Public trees vs. private spaces

Discussion in 'HortForum' started by KarinL, Feb 25, 2008.

  1. KarinL

    KarinL Well-Known Member 10 Years

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    I recently attended a presentation by Paul Montpellier, senior arborist for Vancouver's Parks Board, who is in charge of the city's tree decision-making in parks, along streets, and in all public spaces.

    Interesting talk, very knowledgeable tree guy. Big tree fan, of course. I enjoyed the talk, and don't question his ability to do his job, and to do it pretty well. Really, I think street tree management is pretty good in Vancouver. But a couple of things about his outlook were a disappointment to me. Not a surprise, given today's mood of tree idolatry, but a disappointment in a bureaucrat who ostensibly serves the needs of the people. In short, people's needs did not appear to factor in much to how he saw street tree decisions. Maybe on the subject of street tree selection they did, but not at the other end of the trees' life cycle.

    I think the things I'm concerned about are germane in places other than Vancouver, and so I'd like to throw the issue of public trees vs. private spaces and private lives open for discussion. I'd like to hear how things are approached elsewhere.

    On the subject of street trees in particular, my concerns relate to the intersection between individual and bureaucratic control of private lives and private property, and individuals' ability to chart their own destiny - their ability to pursue, as the law provides, the peaceful enjoyment of their property.

    For example, Mr. Montpellier spoke admiringly of street trees that are about 100 years old and expressed hope that they might live to 200. And when I asked about the decision-making process and replacement strategy for trees that get too big, he said there is no such thing as a tree that is too big - he acknowledged a tree might be the wrong sort for a given spot, but that "too big" would never be cause for removal. He stated that he assumes that when people buy their houses, the trees are already there and so he assumes that they are fine with having them there.

    However, the thing about trees, as is said often enough on these forums, is that they always grow. They increase their height to a point, and their canopy reach, perhaps filling eaves with leaves after 80 years that they did not fill at 40. Even if they cease to grow in height, they continue to assemble mass overhead. Their root zones grow, and grow, and grow. At some point, the street tree defines your front yard, and at some point, the maintenance burden it imposes becomes onerous. And at some point, trees and their branches fall down, often entirely unexpectedly, and since they comprise significant weight, they do some damage when they fall.

    If you've lived in close contact with large trees, it is easy to see how dramatically those aspects could affect peoples' private lives on their properties. You might buy your house when you're thirty-five, as we did, when the tree is of no significant size and imposes no significant maintenance burden. At that age you think nothing of the work required anyway: getting on a ladder to clean your eaves or raking leaves like crazy. But things happen - you have kids, you get older, you gain frailties, you develop a passion for growing alpines. The street tree is growing as all these things happen. With kids in bed, the branches of the Plane trees on Mackenzie Street or the Catalpas on 10th might start to concern you more on windy nights. The root zone and canopy move in to take away the only sunny spot in your garden. You start to be really reluctant to get on that ladder to clear your eaves or your carport roof.

    Mr. Montpellier did not seem to think that the city should ever entertain the notion that a tree might have become simply too big to be in an urban space. And yet these are concerns that might cause people to have to move. Should people be re-arranging their lives to accommodate growing trees? If so, to what point? Or is it rational to remove large trees from public property when they start to make people uncomfortable in their own homes? I have been talking a lot to people about trees the last couple of years, and I am amazed at how many people have experienced significant frustration from trees, leading to real resentment. What ability should people have to influence those situations?

    As a side note, he also mentioned that the city is evaluating Cladastrus lutea as a street tree, which I understand to be a notoriously weak-wooded species. Coupled with the idea that big trees are unequivocally a good thing, this alarms me.

    So I'm curious how things are elsewhere. Other cities date back far further than Vancouver does, and so are there street trees of much greater age or have they been replaced (maybe Dutch Elm made this decision in some cases!)? How much say do citizens have in other places when public trees make them uncomfortable - or in fact when they want trees? How are tree decisions made at the two ends of a tree's life cycle? What are the results? Do any cities address escalating incursion, maintenance burdens, or hazard, and if so, how?

