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  • Victoria's diminishing urban forest

    Leslie Campbell

    January 2019

    Residents are mobilizing to protect one of the city’s greatest natural charms, increasingly threatened by development.


    I RECALL DURING MY FIRST YEAR HERE IN VICTORIA, as a transplant from Winnipeg, sitting in a small James Bay park noticing its many different species of very large trees. I was in heaven! It seemed so exciting, so exotic and luxuriant.

    I may have become more blasé about it 34 years later, but I still know what a blessing—and a defining characteristic of this city—all those big trees are. And I am obviously not alone. Witness the growing crescendo of concern over the city’s loss of mature trees. Pressures from development, summer droughts, wind storms, sewage pipelines, and simple aging are among the reasons residents are noticing the demise of more and more trees.

    Citizens, regional councils, and municipal parks employees all seem to recognize the central role the urban forest plays in making Victoria what it is—a beautiful, healthy, prosperous place. Many of us now understand how trees, especially mature ones, provide ecosystem services like water filtration, cooling shade, and carbon sequestration. How they contribute to our health by absorbing both air and water pollutants; they even filter particulates out of the air by trapping them on their leaves and bark, thereby reducing asthma attacks. Did you know that trees increase the value of our homes from 3-15 percent? Or that shading from trees prolongs the life of asphalt by 10-25 years? Trees also act as useful wind buffers. By sheltering many other species, they increase biodiversity.

    Look out your window and imagine the city without trees: it would be a very different, bleaker place entirely. No birds would be singing.

    Ironically, those very trees and their many charms have helped attract development, which has boosted land prices so much that trees are being sacrificed to make room for more and larger homes.

    The real estate boom and its impact on our urban forest seems to have caught us off guard, without adequate safeguards in place. As a result, every year thousands of mature trees—along with the many services they provide—are being lost throughout the Capital Region. In this article, I will focus on the City of Victoria, where a weak bylaw means, for example, that removal of non-native trees with a diameter at chest height of less than 80 centimetres—or 31.5 inches—does not require a permit. (More on this later.)

    At a City of Victoria council meeting on November 22, a half dozen speakers from the recently formed Community Trees Matter Network showed up to give presentations to the new council. Their website (housed under the Creatively United for the Planet website) contains numerous articles about the many benefits of and threats to the urban forest.



    Verna Stone (l), Nancy Lane MacGregor and Frances Litman


    Nancy Lane MacGregor, in her presentation, took Victoria council on a tour of a block in her Rockland neighbourhood: “On Moss Street, a Garry oak blew over in a storm…At Moss and Rockland, a 350-year-old Garry oak was cut down, its roots too close to homes on either side. At Langham Court, a healthy 162-year-old giant sequoia was taken down because its roots were entwined with a sewer pipe. Around the corner on Linden, apartment balconies face a wasteland through standing dead trees, the first phase of a development. At 1201 Fort Street, a luxury condo and townhouse development…will destroy 29 mature trees including a remnant Garry oak meadow, giant sequoias and other protected trees. Up the street, at Central Middle School, a large Garry oak fell in a windstorm…”

    Frances Litman, founder of Creatively United for the Planet, reminded council of the many services trees provide a city: “Trees clean and cool the air, create oxygen, decrease carbon dioxide, provide essential habitat for birds and animals, and save this city a lot of money [$2 million in 2013] by processing and filtering hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that would overtax our storm sewers.” She charged today’s developers with “scraping the land bare of every earthworm and living thing, despite the footprint of the building and without regard to how this impacts the natural ecosystem and surrounding neighbourhood.”

    Litman urged council to implement the recommendations of the City’s own 2013 Urban Forest Management Plan, and “budget for a qualified coordinator to oversee, educate and implement it department-wide.”

    A week after that council meeting, I met with Litman and MacGregor at Verna Stone’s art-filled apartment at Fort and Moss Streets. A coffee table was set with a smorgasbord of sweets and Philosopher’s Brew tea was steeping. Stone was wearing her tree dress, a lovely tunic featuring an appliquéd Douglas fir. She too is a member of the Community Trees Matter Network.

