Victoria’s diminishing urban forest
“Trees,” wrote Emily Carr, “are so much more sensible than people.”
In her brief foray as a cartoonist, the young Carr created a piece of visual satire (right) that has a bite in our own time.
Titled “The Inartistic Alderman and the Realistic Nightmare,” the cartoon she created for a Victoria newspaper depicts a terrified old man lying abed as several trees stand around menacing him. Why are the trees haunting the old man? Because he, a public official, had them chopped down. It includes these words:
Ye ghosts of all the dear old trees,
The oak, the elm, the ash,
Nightly those gentlemen go tease,
Who hew you down like trash.
Two pieces of recent news about the fate of trees in Victoria brought this cartoon to mind.
Image B-08163 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives
I had just finished reading and pondering Leslie Campbell’s “Victoria’s Diminishing Forest,” which underscores the deficit between trees removed in this town (too often for luxury developments which are oddly dissonant with City Hall’s professed credo), and trees replaced, when I was made aware that the former Innovation Tree, a lovely birch of some 40 years located on Humboldt Street at the Inner Harbour, was to be chopped down to make way for some campaign promises City Hall did decide to keep. This tree was feted as recently as 2016 as the Innovation Tree, selected to bear on its branches a series of lights that reacted to sound. There was even a launch party at which Mayor Lisa Helps displayed some dance moves.
The tree was much loved—some called it the heart of the city—and it had become a friendly natural figure in the increased concrete density of Victoria. Yet despite a petition drive that gained 1,200 signatures and raised a public outcry that must have been audible even at 1 Centennial Square, Helps and council remained unmoved. The Innovation Tree was deemed an obstruction to progress, uprooted and sawed into pieces early on the morning of January 28.
Trees and gardens and respect for nature are part of our city’s heritage—or they should be. But where heritage of any kind is concerned, with this City Hall I suggest we have far too many inartistic aldermen, whose decisions have become our realistic nightmare. And as such what they offer is a failure in creative leadership. Mayor and council lurch from scene to scene in what can only be described as a melodrama of maladministration, lecturing and hectoring us all from the footlights about what is for our own good.
Artistic aldermen would have listened to the public—their employers, after all—worked all this out a long time ago, and ultimately shown such positive, productive leadership as Emily Carr’s cartoon suggests is possible. For if her cartoon sends up the dilemma of a politician trembling before the victims of his ill-considered decisions, it also demonstrates what it might look like for a tree-chopping inartistic alderman who maybe, just maybe, has grown him or herself a conscience. And maybe a way to save a tree and put in a bike lane. Now wouldn’t that be sensible?
I read with interest your Editor’s Letter about the urban forest which mentioned the property at 1201 Fort Street, which was originally the site of “Pentrelew,” the family home of Sarah Lindley and Henry Pering Pellew Crease (who was Victoria’s first barrister, then Attorney-General for the Colony of British Columbia, and by 1870 a Justice of the Supreme Court). Their home was a centre of hospitality and a unique heritage building.
Unfortunately, the Truth Centre acquired the property and got permission to tear down the old home so that they could erect a new church building. At the time of the request, I remember speaking to City council about the importance of preserving the building, but permission was granted to demolish it, though my understanding was that they would preserve the garden and trees. So it is with sadness that I see the last of a once notable historic site disappear.
I thought Leslie Campbell’s article on the urban forest was excellent, but took an unfair swipe at Abstract’s development at 1201 Fort. The majority of interested Rockland residents who attended the public hearings supported the development. All of us were made more than aware of the impact on the trees. In fact Abstract went to great lengths to protect the main grove of Garry oaks on the eastern corner, beside which will be a dedicated path as a piece of the Pemberton Trail. I’m not aware of any other local owner allowing public access through their private property; and through what will be a park-like setting connecting Fort with the Art Gallery. It’s a gift. They could have built ugly four-storey buildings along Fort with above-ground parking in the rear, wiping out all of the trees.
