Can we increase tree cover in our cities?
This op-ed was published October 27th, on behalf of the organizations and individuals supporting the Just Recovery Simcoe initiative.
The City of Barrie’s Draft Official Plan has set an unambitious goal of 20% forest cover by 2041. For reference, Toronto’s target is 40%. With land at a premium, growth on the rise, and trees being removed to accommodate that growth, are we even going to be able to replace what is being lost, much less increase our cover?
1 Billion Trees
Planting trees is indisputably one of the more important actions we can take in the fight against climate change. The federal government has committed to planting billions of trees in the coming years. But will any of those trees be planted in urban centres like Barrie? Probably not.
Conservation Authorities and provincial tree planting programs like Forest Ontario’s 50 Million Trees offer incentives (planting and grants) for landowners to plant trees. To qualify, you need to own a parcel of land over 2 acres. Small tree seedlings are machine-planted in rows similar to farm crops. To plant billions of trees, Canada will need large tracts of rural lands; probably farmland.
It’s all about roots
Compared to rural plantings, urban tree planting is a costly and difficult process. Between pavement and buildings, space is limited and land prices are at a premium. Soils are often highly compacted, salty, and not desirable for tree growth. Good quality soil, (and lots of it!) is the difference between having a poor, slow growing tree (as witnessed on many city boulevards) and having a large, healthy tree, able to grow to maturity. It’s all about the roots.
Essentially, if you want lots of trees planted for little money, a city is not where you would put your efforts!
The value of trees
However, cities are exactly where we need more trees, and not just for climate change mitigation. Trees cool our streets and buildings, they clean our air, they provide habitat for urban wildlife, they filter contaminants and keep Lake Simcoe healthy. Further, there is mounting scientific evidence that shows that trees are fundamental to keeping humans mentally and physically healthy. With mental health issues on the rise in our city, the value of urban trees can’t be overstated.
Large urban trees also raise property values; just look at the real estate prices in established neighborhoods in Barrie. It is the large, mature trees there that make the difference. As well, strategically located trees can reduce air conditioning needs by 30%, and save 20% or more on heating costs.
Trees are vitally important to urban environments like Barrie and should be protected. But are they? What happens when you want to cut down trees?
Just like incentive programs only applying to larger tracts of land, the City of Barrie’s Tree Preservation Bylaw only applies to trees in woodlots that are greater than half an acre (0.2 ha) in size. There is no penalty or review for cutting single trees, or small groups of trees. This leaves most urban trees vulnerable.
Trees are vulnerable
If your neighbour decides to take down their 150 year-old oak tree that has been providing you shade, beauty and health benefits, they can do it. They don’t need permission. There is no formal discussion on how it can be avoided, and there is no financial compensation to be put back into replanting efforts.
In larger projects, there is more scrutiny applied to tree cutting through the development application process where the City has an opportunity to require protecting and planting trees as a condition of approval.
When trees are removed, there is either a plan to replace them somewhere else or to financially compensate for them, with that funding to go to replanting efforts. In Barrie, financial compensation for tree loss from development projects often goes to the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA). In turn, the LSRCA is supposed to plant trees preferably close to where they were removed. However, those funds for compensation trees will likely go to planting initiatives across the entire watershed; often in larger rural areas. Again, this means less trees in the city – where they’re needed the most.
Finally, unless you have a time-machine and great growing conditions, you are not truly replacing what you cut. The ecosystem and human health services provided by a large, mature, established tree are vastly different from the services provided by a small, newly planted tree. Add in the difficult growing conditions in urban soils that can make a tree “flounder” in a semi-mature state for years until it dies and needs to be replanted; and you truly are not replacing what has been lost.
Mature trees can be hard to establish in a city and take a long time to grow. We need to protect and respect what we currently have. Compensation and replacement should be the last resort.
To combat climate change, improve our local environment, and keep people healthy, we should be planting more trees in our urban areas; even if those trees are more expensive. 20% forest cover is not nearly enough.
This op-ed was written by Living Green Barrie.
Living Green Barrie is proud to be a part of Just Recovery Simcoe, an alliance between 40 groups and businesses from across Simcoe County proposing solutions that focus on increasing the health of people, our communities and nature.
Just Recovery Simcoe is an alliance of 40+ groups from across Simcoe County and beyond. Their core belief is that a healthy community is one that is equitable, environmentally friendly, and one that seeks to provide healthy places to live and work for all. JustRecoverySimcoe.ca
Help create a just and sustainable future.
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