Officials have hands full just maintaining Garden City’s urban canopy

By Matthew Van Dongen
Osprey New Network
Garden City, Canada (June 9, 2007)- Jane Hanlon strolls through a lush green tunnel, occasionally dappled with sunlight. Other folks call it Else Street. Majestic, half-century-old maple trees overhang much of the quiet, residential street in the Garden City’s north end. The trees are beautiful – but also useful.


It’s several degrees cooler on this street in the summer, compared with other parts of the city. The air is cleaner. The sound of traffic is muffled. Hanlon’s face creases into a smile at the sight of the street, one of her favorites. She just wishes there were more reasons to smile. “It’s hard to find really good, healthy examples in this city, I’m sorry to say,” said the vocal tree planting advocate, who admits to saying plenty on the subject. (Even Else, she admitted, has too many maples.)
For every street like Else, Hanlon said she feels there’s a barren stretch like the commercial/industrial section of Bunting Road, or heat-seared downtown Geneva Street.
For the record, city horticultural development manager Mike Anderson takes a brighter view. Anderson said the city spends $140,000 planting up to 600 new trees every year – more, he added, than it annually removes.
It’s also implementing an urban forest management plan to preserve the existing urban canopy and gradually green the less leafy bits, he said. Hanlon wants to see that plan fast-forwarded, however, and she said ordinary citizens have the power to make it happen.
That’s why the project coordinator for community group Climate Action Now has organized an urban tree planting campaign. The group’s volunteers, about 70 or so, are going door to door, urging residents to ask the city for “street trees,” those planted in front of residential properties on municipal land. It’s not well-known, Hanlon said, but that planting service is provided for free.
The group is taking a list of names, which it’ll eventually present to the city. “I think we have a lot of work to do,” she said. “If you want to get the heat off the streets, you need more trees.”
It’s not easy, being a little tree in the big city. In the summer, you’re baked in an asphalt-paved oven. Road salt poisons you in the winter. There’s never room to stretch your roots in a cramped sidewalk box. Many newly-planted city trees have a life expectancy of only five to 10 years, said Jack Radecki, executive director of the Ontario Urban Forest Council. Development pressures are a constant threat to existing mature trees, too.
Put it all together and city officials have their hands full just maintaining urban canopies, let alone growing them. Yet organizations such as the American Forestry Association urge cities to aim for 40 per cent forest cover. That essentially means, if you’re looking down from an airplane, that 40 per cent of your city should have a green tinge.
Some cities have set goals. Toronto is aiming for 35 per cent tree cover, although it’s not there yet. Based on provincial aerial photos, Niagara as a whole sits around 15 per cent. St. Catharines doesn’t have a percentage goal, but Anderson believes the city is working its way toward 25 per cent.
Radecki’s group encourages municipalities and private residents to plant more trees – he estimates 80 per cent of the urban forest in some cities is privately owned. But even more importantly, his group also advises people on the best way to do it.
Past practices- including mass plantings of a single type of tree- have only created problems, Radecki said. For example, many older streets lack young trees to replace the “geriatric overstory” soon due to die off. Planting only a single variety of tree, a popular practice in decades past, makes trees more vulnerable to disease or pest infestations. For example, in Windsor, the emerald ash borer destroyed whole neighborhoods planted exclusively with ash. “Monoculture is a huge problem, in capital letters,” said Radecki.
Else Street is pretty – but a little heavy on Canada’s arboreal emblem. Maple trees actually make up close to 40 per cent of the trees planted along city streets. It’s an obvious example of monoculture and antiquated planning – one that won’t be repeated, according to Anderson.
City staff are putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive inventory of city-owned trees. The searchable database will include tree information on every property in the city. It’s a new and effective tool that will help the city avoid the mistakes of the past and meet new goals, he said.
Those goals include:
* Greater species diversity: The city has a list of 18 tree types, large and small, that it will plant in parks and on streets. (Another six should be added to the list this year.) Over time, the goal is to ensure no more than half the trees on any street are the same species.
* Greater age diversity: The city is committed to continuous planting and tree replacement, so that eventually the average tree age is about 30 years.
* Healthier trees: The city will no longer plant big trees under hydro wires, for example.
With that move, Anderson hopes to avoid the ugly “V”-cuts made in mature trees to allow wires through the foliage. “It’s not healthy for a tree, and not safe,” he said.
Not everyone agrees with city policies. Hanlon isn’t a fan of the shorter trees planted around the city, for example, especially the callery pear and locust trees popping up downtown. “They’ll never be shade trees. They’ll never grow to a height,” she said. “These aren’t trees that will increase canopy cover.”
That’s true for some plantings, especially in sidewalks or other concrete areas, Anderson said. “No, they don’t provide substantial canopy cover,” he said. “But the bigger ones just can’t grow there. The maple, the ash, the linden, they die.”
Planting boxes don’t allow enough root space for larger trees, he said, and underground utilities and streetscape design limits the city’s ability to create more room.
Both Anderson and Hanlon do agree, however, on the long-term goal: more trees, all over the city. Anderson said eventually the city hopes 80 per cent of city streets are lined with a variety of low-maintenance, healthy trees.
Individual citizens can be proactive about greening their city, he said, in the backyard, on the street or even on the Internet. Land Care Niagara, for instance, allows web surfers to “click to plant a tree” on its website, www.landcareniagara.com. Land Care, an incorporated organization, is part of a not-for-profit network that promotes wise land management.
Land Care and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority need volunteers for tree planting every year around Niagara.
Education is also important, Hanlon noted. In her door-to-door campaign, Hanlon has encountered resistance from homeowners who don’t want to rake leaves, or risk branches falling on vehicles. She’s not giving up, however. ‘We’ve got a long way to go, and climate change isn’t waiting for any of us.”
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