On another note, I doubt we would allow the planting of any non-native species in a Garry oak meadow. One look at the magnificent sequoias that are to be removed, and you may realize their dominance in this fragile ecosystem. The Garry oaks at 1201 Fort have had to compete for light, for water, for nutrients, etc. It’s an unfair fight.
Urban forest logged for cycling
Two hundred trees in Langford are slated to be removed to create a one-kilometre stretch of bike infrastructure known as the E&N Humpback Connector. This route runs between Atkins Avenue and Savory School. Many who live in the area have been speaking out against the mass destruction of mature Garry oak, big leaf maple and Douglas fir in an ecologically sensitive corridor near Millstream Creek. In August of 2018 when the CRD trotted this project out into the light, there was nothing to indicate how many trees were going to be sacrificed on the altar of high-tech bike lanes. In the pretense of consultation, the people in CRD Parks and Planning did some minor re-tweaking.
I visited the site on Saturday, February 2 and met the wonderful Leslie King, professor and director of the Canadian Centre for Environmental Education, School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University. This woman is the true embodiment of her job title. She has worked tirelessly to save these trees. All of her valiant efforts have fallen on deaf ears. Some who live in the area have resigned themselves to the destruction of this corridor of beauty right in their backyard—all in the guise of “green infrastructure.”
The full 17-kilometre E&N Rail Trail is slated to cost $36,000,000—if you can believe the figures put out by the CRD. I suspect the cost overruns will drive that cost considerably higher. I predict mudslides as they construct not one, but two culverts under the rail bed. That, plus the removal of so many mature trees will destabilize the embankments on either side of the rail bed even more. I just cannot fathom how anybody who is an engineer (or environmentalist) could ever have signed off on this project. I am not a qualified engineer, but I can see trouble ahead. Millstream Creek is going to be vulnerable to huge amounts of sediment, as trees are ripped out and heavy machinery begins its work. And this creek has just undergone a salmon enhancement project.
I have to ask myself what/who is driving this expensive project? Trees do not have an agenda. However, someone has an agenda here, and it has very little to do with getting people out of their cars. This one-kilometre stretch is not a commuter route. It is a recreational route. This bike infrastructure is going to have minimal impact on the number of cars driving around Langford. More kids might get to school via this bike route, but the loss of so many iconic trees is tragic. This area is key bird habitat. Ravens greeted me on both my visits. I saw northern flickers, juncos, hummingbirds and turkey vultures (these birds live here year round). In order to mitigate the impact of this project, the trees are being removed before the migratory birds return to nest.
The CRD recently declared a climate emergency. A climate emergency would require radical and effective action, not the destruction of so many trees in the guise of getting people out of their cars. And where is the media coverage of what is going on? They show up to do a two-minute sound bite and that’s that, story covered. There is no in-depth reporting, no digging deep to find out what the hell is really going on.
What will make a difference? Maybe speaking truth to power will shake things up a little. It likely won’t change anything. Perhaps it’s time to take a stand for trees by standing up for them in a literal sense. And I don’t expect everyone to have the courage to do that. That’s OK. I’m a crazy moth-to-the-flame kind of girl. However, even I have to be mindful of my mental wellbeing in light of all that is happening in our world on so many levels. So, maybe instead of getting myself arrested, I’ll just retreat to my garden where I know I can do something good. Or focus on my art, and my job working with the toddlers at UVic Childcare.
I don’t hold out much hope for our future as a species on this planet. A First Nations man named Thomas who I ran into among the trees on Dallas Road was so calm about the coming destruction. I felt a deep sense of peace in his presence. A friend of mine keeps telling me “be a proton.” It is getting harder and harder to keep my positive charge. My 93-year-old mother told me that I might be here to bear witness. I somehow have to find the courage to keep doing that.