    The story of how they came together—along with a number of others—to form the Network includes the outrage they experienced as they each noticed too many trees falling victim to disease and development. Serendipity and basic networking also brought them together. When Litman was put in touch with so many other tree-lovers, she thought, “Oh my god, I’ve found my tribe.” She manages the Network’s website and email and said she can barely keep on top of the interest: “It’s exploding!”

    Indeed, soon after I talked with them, Litman was interviewed on CHEK TV about the planned removal of at least 29 mature Garry oaks—and endangerment of 20 more—on Grange Road in Saanich due to the CRD’s sewage pipeline. The neighbourhood was in an uproar over this loss. Fortunately, the ensuing publicity nudged the CRD to figure out how they could shift the pipeline a bit and preserve the trees.

    Network members have investigated what the City of Victoria has been doing and think it’s just not enough. “A barely advertised ‘Tree Appreciation Day’ draws only a handful of citizens to witness the mayor planting four trees, then pack up for another year,” said MacGregor, adding, “Trees are not considered in the push for densification.”

    Though an upbeat group, cynicism about governments near and far was apparent. In discussing how Transport Canada recently removed all the trees along the south side of the Inner Harbour at Laurel Point Park to clean up contaminated soil from a paint plant once located there, Stone suggested the federal body is just attempting to look good on the cleanup front so it can allow more oil tankers to ply coastal waters.

    The women were looking forward to hosting expert speakers, art events, speaking at other council meetings, and fanning out to various neighbourhood associations to connect with tree defenders in different areas. They want to “harness the power of an integrated network of people,” said Litman. Stone, an artist, never expected to be an activist, but, quoting a friend, said, “Activism is the price you pay for living on this planet.”


    THE CITY OF VICTORIA ESTIMATES there are about 150,000 trees within its borders, with 33,000 of them on City boulevards or in parks. There’s an inventory of these on the Open Data Portal of the City’s website (I found it, but only with considerable help).

    In the City’s 2013 Urban Forest Management Plan, it’s noted that the City’s “tree canopy cover ranges from a low of 3.4 percent in the Downtown area to a high of almost 34 percent in Rockland.” Overall, Victoria’s canopy was, in 2008, estimated to be 17.6 percent. Navdeep Sidhu, assistant director of Parks and Recreation, told me the City is currently in the process of planning the next canopy coverage study.

    The Urban Forest Management Plan is, at 98 pages, a wealth of information and supports the activists’ arguments for more care being taken with Victoria’s urban forest. For instance, it notes that “The Garry oak and associated ecosystems that shape Victoria’s landscape are home to more plant species than any other land-based ecosystem in coastal British Columbia. Many of these species occur nowhere else in Canada. At this time [2013], because so much habitat has been lost or degraded, approximately 100 species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds, butterflies, and other insects are listed as ‘at risk’ in these ecosystems. Many of these species at risk are found in Victoria—from tiny poverty clover in Barnard Park to the iconic great blue herons that nest in Beacon Hill Park.” The authors also note, “Garry oak ecosystems have been dramatically affected by land development. It is estimated that in 1800, Garry oak ecosystems flourished on 1,460 hectares of the City. By 1997 that had dwindled to 21 hectares of fragmented and degraded habitat.” And certainly less now, nearly 20 years and two real estate booms later.

    Management of the urban forest in the City of Victoria falls under the Parks and Recreation Department, in particular the 20 employees of the Arboriculture and Natural Areas section. They have their hands full with the maintenance of those 33,000 trees in parks and on streets and boulevards. They prune 600 of them a year, plant 900 native plants, and give five years of extra care to young saplings they’ve planted. They maintain the tree inventory, remove invasive species, respond to over 1200 calls for service of public trees each year, and review “development-related and other various permit applications for impacts to the Urban Forest.”

    I had hoped to speak to an employee in the City’s arboriculture section, but was instead urged to send a questionnaire to Parks and Communications managers. The full Q&A is on Focus’ website.

    Parsing some of the answers provided as to why trees are “removed,” the spokespeople cited increased stress, including from drought, that increases “impacts of disease and insect pests.” Trees’ defense mechanisms fail and pests are attracted to weakened trees.

