Re-greening the Plateau

By Michelle Lalonde

Montreal, QC (January 31, 2012)- Plateau Mont Royal resident Hazel Field was heartbroken last week when she noticed the dreaded orange band spray-painted around the trunk of the big old silver maple across from her house, the only tree on this block of St. Dominique St.

Montrealers know what the orange band means; that a tree is dead or dying- posing some kind of safety risk- and city workers will soon arrive to cut it down. Street trees in the central neighborhoods of this city face all kinds of stressors: a lack of soil around their trunks to absorb water, violent assaults from snow-removal equipment maneuvering along narrow sidewalks and from cyclists who may not realize their chains can fatally damage the bark of young trees.

The orange band is an all-too-common sight in the Plateau; the borough has had to cut down about 230 trees each year for the past decade or so.
What seems to be changing, however, is the reaction of residents. “People in this borough are very passionate about trees and what’s happening on St. Dominique is just one example of that,” said Piper Huggins, the borough councillor for Jeanne Mance district. Residents on the street have been calling and sending messages to borough officials trying to save their tree, which is estimated to be 60 to 75 years old.

The tree was still producing buds and leaves last spring, they argued, but it does have a cavity the size of a soccer ball on one side, and the trunk is hollow inside. “When we cut down trees, it is really because there is no other solution,” said borough spokesperson Michel Tanguay, noting there are 10,000 street trees in the borough.

“We really try to take care of our part of the urban forest.” As is the case on many Plateau streets, the sidewalk on St. Dominique is too narrow to meet the borough’s criteria for planting a new tree (two metres), Tanguay said.

But residents say a treeless street is not acceptable, and it’s not just about esthetics or shade. Trees help battle air pollution, a serious public health issue in central neighbourhoods. “It’s a necessity in a city to have trees, especially here where we are close to a major thoroughfare (St. Laurent Blvd.), where we’ve got all these idling cars and buses, and rotisseries and condos with wood-burning stoves spewing out all these fine particles,” she said.

Huggins said residents’ concern about environmental issues is what got her and other members of her party, Projet Montréal, elected in the Plateau.
?We were elected on a platform of greening the Plateau and that’s what we’re doing.” The borough had to cut down 201 trees last year, but it planted 351.
When Projet Montréal took power in the borough, Huggins notes, it learned newly planted trees were dying at a rate of about 50 per cent per year, mainly because of watering issues.

“The new trees need to be watered every seven days for the first four years,” Huggins said. “If just one watering is missed during a heat wave because of people calling in sick or whatever, hundreds of trees can die.” The borough has added $700,000 in the last two years to the tree maintenance budget, and meetings have been held to ensure young trees are protected with rubber tubing, that sidewalk snow clearing is done with care and that cyclists are informed that it is illegal to chain bicycles to trees.

The number of bike stands in the borough has been doubled. Workers have been enlarging the sidewalk openings around existing trees, from 1.5 to three square metres, so more rain water can get to the roots. On streets like St. Dominique, where sidewalks are especially narrow, replacing a dying tree is not so easy.
“I’ve suggested the idea of doing a sidewalk bump-out (widening the sidewalk into the road at a particular spot) but this would involve removing a parking space, so they would need to get the support of the other residents on the street,” Huggins said.

“I would be willing to help them with that campaign, but then we would need to find the money.” Jane Engle-Warnick, who lives on St. Dominique, said she wouldn’t be surprised if borough residents supported the idea of removing some parking spaces. “I don’t have a car, and several of my neighbours don’t either. I think a lot of us would be thrilled to lose a few parking spaces if it meant we could plant more trees and calm the traffic,” said Engle-Warnick, vice-president of the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre and a PhD student in urban planning at McGill University.

“I think it is realistic to make these kinds of infrastructure changes-urban greening and traffic calming are becoming priorities for a lot of cities around the world,” she said.

Related Resource:
Montreal Gazette- Re-greening the Plateau