Up to 300 trees in one sensitive ecosystem are due to be removed in the municipality of Langford—before birds have a chance to nest. Volunteers started working to salvage native plants in late January, before the destruction begins.
Many tree advocates are also cyclists and pedestrians, who say they welcome bike lanes. But they want local governments to find ways to build them without killing an increasing number of mature trees.
In nearby Saanich, six mature Garry oak trees on Finnerty Road just came down. An “all ages, all abilities” bike path is planned for the street. Local tree advocates and neighbourhood groups worked to convince Saanich council to reconsider, to no avail. Garry oak trees can live up to 500 years, and are considered a “protected” native species.
Finnerty Road is just the beginning of bike path construction in Saanich. A Times-Colonist article mentioned the planned Shelbourne Valley Project will remove another 70 trees along Shelbourne Street over the next few years.
And in Victoria, tree advocates have been requesting more information about how many mature trees will be cut down to run a planned new bike lane along Vancouver Street and Dallas Road.
Several trees have already been cut down to create the bike path on Pandora Street. The recent removal of a Downtown tree sparked outrage, despite 1,200 signatures gathered on its behalf in less than four days.
Many of us want to see bike lanes, but feel municipalities should explore ways to build them without losing more mature trees. If bike lanes will reduce cars on the road, for instance, why not make some of the roads one-way, or install bike lanes in place of a parking lane?
Mature trees are priceless and provide benefits—such as storing carbon and producing oxygen, among others—at an exponentially higher rate than saplings can. They can take a human lifetime or longer to replace.
While planners may find tree removal the cheapest and most expedient way to make room for bike lanes, some of us feel it is really much too expensive.
Location of Victoria’s #1 Firehall
I always enjoy what Ross Crockford has to say about various projects around the City of Victoria, and especially those he writes about in Focus’ March/April issue.
Regarding a new Crystal Pool I think a new location on the SE corner of Topaz Park would be a good location. This facility would tie in nicely with all the other sports fields and a multi-level parking garage could be incorporated.
The idea of a new #1 Fire Hall at the corner of Yates and Cook Street is puzzling. One of the primary reasons for a new hall is for better seismic survival in the case of a strong earthquake. Upon checking some seismic maps of the area, I find a high level of amplification in a zone centred a block away at the corner of View and Vancouver Streets. The new design suggests that there are plans to build 10 storeys or more on top of the fire hall. How crazy is that if the building collapses in an earthquake or enough debris falls blocking the emergency equipment from leaving the building?
I think there is a better location for a new hall on land that is similar in area, with a few minor changes. Build a replacement hall in the present location on Yates and expand the land available by closing a section of Camosun Street between Yates and Johnson. A couple of levels of underground parking below the hall would open up more land for the new facility. The new hall could be built in stages while keeping part of the present building open. Staff parking could be made available by making the street parking on Yates across from the hall for emergency personnel only. Perhaps some of the emergency equipment could be spread out among the other Victoria fire halls during construction. Moving to a new location to the west would also increase travel time to other emergencies to the east.
I agree with the neighbours of the new firehall. As stated in the Focus story: “Ninety-three residents turned up, and they were peeved—not with the developer, but with the City for letting the project get this far before consulting the public.”
Editor’s Note: Victoria City council has voted to proceed to a public hearing for the new development housing the firehall, though the date hasn’t been announced as of press-time.
I just want to commend you on the terrific series of articles Focus has published over the years related to the Johnson Street Bridge project.
I was employed with Walsh Construction as a manager and participated in the pursuit of the Johnson Street Bridge project. As the pursuit and design progressed, it became glaringly apparent this was a terrible project and we would be better off if we were not selected.
After stumbling across one of your earliest articles on the subject, I have religiously followed your series to this day. Your dogged journalistic efforts have not only confirmed my early apprehensions and fears, but also provided me a healthy dose of schadenfreude. I have shared many of your articles with my colleagues from the pursuit.