    They also noted that, “A large number of street trees planted in the 1950s and 1960s are now nearing the end of their lifecycle. They are decreasing in vigour and not as adaptable to changes in the environment around them. The last several years of summer drought conditions have put additional stress on many trees.” Additional stress on these trees comes from damage by humans: “wounds to trees from mowers and weed eaters are detrimental to tree health and can be infection points for fungal wood decay pathogens. Nailing, screwing, bolting or attaching things to trees can cause damage to the tissues within the tree and the bark.” Soil compaction is also an issue for trees lining streets where people park or store materials in the root zone of a tree.

    The Parks people assured me that “we always look for ways to retain the tree as long as possible…Generally, when dieback of the crown is above 40 to 50 percent, removal is recommended.”

    In the first 9 months of 2018, the City had removed 327 trees and planted 265 trees on City property. Since then, they have removed at least a further 29 trees in Stadacona Park, adjacent to the 1400 block of Pandora Avenue, and 12 more in Fernwood.

    Increased numbers of tree removals in the last year or two are likely due to the City’s strategy to manage high-risk trees. As the Parks people explained: “The City of Victoria completed an inventory of trees on City property in early 2014 and recorded information including species, size, condition, geographic location and maintenance needs. Trees that were identified through this process to have significant safety hazards or that were at risk of imminent failure were removed immediately. The inventory identified trees that require further assessment to determine risks, which may result in pruning, removal or other hazard mitigation techniques. Staff further assess these high-risk trees to determine if they can be retained, or if they must be removed. In 2019, 392 trees will require assessment.” Judging from recent years, these assessments will lead to a good number of trees being removed.

    Pressures on the urban forest on private property (which comprises about 75 percent of Victoria’s urban forest) are more difficult to assess. I was told Parks had an average of 111 requests annually for removal of “protected” trees over the last couple of years. About half of the requests are denied—so about 55 protected trees were removed each year by private property owners.

    That doesn’t sound like much, and seems at odds with the perceptions of many tree watchers. But one just needs to read the City of Victoria’s Tree Preservation Bylaw to understand what’s not being counted.

    This is a bylaw that most agree needs revision. It currently puts restrictions on the type and size of trees that can be cut down on private property. Certain species—Garry oak, arbutus, Pacific dogwood, Pacific yew—if over 50 centimetres in height, are “protected.” Western red cedar, big-leaf maple, and Douglas fir must be over 60 centimetres in diameter at chest height to be protected. Any tree on private property with a trunk over 80 centimetres in diameter is also protected under the bylaw and cannot be removed or altered without a permit. A lot of big trees slip through these size requirements and can often be removed without any permission, fees or civic involvement. Contrast this to Vancouver, where trees over 20 centimetres in diameter are protected.

    A permit involves getting one of the City’s arborists to assess the situation. If they agree there is a problem warranting removal (e.g. it is severely diseased or poses a danger), you’ll pay $30 for a removal permit for each tree up to three trees, then only $5 per tree after that. If you do not obtain a permit and remove a protected tree, penalties for first-time offenders are $250-$1500. Updating this bylaw is an objective of the City’s new Strategic Draft Plan.

    In my mind the biggest gap in the tree bylaw is that in practice it fails to protect any tree when their removal is deemed “necessary for the purpose of constructing a building, an addition to a building, or construction of an accessory building” or a driveway, off-street parking, utilities service connections, or “the installation, repair, or maintenance of public works.” A permit may be needed, but man-made things seem to have priority over saving trees.

    Brooke Stark, manager of Parks Operations told me that in 2018, “there were approximately 126 trees lost to development and capital projects.” The department will track these categories separately in 2019, but could not get more specific for 2018 data.

    Not included in that tally are the 29 trees approved for removal at the somewhat ironically named Bellewood Park, a 2-acre, 83-unit development at 1201 Fort Street. These include some big Garry oaks and two giant sequoias (still standing as Focus went to press). Last April, MacGregor wrote to council about these magnificent sequoias, which can live for over 2,000 years: “[They] have historic importance, planted from seed in the 1860s by the Attorney General of the Colony of BC, E.G. Alston.” In that letter, MacGregor noted some of the 22 trees being retained by the developer might not survive blasting and construction. She quoted the arborist’s report on the excavation for underground parking: “If it is found that large structural roots must be pruned…it may be necessary to remove additional trees to eliminate any risk associated with them.” The developer has agreed to plant 83 new trees, but most of those will be varieties of small trees.



