Victorians take their trees for granted, but the urban forest that makes us the envy of other cities is in a fight for its life. The aging trees that give Victoria much of its character are being squeezed by decades of development and a changing climate.
It’s a problem the city of Victoria is jumping on with a new Urban Forest Master Plan, but fixing it demands help from developers and homeowners, as well as city staff.
Most of us think of trees in the city as decoration, an essential bit of nature to soften the hard edges of concrete and steel. They give our neighbourhoods character and focal points. On a hot day, we are grateful for the respite of a leafy canopy.
The urban forest does much more, though. Trees and other plants remove pollutants from the air and toxins from the soil. The master plan says Victoria’s urban forest pulls about 110,000 tonnes of pollutants out of the air every year. Trees buffer the noise from streets, and their shade prolongs the life of the asphalt on those streets by 10 to 25 years.
Trees increase house values by as much as 15 per cent, and studies suggest that on well-treed shopping streets, shoppers spend more time and as much as 10 per cent more money. Trees even have social benefits, encouraging people to walk more, which makes them healthier, and socialize outside, which puts eyes on the street to reduce crime.
Unfortunately, the passing years have not been kind to the 150,000 trees that spread their branches over 18 per cent of the city. The growing city has squeezed the green space needed for trees to grow. Watersheds and biodiversity are shrinking. Climate change brings drier summers and unfamiliar pests. As we try to fit more people into smaller areas, we build over the soil where trees once grew.
Victoria began a street-tree program in 1939, and many of the human-planted trees are reaching the end of their lifespan. Many of those trees, like the famous cherry trees, belong to a limited number of varieties, so they are susceptible to diseases and pests.
Although the master plan doesn’t recommend a big expansion of the city’s $1-million tree program, it does suggest hiring an urban forester to oversee a plan to deal with all these challenges. The forester would manage existing trees and replace aging ones with a diverse mix that are better suited to survive the coming changes.
The city will also have to manage challenges from those who see the downside of trees: knocking down power lines in wind or snowstorms, cracking roads and sidewalks, penetrating underground services, restricting development.
But much of the work cannot be done by the city. Only 40,000 of the trees in Victoria are on public property. The rest are in residential yards and on other private property.
Further restrictions on what can be cut down and what must be planted will not be universally popular with homeowners and developers, but there is much that can be done to encourage everyone to think about the long-term health of urban trees. One small step is a pilot project to have homeowners “host” public trees in their front yards in areas where trees on the street interfere with underground services.
The city can lead the way, but it is up to all of us to help preserve the trees that are such an essential part of Victoria’s beauty and character.
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