Your efforts exemplify true journalism and provide an incalculable value to our community. Thank you for all of your effort!
Wither Victoria’s public realm?
Gene Miller deftly and eloquently describes a fear many of us share about the rapidly changing face of Downtown Victoria (“Downtown has it all-ish,” March/April); namely, that it is becoming “hard, unsmiling.” Those two words are code for a larger and more urgent topic: the path Victoria is travelling through time and the fate of the City’s public realm.
The words “public realm” are not highbrow rhetoric or public policy babble; rather, they speak to something very tangible: the external places that are accessible to all; the places that we move through and linger within; the places where we live, work and play. Done well, the public realm evokes a powerful emotional experience of place that we all know and value when we experience it. Sadly, as Downtown is transformed, the public realm is actually being diminished, not enlarged—and certainly not enhanced. Other than the obligatory public art that attends new construction, and some institutional landscaping, what has been created that truly makes the public realm better for everyone?
Beyond the platitudes of the City’s “strategic plan,” there is no coherent vision, much less an analytical framework that would put the various development projects completed or underway into context. In the absence of such a vision, we suffer a form of civic vivisection in which a building is cut away in one place and replaced with something new. Increasingly, these new buildings are hard-edged, steel and concrete blocks—not unlike the “Lego-land” of steel and glass structures that now dominate the skyline of Vancouver, blocking the view that is the single greatest attribute of that city, and ours too.
I fear it won’t be long before the very essence of Downtown is changed irrevocably, and not in a good way. We are a coastal city, a port city; imagine what it will feel like when you can’t see or connect to the water while walking around Downtown? Or worse, when you can’t distinguish our Downtown from another urban centre. Michael Von Hausen, one of the leading urban designers and planners in Canada, notes that the free expression and exploration in Western modernist architecture, the “design hearth” that informs much of the construction taking place here, could be at the cost of the public interest and the higher orders that have historically been seen as sacred in architecture.
So, how to move forward in a way that not only respects Victoria’s public realm, but actually does something to enrich it? This, ultimately, is the question raised by Miller—and the expectation that all citizens should have of their mayor and council. Herewith, a modest proposal consisting of five simple, yet powerful principles:
(1) We will re-imagine and re-use/re-purpose existing infrastructure on all new development as a minimum design requirement; (2) We will provide a rich diversity and choice of residential options in Downtown; (3) We will provide vibrant indoor and outdoor public gathering places for use through all four seasons; (4) We will provide work hives and lifelong learning centres in Downtown to continually refresh and renew the cultural, creative and intellectual capital of Downtown residents; (5) We will connect everyone living and working Downtown to multi-modal transit within a five-minute walk of every door.
The money to pay for my proposal will come from a development cost charge, to be implemented immediately, that is dedicated to one purpose: making Victoria’s public realm the envy of every small city in the world.
Another way of looking at the issue Miller raises is to confront a rather stark choice. On the one hand, continued investment in the status quo will result in private luxury or wealth enjoyed by a few (who, after all, is buying those fancy new condominiums?), with an ever-diminishing public realm for the rest of us. In contrast, there is a future, made possible if we committed to the proposal I’ve outlined above, that results in a future in which private wealth is sufficient, and is complemented by a flourishing public realm that ultimately makes Downtown something of which we can all be proud.
Gonzales Hill: have the CRD & City given up?
The issue regarding 1980 Fairfield Place continues. The undeveloped property is a beautiful, calming, treed, mossy, and rocky lot adjacent to Gonzales Hill Regional Park.
Most people recognize that the lot is private and therefore the owners have a right to build on it. But regrettably the owners wanted to build beyond what the zoning permits. Consequently, they have sought changes from the Victoria Board of Variance (BOV) four times, twice asking for the same change and being turned down. A setback variance of 23 feet to site the house on the top of the rocky hill was first denied by the BOV, but then approved 4 months later, ostensibly to avoid cutting trees where a driveway was proposed. The community feels strongly that the development is inappropriate and excessive for this greenfield site.