    The ironically-named Bellewood Park development will see the removal of 29 trees, including Garry oaks and the two giant sequoias in the background


    ANOTHER FOUNDER OF THE COMMUNITY TREES MATTER NETWORK, Grace Golightly, has been writing thoughtful and detailed letters to City Hall about trees, often copying them to Focus, for a couple of years. She has taken particular issue with the tree bylaw’s modest requirements of planting two replacement trees and paying a token $30 fee when removal of a protected tree occurs. Among other reasons, she has pointed out that mature trees provide far more carbon sequestration than younger trees.

    The research backs her up. A 2014 study reported in Nature looked at 403 tree species and showed that “for most species mass growth rate increases continuously with tree size. Thus, large, old trees do not act simply as senescent carbon reservoirs but actively fix large amounts of carbon compared to smaller trees; at the extreme, a single big tree can add the same amount of carbon to the forest within a year as is contained in an entire mid-sized tree.”

    Golightly herself has cited Ohio State University research suggesting it would take a total of 269 two-inch-diameter trees to replace the carbon sequestration provided by a single 36-inch-diameter deciduous tree.

    Forests in general are one of the world’s largest banks for all of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. As much as 45 percent of the carbon stored on land is tied up in forests according to NASA scientists.

    With the City of Victoria’s professed concern about climate change, maintaining a robust and growing urban forest, in large measure made up of mature trees, should be a priority. A first step would be analyzing how much total carbon sequestration is being provided by our forest. Oak Bay, for instance, has calculated that its trees sequester 3,270 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually and store 97,490 tonnes of carbon.

    On public lands, the Victoria’s Parks department told me they plan to plant only 250 to 300 new trees per year. This does not even replace on a one-to-one basis recent removals of mature trees from City-owned land. And on private land, only certain tree removals need to be accompanied with replanting of, at most, two saplings.

    At such unambitious replanting rates it’s clear that Victoria’s leafy canopy and the important services it provides, will fade away. Golightly’s and others’ advocacy for a much more vigorous replanting schedule seems warranted. She wrote, “When I mentioned the need to plant a lot more trees to one of the Parks administrators, he said there was nowhere to plant them. However, we must plant them, and a little thought can generate lots of ideas.” She mentions offering trees at a discount to residents (as Nanaimo, Saanich and Vancouver do). She points out that most schoolyards and many other institutions could also accommodate more trees. She suggests planting more trees along the Galloping Goose—and in many parks, particularly if volunteers cleared out invasive species. The other day I noticed barren parcels of land around the Johnson Street Bridge begging for trees to at least replace the dozen or so removed years ago for the new bridge.

    Golightly goes further: “I think it’s essential that the City purchase well-treed properties that come up for sale. They can either be covenanted and re-sold, or made into mini-parks where more trees could be planted to increase the carbon storage and benefits to the neighbourhood.”

    On that score, the South Jubilee Neighborhood Association has urged the City to consider purchasing a large corner lot at Leigh and Bank Streets which has never been developed and boasts 26 mature Garry oaks. “We are also keenly interested in planting more trees on the property to turn it into a true urban forest or ‘clean air’ garden,” writes board member Matt Dell.



    The City is being urged to purchase this private land at Leigh and Bank to preserve the Garry oaks


    Along such lines, the City’s own Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP) suggests the City establish a capital fund for the acquisition and restoration of lands for new urban forest.

    Of course, it is not as simple as just plunking more trees in the ground. The Parks department told me: “All restrictions of the site, physical space, soil volumes, overhead or underground services, soil quality, site exposure, expected available water, levels of wind and sun, pest resistance and aesthetics play a part in tree selection. Selecting a tree variety which is going to be successful long term is critical.” Increasing densification and more extreme, climate-change-induced weather patterns will just make maintaining a healthy urban forest more challenging—and more important.

