magazine Patricia Hackett Prize and has written for a range of publications including Cordite, Un Magazine, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, The Griffith Review and other anthologies.