    The reason I'm interested in discussing this here is that this sort of a discussion too often results in a simplistic pro-tree/anti-tree brawl, with anyone who favours tree removal being labelled a tree hater and a tree ignoramus, the tree defenders taking the more virtuous position. Given that people here are by definition tree enthusiasts and probably pretty knowledgeable whether on a professional or lay basis, I am curious what views of appropriate urban tree management policies will emerge.
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2008
  2. Ron B

    Ron B Paragon of Plants 10 Years

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    >the tree defenders gaining the default position of tree-hugger although they are often the more ignorant of the two<

    Oh?
     
  3. M. D. Vaden

    M. D. Vaden Active Member 10 Years

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    I suppose that a tree won't ever be too big, as long as there is never any restriction for money to maintain it, and no objection to remove anything from the space is absolutely "needs" for expansion.

    Seems that focusing on "too big" doesn't become a big issue in many cities, because a lot of people like the bigger trees.
     
  4. KarinL

    KarinL Well-Known Member 10 Years

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    I didn't express that well - Obviously many very knowledgeable people are pro-tree. I was referring to something like my own previous status some twenty years ago being romantic about trees but ignorant of their effects up close. I run into shades of my younger self distressingly often!

    I'll edit that out.

    Well that's really my question - what if they don't? What if they were OK with a tree's size when they moved in, but after twenty years of ceding territory and carrying the cost of its expansion, they aren't?
     
  5. M. D. Vaden

    M. D. Vaden Active Member 10 Years

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    Actually, it just all depends on the tree.

    To focus on size alone, is a limited view.

    Suppose a bigger tree does drop more leaves in gutters?

    But if the tree is not there anymore, the roof - if composition - will probably deteriorate faster from direct sunlight, and the air conditioning costs may escalate.

    So one cost reduction can escalate another cost increase.

    With fewer leaves produced if a big tree is removed, less organic matter goes to the recycling center, producing less organic matter to use in landscaping around the city.

    Any area must be maintained, whether it has trees or not, and whether or not they are big trees.

    In many cases, I don't find the big trees to require a lot more expense than a bunch of little trees. On the other side of the coin, if a big tree is removed to plant a smaller tree, the labor and cost to remove the tree, grind the stump and remove the debris, plus replace it, is worth a decade or two worth of pruning on a big tree.

    Its a bigger issue than just the tree. But I think that an important aspect is whether or not people are trying to grow something that is outside their means, where they become enslaved by a preservation system that becomes more of service to the tree, than the tree serving to provide benefits to the location.
     
  6. KarinL

    KarinL Well-Known Member 10 Years

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    Yes, there are always trade-offs, with trees as with most other things. I think the most notable thing about bureaucratic decision-making is that any costs carried by citizens are simply not factored in. (Example: Vancouver recently converted to automated garbage pick-up and the engineering dept brags about how much injuries have gone down now that their workers don't get out of the truck - but they don't even get out of the truck to straighten a tipped-over can; they simply don't pick up the garbage in it. Leaving the injury, if any, to be incurred by the homeowner... which they don't ask about or track).

    I think what I was looking for from Mr. Montpellier was some version of your very excellent last statement, M.D. - an awareness at least that a tree can ask more of a person than they want to give. Altogether, I think the homeowner should be given some input to determining when the costs are no longer worth the benefits. Mr. M. did not even seem to acknowledge that the costs exist.
     
  7. Latifa

    Latifa Member

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    KarinL,
    The only thing I can say about this issue is that in my country( Serbia, it`s in Europe), if the tree is to big, they just cut it down, and they DON`t replace it with another one!In fact, here , you can cut down a tree that is a 100 or more years old, even if it is protected by low ( By the Institut for protection of nature`s goods)! In my neighbourhood, a tree that was protected by low was cutted down just becouse some man wanted to expand his house, and the tree was in the way!
    So, talk about urban management!
    I know that this is not helping, but I just wanted to say that there are places where the policy that you have can only be wished for! And that doesn`t mean I deesagre with you...
     
  8. 1950Greg

    1950Greg Active Member

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    In older areas of Vancouver as is with the west side which have ample room between the yard and the street large trees don't pose as great a problem. Some streets on the east side do not have room for trees on the public streets. A good example of trees too big are along 12th ave. east of Kingsway and west of Fraser streets. These trees are a danger to everyone who uses this route. I agree with KarinL that some input from the public at large should be taken under concideration when and where trees should be removed. New construction should take this into mind when developing new projects in and around Vancouver. With high density housing more green space is neeed.
     

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