The owners want to increase the size of the house by 769 square feet. After the BOV denied their request for a second time on October 11, 2019, they submitted plans to Victoria city planners for a 600-square-foot garden suite. Unfortunately, this structure as planned would sit two feet from the property lines shared both with the park and the adjacent neighbours. Furthermore, it would tower over the neighbours’ home, shading it and overlooking their living areas and a bedroom.
At one hearing, a member of the BOV effectively told the owners that they had the wrong lot for their plans.
The CRD and the City have both spoken with the owners more than once about purchasing the lot and adding it to the park. Unfortunately these conversations went nowhere.
Having the CRD buy the lot with the City’s support would be a strong move in proving the validity of the CRD’s professed environmental concerns. Saving this lot from overdevelopment would set an example for other municipalities to follow in preserving trees and green spaces within their urban areas. And yes, the construction process factors significantly in contributing to climate change, notably for this project with extensive blasting and resulting damage to tree roots and other growth.
Keeping this property intact would save many of the precious and endangered Garry oaks, preserve a refuge for wildlife, and maintain the beautiful and peaceful ambience of the park for the many park users as a walking, cycling, and driving destination.
At the time of writing, the surveyors have worked on the property and preliminary site preparation has begun. The matter is now urgent! We exhort the CRD and the City to do everything possible to ensure that this property becomes part of the wonderful CRD parks system.
Scott Chapman, Mary Doody-Jones, Catherine Doré, Philippe Doré, Virginia Errick, Janya Freer, Anita Myers, Danny Myers, Arlene Lonergan, Steve Lonergan, Sheila Protti, Cheryl Shoji
What to do with toxic sewage sludge?
Greater Victoria is getting one big honking secondary sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point at the entrance to our beautiful harbour, but with no backup system in case something like an earthquake damages it.
Why build such a treatment plant right on the shore? To make it easier to pump the dirty secondary treatment effluent right back into the ocean. This is not good news for the salmon and, in turn, the orcas that eat the salmon.
However the dirty effluent from secondary sewage treatment is only one problem. Another more serious problem is that the treatment generates sewage sludge—otherwise called “biosolids”—and the CRD, which is building the treatment plant, has a disposal plan for only half of the toxic sewage sludge produced. I am calling it “toxic sludge” because it contains all the industrial and domestic waste that goes into our sewers—which includes approximately 85,000 chemicals in circulation today, plus superbugs (multi-drug-resistant bacteria that multiply in all sewage treatment plants) and their drug-resistance genes, microplastics, microfibres, and scores of other pathogenic organisms.
The CRD is going to pump this toxic soup 18 kilometres uphill to Hartland where it will be treated in anaerobic digesters at the cost, roughly, of $200 million; methane will be generated from only one half of the sludge. The other half, that one that contains all the chemicals, microplastics, microfibres and pathogenic organisms, including the superbugs, will remain after the anaerobic digestion. And the CRD does not know what to do with it and how to safely dispose of it.
Most Canadian and US municipalities choose the cheapest (and most environmentally damaging) way to get rid of this toxic soup (unwisely allowed by both the federal and provincial governments)—spreading it on the land under the guise of “beneficial reuse” where it is most often misleadingly called “fertilizer” or “compost.”
Once applied to the land, it is there forever except for the part that gets washed away by rains into streams, rivers and the ocean where it pollutes every body of water that it comes into contact with. Sadly it also pollutes the air during drier seasons when winds pick it up and spread it around. Once the land is polluted with these sewage residuals or “biosolids,” crops grown on it take up varying amounts of the tens of thousands of chemicals, and we end up eating them and polluting our bodies with these toxins.
There are much safer and environmentally friendlier ways of getting rid of this toxic sludge. A gasifier or pyrolysis unit could generate syngas that can in turn be converted into electricity. Municipal solid waste including all plastics, scrap wood and even kitchen scraps could be used along with the sludge to generate electricity. Why all three levels of government are ignoring this sustainable and truly green option escapes me.