    The City’s six-year-old UFMP predicted all this: “Finding space for significant amounts of urban forest within these high-density [neighbourhoods] is a challenge. Other types of ‘greening’ such as green roofs and green walls, as well as smaller trees and shrubs in planters will make important contributions. However, this will not achieve the same level of benefits that large, mature trees provide. Urban planners, developers and the design community should be encouraged to find ways to incorporate large-canopy trees into these settings, such as has been done in Portland.” (In 2014, Portland had a 29.9 percent canopy cover and was aiming at 33 percent.)

    The UFMP, written before the recent real estate boom, continues: “The single greatest impact to the urban forest comes from the incremental loss of greenspace associated with development and densification. In addition to removal of large mature trees, there is a loss of soils and space that could be used for future generations of trees. It takes a significant amount of space to grow a large tree. As land uses change and neighbourhoods are redeveloped, it is critical to ensure that adequate greenspace is being reallocated on-site or elsewhere to sustain the future urban forest. Failure to do so will result in a forest that is diminished in size, more fragmented, less productive and more vulnerable to change—the antithesis of sustainability.” [italics added]

    An earlier densifying boom in the 1970s gave rise to numerous three- and four-storey apartment buildings that had big setbacks allowing for wide lawns, bushes and large trees. The more recent boom, in an effort to maximize return on high-priced land, has created buildings right up against sidewalks. The Parks people put it this way: “Most original homes in Victoria were not built to the zoning setbacks or built to maximize allowable Floor Space Ratio. New construction tends to maximize both.”

    If the powers-that-be had been thinking faster, or just more holistically, they’d have figured out a way, during the recent boom, to plan developments in tandem with urban forest expansion. This is not as unlikely as it might sound. Other cities have done it or have at least planned how to accomplish it. Duncan is aiming at a 40 percent canopy and knows that means planting 3,729 trees by 2020; Seattle is aiming at 30 percent coverage within a 30-year period; Vancouver’s 2020 plan sets a target of 40 percent canopy and calls for 150,000 new trees by 2020. Victoria’s, recall, was 17.6 percent in 2008.

    Other cities are establishing volunteer programs to assist in maintaining urban forest health. Melbourne has a very successful program involving over 400 volunteers doing meaningful work for the urban forest—mapping, creating inventories of landscape features, and eco-assessments. Closer to home, Saanich’s “Pulling Together” program involves volunteers in ecological restoration in 40 of its parks. Community members can participate in invasive removal and replanting activities on a casual drop-in basis or as “lead stewards” and “restoration assistants.” There is no similar program in the City of Victoria.


    IN THE RAPIDLY GROWING FIELD OF URBAN FORESTRY, trees are viewed as essential “green infrastructure” that deliver environmental, health and economic services. These include those mentioned in relation to carbon storage, pollution reduction, stormwater management, the provision of wind-buffering and shading, and public health.

    The director of UBC’s Bachelor of Urban Forestry program, Professor Cecil Konijnendijk, recently told CBC that too many cities are letting development drive city-wide growth. “Stronger planning frameworks that actually guide developments [are necessary]; cities should be stronger in really making sure development is done in the right way…” Konijnendijk has agreed to speak in Victoria in the new year—watch the Community Trees Matter website.

    Urban foresters advocate for good strong policy and enforcement, more funding to support city arborists, and education so citizens understand the wide array of services provided by a healthy urban forest. They know that a mobilized citizenry is essential to encourage the political will to get the right policies in place.

    Fortunately, Victoria has both a mobilized citizenry and that 6-year-old Urban Forest Master Plan in place. Most of its 26 recommendations have not been implemented, the very first of which advocates creating “a position for an Urban Forest Planner/Coordinator, who is empowered to work with other departments to achieve the City’s urban forest goals and to report annually to council.” That seems a good place to start—along with direction from council to make an increased tree canopy a reality.

    Leslie Campbell loves walking the well-treed streets of Rockland—just by viewing trees our stress levels drop. Note City Hall’s January sessions for citizen input on the draft budget and strategic plan at Victoria City Hall.

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