Let’s grow our canopy, but don’t miss the forest for the trees

February 11, 2012

Ah, city life.

Guelph’s municipal leaders recently announced they want to double the city’s so-called tree canopy, or the amount of land covered by trees when viewed from above, to up to 40 per cent of our total space.

Right now, we’re at 20 per cent, about on par with most Canadian cities.

Mayor Karen Farbridge said she’d like to see Guelph have more trees than any other city of our size. It’s a formidable goal, and should be embraced on principle. We all want to live in a city with more trees. If you don’t, you’re probably dead inside. Or from Toronto.

As the city grows and becomes a denser, more urban place — our population is nearly 122,000 now, Statistics Canada revealed this week — we’re going to need those trees even more.

But like everything, the devil is always in the details. If Guelph plans to grow its urban forest largely through city owned and maintained properties, we could wind up with a real mess on our hands years from now, foresters and urban experts warn.

Our neighbours in Kitchener can tell you that. They’re stuck with a $10-million bill for tree maintenance after 4,500 ash trees planted by the city years ago have to be cut down and replaced.

And the bill for taxpayers there is about to get even bigger, considering a further 60 per cent of the Norway maples that line most of Kitchener’s street are thought to be nearing the end of their lives, too.

The danger is an aggressive push to increase tree planting can draw money away from the important stuff like tree maintenance and forest management, warns Andrew Kenney, the vice-president of Tree Canada’s board of directors.

“If the focus shifts from overall forest stewardship and management to simply increasing canopy cover very aggressively there may be a tendency to shift towards tree planting and the rest of the urban forest might suffer,” Kenney said this week.

Later this spring, city staff will use the results of a $30,000 study that looked at Guelph’s tree canopy to draft the city’s urban forest management plan. Here’s hoping the folks at city hall realize a greener Guelph can’t be managed by municipal employees alone.

Some of the best reforestation projects out there are already being run by volunteers, students, businesses, private citizens and non-profit groups.

School boards across Ontario are passing shade policies that are bringing trees to playgrounds once baked by the sun. Groups such as the Grand River Conservation Authority have been planting thousands of trees around local watersheds for years. There are lots of other organizations, including Trees Ontario, Trees for Guelph and Tree Canada, that run programs to encourage tree planting and urban reforestation.

Plenty of privately owned strips of land — around malls, factories, businesses and new subdivisions — badly need some trees. The city could encourage that by demanding a minimum tree-canopy rule for all new development, and push homeowners to plant healthy trees, through tax breaks and other incentives.

And people can register their newly planted trees with the local Rotary club, so they can be added to the 40 per cent canopy goal.

None of these things need to cost the city much money. If this 40 per cent canopy goal is powered by trained volunteers and other non-profit groups, it can be a very good thing. If it just means a bigger bill for taxpayers down the road, it can become a problem we never asked for.

We’re all for more trees. Who isn’t? But let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

Guelph Mercury, Feb. 11, 2012

One Response to Let’s grow our canopy, but don’t miss the forest for the trees

  1. Angelito on November 22, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    Another of Dalty’s short and sweet nothings, a video clip teilnlg us Ontario’s Energy Plan is embracing renewable sources of energy encouraging conservation and cleaner air. No mention of at what cost, we already know it’s already over the top of anything close to realistic or reasonable. We need an ad to counter this one. We have resources like water and power in abundance but they’re getting ever closer to being beyond our ability to pay for them. We’re regressing, heading back to the ’20 s and ’30 s.

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