For a much more comprehensive and up-to-date review see “Polluting for Profit—the ‘biosolids’ business model” at http://biosolidsbattleblog.blogspot.com.
Thomas Maler, PhD
Sewage cost overruns
It appears that our waste treatment plant is on the verge of slipping into cost overruns. If I recall correctly, when Mayor Helps was asked at the beginning of her first term about the huge cost overruns of the Johnson Street Bridge replacement, she answered essentially by saying it was before she became mayor and the best we could “take away” from that debacle is to ensure that similar “mistakes” were not made on other projects.
Well, we now have a project that is many hundreds of millions more than the bridge. I wonder how Mayor Helps will defend the (alleged) cost overruns on the waste treatment plant, a project that is definitely being constructed during her tenure?
Here’s the real energy scandal
The provincial government has reported that BC Hydro is paying a premium of approximately $800 million per year to Independent Power Producers (IPP) for sustainable electricity. It’s a large number which is hard to put into perspective. To help us do this, consider: the International Monetary Fund’s latest report “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?” It values Canada’s carbon-based fuel subsidies at $46.4 billion per year. Fossil fuels are jeopardizing human society. Clean power is not. BC’s fossil fuel subsidy, as defined by the IMF, is five times the annual cost of the IPP premium.
IPP contracts were let competitively in the 1990s when Hydro’s electricity demand projections were very high. The load did not materialize. Renewables were significantly more expensive at that time, so innovative low-carbon power needed support. I do not agree that billions were “wasted.”
Gordon Campbell took principled and risky action to address climate change. Subsequently, Christie Clark’s Liberals reversed course. The current NDP government approved Site C. Will inexpensive renewables paint it as a boondoggle in 20 years?
NDP support for LNG is incomprehensible to those alarmed by global warming, and we’ll soon see if they “use every tool in the toolbox” to oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Rather than waste time on second-guessing the past, I hope that policy-makers keep an eye on the future. BC’s CleanBC climate plan needs buildings to convert from natural gas to electricity. It’s not clear how the plan will overcome the fact that gas is much cheaper. It will take risks similar to the IPP experiment to make greenhouse gas reductions real in BC.
Everything we do counts
You really do wonderful work for us in Victoria. Thank you.
I was prompted to write after reading “Everything We Do Counts” by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic in the November/ December edition. That’s an appealing sentiment, but I was really captured by the original style of her writing. Salut!
Over the year, thank you especially for tracking The Bridge and The Sewer Plant (David Broadland). And I always look for the views and provocative thinking of Gene Miller.
To all those at Focus who think and write, who are the heart and soul of Focus, on the great issues of our time, this reader is very grateful.
Logging hurts fish & tourism
Our local rivers flood regularly during winter and then dry up in the summer, which has resulted in the destruction of healthy spawning habitat for salmon. The reason? I asked an oldtimer who had worked for Comox Logging & Railway Co. Back in the early years of the last century, the company was dropping huge first-growth trees right into the Tsolum River and then booming them up. There was plenty of water. He told me that back then the valley was entirely untouched Douglas fir forest and the humic layer was very deep and intact. These soils acted like a huge sponge that soaked up winter rainfall and then gradually released it throughout the year. Today? “There’s little water in all our rivers during the summertime…and they can flood like the bejeez’us during the winter, now that all the old timber is gone,” he told me.
This colossal disaster is all thanks to the former Liberal government’s rewriting of the Private Managed Forest Land Act, which threw the door open to rampant, out-of- control timber harvesting by Island Timberlands and TimberWest thanks to the Liberal’s model of “Professional Reliance.” The fox was left in charge of the chicken house and there’s been absolutely no government oversight of private forest lands since the early 1990s.
Rick James, Royston, BC