A city in a forest-the business of Toronto’s urban forest is growing

By
Paul Gallant

Toronto,
CA (June 30, 2010)- Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. Andy
Kenney looks around and sees the forest everywhere, even in the most
densely-packed areas of Toronto’s urban landscape. A senior lecturer on urban
forestry at the University of Toronto, Kenney’s interest in urban trees, and
the benefits their green canopy provides us, extends well beyond the classroom.
Over the years, Kenney, like other tree advocates, has realized that people are
increasingly eager to do more to maintain our urban forest, and that innovative
business people are eager to help them do it.


More
than a decade ago, Kenney realized that getting city residents to plant trees
was a no-brainer as homeowners usually enjoy greening their properties. But the
pollution and added wear and tear of city life mean that newly planted urban
trees have a much tougher time of it than their rural counterparts; they tend
to survive only seven years. Meanwhile, Toronto’s older stock of maples is
deteriorating with age. Both forces have made the city’s goal of doubling its
tree canopy an uphill climb. So, with the assumption that you can’t fix a
problem until you know what’s there, Kenney and one of his former students
launched a program to train citizens how to do tree inventories in their
neighbourhoods.

Called
Neighbourwoods, the program provides attendees with a couple of training
sessions about how to identify different species, the optimal conditions for
each species and how to tell if a tree is seriously unhealthy. This month, for
example, the not-for-profit organization LEAF teamed up with the city’s Live
Green Toronto program to have Kenney provide free training for a group in
Leslieville/Riverdale. “We wanted to see if we could get volunteers to engage
in urban forestry beyond tree planting. Long-term stewardship seemed to be
falling through the cracks,” says Kenney. “Once residents have this
great information, they’ve got this interest built up and we hope they will
take it further.”

Although
a healthy urban forest benefits the city as a whole-reducing the
urban-heat-island effect, providing shade, creating natural beauty and cleaning
the air-between 70 and 80 percent of Toronto’s is on private property. That
means it’s mostly up to individuals and communities, rather than the
government, to maintain the green canopy. Kenney’s workshops offer a first
step: taking a good look at what you’ve got. How diverse are the trees in an
area? Are the trees all reaching maturity at the same time? Are there problems
that need immediate attention of a professional arborist?

Once
residents have a better sense of the size and health of the urban forest in
their area, there’s the more pressing question of what to do about it. Growing
awareness of the importance of healthy trees has created an appetite for new
solutions. With people willing to spend more money on their trees, arborists,
landscape architects, engineers, developers and product-creators are finding
new ways to meet the demands.

“In
the old days, you’d take care of trees by spraying them with pesticides every
three months and then cutting them down when they’re dead,” says Todd
Irvine, a consultant at Bruce Tree Expert Company and a new columnist for Eye
Weekly, who has worked with both Kenney and LEAF. “Ten years ago, tree
companies cut down trees. There weren’t that many options. Now companies are
coming up with all kinds of ideas.”

For
example, the Oakville-based Techno Metal Posts isn’t the greenest-sounding name
for a company, but their approach to building foundations is much less damaging
to tree root systems than conventional techniques. Founded about five years
ago, the company uses Canadian-made steel screw piles to support structures
like home additions, garages, cottages and retaining walls, all without
excavation. “With a concrete foundation, you have to dig and you’re
killing roots,” says owner Roger Lauzon. “We can put the helix [the
head of the giant screw that provides support for the structure] under the
roots. When people hear about what we do, they’ll suggest it to their
contractor who comes and finds us.”

When
excavation is necessary, Irvine points out that companies like Super Sucker
Hydro Vac, based in Ancaster, can use water and a high-powered vacuum system to
remove soil without cutting into roots (or pipes or wires, for that matter).

Back
at grade, companies like Green Innovations in Pickering offer ways to prevent
surface uses from hurting trees. Their porous paving system for gardens is a
high-density plastic grid that disperses the weight of vehicles over a larger
area. The grid looks more natural than asphalt and prevents the soil from
becoming compacted, which can damage roots. The grid also allows rainwater to
permeate the soil, reducing the need for irrigation and improving storm-water
management, a big problem in Toronto’s concrete jungle. “There’s
definitely been an increase in consumer awareness,” says Walter Hermann,
who started Green Innovations in 2006. “But it’s also that the engineers
and product creators have realized that we can’t stay with the status
quo.”

Irvine
points out that some of the appetite for new ways to improve tree health is
driven by regulation. Although the existing bylaws protecting urban trees date
back at least 14 years, increased enforcement, mega-city bylaw harmonization
and newer rules targeting properties along ravines have applied firmer
pressure. “Ask any reputable engineer or architectural firm if the bylaws
have made them reconsider what they do, the answer would be yes,” says
Irvine. “People will complain, but after a few years they stop grumbling
about it.”

For
Kenney, different parts of the city require different forestry strategies. In
newer suburbs, it’s about nurturing new growth through strategic pruning,
reducing damage and managing pests. In the old city, it’s about finding the
space to replace trees nearing the end of their lives. Through the
Neighbourwoods program, he hopes that residents will not only do a better job
of taking care of trees themselves, but also do a better job of choosing
professionals who know what they’re doing. “As awareness of homeowners
increases, that improves the market, which can offer a higher level of training
and ethics. And it creates jobs,” says Kenney.

Related
Resource:

Yonge
Street: A city in a forest-the business of Toronto’s urban forest is growing