The demise of the Humboldt “Innovation Tree” leads a citizen to investigate the City’s decision-making.
WHEN I HEARD THAT SOMEONE had filed an FOI request with the City of Victoria around the January removal of the Humboldt “Innovation Tree,” I was curious. Not so much about the tree, as about her. I thought her action might be a great example of citizenry—of demanding transparency and holding power to account. And, as it turns out, I was right.
Over coffee in a James Bay café, Mariann Burka tells me that when she first heard about plans to remove the tree as part of the new cycling network improvements, she immediately contacted City of Victoria staff and council members to obtain more information and see if an alternative was possible. And she asked for a moratorium on its removal. She says, “I was provided with standard responses,” taking the form of reassurances that other options had been looked at to fix the intersection at Humboldt and Government, but “operational needs” necessitated its removal.
But something didn’t ring true for Burka. And that Humboldt Tree had special meaning for her. Though she’s now retired from the provincial government, where she worked in senior positions (including acting as assistant deputy minister a couple of times), her last years at work were spent in the Belmont building in an office that looked out on the tree. She also confides that after the tree was celebrated as the City’s Innovation Tree and bedecked with sound-triggered lights, she and her partner would stop on their walk home and clap hands or sing to make the lights change colour. “There were always other residents or tourists who would join us,” Burka tells me. It was a welcoming presence for all: “I remember those moments of communal delight and joy.”
As Burka witnessed the Humboldt tree being removed on January 28, someone said, “Well, that’s that.” But she thought, “No, I am not letting this go.” That same day, she filed her FOI with the City, asking for “all design options considered for changes to the intersection at Government and Humboldt; and what specific operational needs could not be met without removal of this specific tree and why.”
She received the City’s response on March 22 (yes, it often takes that long).
So what was in that 37-page file?
Not very much. As Burka notes, “The drawings in the FOI appear to still show the tree…they are hard to interpret…I saw no evidence of any serious attempt to explore alternatives or to identify or evaluate alternatives in any systematic way.”
The closest the records come to showing any design options are rough “scratch notes” supplied by Transportation Planning and Development Manager Sarah Webb, who explains: “The team meetings and notes from October and November 2017 (sent in the scan) indicate general comparisons of the two options, but the option of the full re-design of the intersection was preferred as an overall solution and was pursued through detailed design.” There’s also an agenda for an October 25, 2017 meeting which allots all of 10 minutes to cover 3 items, including “Government/Humboldt/Wharf—full intersection as preferred.”
The only record provided by the City to support its contention that it had “explored a number of alternative designs” were two pages of a staff member’s notebook.
In other words, the tree was bumped out of the picture in 2017 without, apparently, a lot of thought. Council approved the “60 percent design” at a meeting in May 2018—without making a peep about the missing tree. The general public seemed to be out of the loop entirely about the fate of the healthy 40-year-old birch until January 2019.
Once that 10-day tree removal notice went up, however, things got heated. There were media articles, letters-to-editors, and a petition to save the tree that garnered 1,200 signatures within a few days. The FOI response shows that Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe wrote to staff on January 18 of this year, stating: “I am not supportive of the removal of the tree on Government. Is there anything that can be done to save it?”
Director of Engineering and Public Works Fraser Work responded to her, copying other councillors, saying, “The design requires the removal of this tree…We tried very hard to keep the central intersection tree, but had to compromise in order to design a safe intersection, that is affordable, and effective at serving the vehicle and pedestrian volumes, with a new cycle track.”
When questioned, staff rely on boilerplate, non-explanatory statements that the tree had to go. As Burka put it in a draft report she shared, “The FOI material reveals that the City relies on undefined, vague and, at times, changing criteria of ‘operational requirements.’”
Sarah Webb, in responding to the FOI, lists constraints and considerations, but as Burka notes: “In none of the documents provided is there any explanation or description of these ‘constraints/factors,’ whether they represent operational requirements, how or why they might be essential to the project, or any exploration of how these factors could be achieved in different ways.”
And, she points out, there is no consideration of the value of a mature tree. Research shows they provide ecosystem services like water filtration, cooling shade, and carbon sequestration. They contribute to our health by absorbing such pollutants as nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and ozone; they even filter particulates out of the air. Recent research makes clear that the older a tree is, the better it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere.
The staff of the City’s Parks department oversee all the trees on City property. The FOI records suggest their involvement was limited, but that they were fully supportive of the Humboldt tree’s removal.
ANOTHER PROBLEM THAT HAD LEPT OUT at Burka in the FOI response, related to public consultation. The tree’s removal notice certainly seemed to surprise not just citizens, but some council members as well. According to Webb, “Both designs were shown to the public through consultation material in Fall 2017, with the preferred option articulated.” Those materials were not included in the FOI response, but Burka found reports about (and graphics used in) the engagement process on the City’s website.
She notes, “Despite the City’s public assurances of detailed consultations over the past two years, there is no evidence that explicit information about tree removal (and alternatives) formed a significant component of consultations concerning the intersection.” Early engagement activities were limited to nearby businesses, service providers, and residents (very few of the latter). “Preserving mature trees and maintaining the urban tree canopy is a matter of broad public interest for all of Victoria, not just those who live and work in an area where a specific tree is targeted for removal,” Burka points out. Besides advocating the City “make more effort to engage the broader public on issues of tree removal and retention,” she states, Victorians are “entitled to explicit and full disclosure about tree removals and [should] be allowed an opportunity for meaningful consultation.” (Not just at the 10-day notice period.)
Burka is not sure we’re going in that direction: “It’s especially troubling to me that in February budget discussions, the City agreed to accelerate implementation of the cycling network which includes ‘streamlining consultation.’”
Worse, she feels the City has “almost encouraged divisiveness” by presenting a false dichotomy—trees or bike lanes—when most citizens are in favour of both. “The City should be taking the lead to harmonize those goals,” she says. Instead, she says, some statements by City officials helped falsely suggest those who wanted to save the tree were against bike lanes or even addressing climate change.
The City’s recent vote to implement its 2013 Urban Forest Master Plan, with $1.26 million in funding—along with pressure from citizens—means more effort is already being made to retain the City’s mature trees. City staff assured me that plans for the Vancouver Street section of the cycling network retain all existing trees and allow for some new ones—proving it is possible to both encourage people to get out of their cars and maintain a robust urban forest.
In this era of media disruption and cutbacks, however, it will come to rest more and more on citizens to investigate, through FOI and other means, government decision-making and truth-telling. Let Focus know what you learn.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. Did you know that, last measured (2012), Victoria’s forest canopy was 18 percent, and that its Urban Forest Master Plan suggests 40-45 percent is more appropriate for a city such as ours?