It all started with the proposed sale of a small parcel of forgotten and neglected land in south London.

One man, Will Sandy, decided to take a stand and create a community garden for all to share and enjoy, and perhaps also improve air quality at the same time.

His mantra is ‘from brutal to beautiful’, and his mission is to create green oases in urban settings that have many benefits from building communities to boosting property prices, boosting air quality to measurable improvements in mental health.

In order to spread the word, Sandy – the creative director of a design studio – created the Edible Bus Route project, an initiative to create edible gardens right across the route of the number 322 bus.

That was almost a decade ago, and while the idea has grown in fits and starts, it’s been the inspiration for a new collaboration between the University of Wollongong and the University of Surrey, in the UK.

Researchers have secured funding from the University Global Partnerships Network (UGPN) will allow a partnership with the University of Surrey to develop global solutions to a universal issue.

The research team will include experts in smart cities, an atmospheric chemist, an ecologist, and specialists in air quality and health.

One of the project leaders, Senior Professor Pascal Perez, says the funding is just the beginning of a long-term partnership that he hopes will include researchers from institutions spanning the globe.

“Whether it’s designing edible bus stops, buildings with living walls, or panels on streets with native climbers, we need to get smart about the way we think of our cities,” Professor Perez said.

“Street canyons are the most polluted city environments, due to high traffic volumes and limited ventilation.

“Green infrastructure has many benefits, including combatting air pollution and making our cities more livable and cooler.”

The partnership aims to support decision-makers but developing a new framework for street-scale greening that can have widespread use that fights pollution, that is evidence-based and that is practical.

Professor Perez heads the SMART Infrastructure Facility at UoW, which is working with Liverpool City Council to measure air quality and traffic flows around its CBD to facilitate better planning.

Researchers at SMART have designed both sensors and the relevant software to analyse air quality, and intend to use this experience to measure the effectiveness of so-called ‘green screens’.

These are essentially walls of vegetation – whether in pots or using climbers – that can be quickly placed around cities in ways that are simply impossible for permanent tree cover.

“We are trying to solve the air pollution but we are also ticking other boxes,” Professor Perez said.

“These green screens are essentially a separation wall or bus stop and you hope it will attract and keep the particulates from traffic pollution.

“We want to research how effective they are, and especially in an Australian context.”

One of the team members, Dr Clare Murphy, was able to collaborate with academics from around the globe earlier this year, to measure the ‘biogenics’ or gases and particles emitted by vegetation at Cataract Scout Camp, near Wollongong.

Her aim is to discover which native species will be the most efficient at trapping particulate matter from traffic pollution, and which may actually make the situation worse.

There is a reasonable amount of data concerning trees that are endemic in North America and Europe, but very little Australian data.

Another team member, Dr Kris French is from UOW’s Centre for Sustainable Environmental Solutions, and is regarded a leader in the area of ecology in Australia.

She believes that it’s important for birds and insect life to plant Australian, and preferably, endemic species in urban settings.

This is borne out by the SMART project in Liverpool, where the expansion of the south-western Sydney fringe is building over a threatened ecosystem.

This, believes Dr French, can be offset if you use these disappearing plants for the city’s streetscapes, parks and other public open spaces.

Project leader Dr Hugh Forehead, a researcher at SMART, says the benefits of using Australian native species for street plantation is already becoming apparent.

“Urban heat islands are formed because a bitumen and concrete surfaces absorb heat better than trees, and therefore cities become hot in summer,” he said.

“Dr French has done studies to show that the native trees with their open canopies can lead to better air circulation than exotic trees with closed canopies.

“Many exotic species can actually trap some of the heat close the ground whereas the more open eucalypts allow air circulation.”

The project – Street-scale Greening for Cooling and Clean Air in Cities – just announced, will support a PhD student from the University of Surrey to study at the University of Wollongong.

Mamatha Tomson’s work aims to support decision-makers to develop a new framework for street-scale greening that is generic, inclusive of pollution-cooling trade-offs, evidence-based, and practicable.

“We will use experimental and modelling approaches, undertake trial demonstrations, and integrate results to create a collaborative platform,” Dr Forehead said.

The University Global Partnerships Network (UGPN) aims to develop sustainable world-class research, education and knowledge transfer through an active international network of selected universities collaborating in research, learning and teaching to benefit global society.

The program will develop a range of jointly enabled innovative solutions to world problems based on shared research expertise and a mobility strategy for increasing the number of faculty, staff and students with international experience.

The UGPN annual conference will be held in Wollongong next year.