If A Tree Falls

A tree-lined street

Few things are more associated with environmentalism than protecting and planting trees. I was known as “the green guy” long before I was elected to council, which may be why I hear about trees so often, but I hear about it almost as much as I hear about bad traffic. So here are a few thoughts on trees in Brighton.

Preserving the Forest

There are a lot of reasons for people to feel upset about new developments in town. Change is hard, more people means more traffic and noise, etc. But the one I hear about most often is the trees, and for good reason: It’s the most visible sign that there’s a trade-off between our built environment and the natural environment, a sign that our lifestyle comes with a cost to non-human beings. As a REALTOR®, I hate the term “Vacant Land”; there’s no such thing. Unfortunately, “saving the trees” sometimes becomes a front for all kinds of opposition to development, and that’s more baggage than our trees can carry. So here’s a few points about what it means to save trees in development areas.

Which Trees to Save?

A developer is required to obtain an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for any land they want to develop. Included in, or submitted alongside, the EIS is an Arborist Report: an inventory of significant trees on the property, with a plan for how to protect them if appropriate.

I say “if appropriate” because it isn’t a given that all trees should be protected. Some trees are invasive species that can throw off the balance of a local ecosystem that has no niche for them; if a developer wants to cut down a mature tree that detracts from the resiliency of the local ecosystem so that they can build a home there, and then plants a native species nearby or elsewhere, that’s a benefit rather than a loss.

Arborists have a list of protected tree species to watch for, but they also make note of the condition of trees: while a snag (a dead standing tree) has some value to the ecosystem, it also can pose a risk (it’s likely to fall), and it’s in our best interests to remove them if they’re going to be in a new neighbourhood. The Arborist Report presented as part of a development application this week counted 112 trees worth saving, and 27 “unsuitable for preservation.” The report also notes that none of the trees in the proposal area are species at risk, or genetically pure, and that these trees are typical of trees planted in or grown naturally in and around farmed fields, which is what the subject property once was. These are not old-growth forests or intact ecosystems, and ecologists often label these areas as of low ecological value. (If they were of high ecological value they’d be zoned Environmental Protection.)

A tree fallen on a home in Peterborough.
It’s Complicated

But like everything else, saving trees is complicated. Having a Tree Protection Plan is a lovely thing, but it amounts to identifying which trees to save and putting plastic fencing around them until the construction period is over so that they aren’t accidentally cut down. There is no real enforcement mechanism; as we learned on Monday night, nobody comes back specifically to check on the trees, and if the trees are accidentally or even intentionally removed the worst that can happen is that the municipality can keep some of the construction hold-back that developers pay, or more often, the developer must pledge to plant trees elsewhere. I don’t know if anyone ever checks in on those other locations to see if trees have actually been planted. So while we have mechanisms in place to protect trees, and to plant more trees when we can’t protect the existing ones, there’s little transparency or accountability about it. We have to believe the developer will follow through.

But preserving trees is hard even when you genuinely want to do it. Thankfully, Brighton has developers who recognize the value of mature trees. The Forest Drive neighbourhood, off Cedar St., is named after various species of tree, and is known for the mature trees that were able to be saved through the construction of the neighbourhood.

I asked Stephen Tobey, of Gordon Tobey Developments, about tree preservation this week after a meeting, and he explained the frustration of trying to preserve trees (even aside from the complaints when they get cut down). He spends time walking the lot, looking for mature trees that are the right height and planting depth to survive the construction process, and marks them for preservation. But as this Scientific American article points out, development makes trees more likely to fall down in windstorms, and this past year we’ve had some doozies.

“Trees most at risk are those whose environment has recently changed (say in the last 5 – 10 years),” Smith says. When trees that were living in the midst of a forest lose the protection of a rim of trees and become stand-alones in new housing lots or become the edge trees of the forest, they are made more vulnerable to strong weather elements such as wind.

They also lose the physical protection of surrounding trees that had kept them from bending very far and breaking. Land clearing may wound a tree’s trunk or roots, “providing an opportunity for infection by wood decay fungi. Decay usually proceeds slowly, but can be significant 5-10 years after basal or root injury.” What humans do to the ground around trees — compacting soil, changing gradation and drainage “can kill roots and increase infection,” Smith warns.”


Stephen told me about the number of trees he’d tried to save that subsequently fell over, sometimes on the houses he’d just built; sometimes before they’re occupied, sometimes after. I had specifically asked Stephen about this because I know that he goes out of his way to save trees — even aside from his personal preference for saving trees, he can get a premium price for a new home with a mature tree. But when he logged the land destined to be the next phase of the Hamilton Woods subdivision, I heard a lot about it from residents outraged at his apparent lack of care for the forest. It isn’t that simple.

There are a lot of reasons why a tree might fall during a storm, but trees that grew up in a forest and then were selectively spared from development are more susceptible to being knocked over by strong winds.

Planting New Trees

One of the reasons that it’s clear that “saving the trees” carries the weight of a lot of other concerns about new development is that “planting new trees” gets much less interest from the public. It’s something that everyone agrees we should do, but we rarely see it happen.

As I said above, we ask developers to plant a new tree for every important tree they take down, but we don’t have a very strong mechanism for making sure they actually do it – and when it does happen, it happens somewhere out of sight and out of mind. And while Lower Trent Conservation Authority and Northumberland County and the Municipality of Brighton all have tree planting initiatives for the general public, there’s uneven uptake on them. Last year the Brighton Rotary Club and the Sustainability Advisory Committee hosted an event called For the Love of the Trees; it was moderately well attended, but I’m unaware of anyone planting any trees as a result of it, other than the one they planted in the park that day as part of the event.

Professor Pricklethorn spoke at For the Love of the Trees last year. Here he is in action elsewhere.

EDIT: This is where I can eat some crow. My take on the apparently low uptake on these programs was based on a few things, including the experience of being the only person to show up to pick up plants from the LTC native plant sale, seeing a lack of planted trees in the community, and the fact that during Council’s recent facilities tour we saw a whole bunch of trees that were described as “left over from last year.” I incorrectly understood this to mean that they had not been claimed and that the program was under-subscribed. It was one of the reasons I wrote this post, trying to get the word out! Since I first posted this, I’ve had some feedback from residents saying that they’ve requested trees, but have never received them. I followed up with staff, and discovered that the tree adoption program was actually over-subscribed, and that due to other issues that came up during the planting window last fall, public works staff hadn’t actually been able to plant any of the adopted trees. (Between weather issues and higher-priority work, they simply couldn’t get to it.) They intend to plant last year’s trees this spring, they’re looking into other methods of getting them planted to ensure that they don’t compete with higher-priority work for staff time, and I will try to budget more money for the program in the future so that everyone who wants a tree will get one. My sincere apologies: not only was I wrong, but my post came off as rude to folks who genuinely care and want to plant trees, but didn’t get the trees they had adopted! Now, back to the post.

The question of whether we should have “public trees” is not a new one. The Norwegian maple that’s dying in my front yard was planted back when this neighbourhood was built, and it is a “town tree”, planted by the town on the edge of the boulevard. Back when it was planted, there was less attention given to native species; Norwegian maples aren’t as well-suited to our local ecosystem, and they’re much less pleasant than sugar maples anyway. But they were also planted poorly: the root balls weren’t unwrapped properly, and the roots are slowly strangling the tree. This tree will leave a huge hole in our front yard, and our hearts, when it comes down this year. We have already planted a tree to replace it.

I’ve had calls for more trees planted on boulevards, and I agree with the idea: there has been plenty of research into the advantages of having urban canopy, and Brighton is sorely lacking in several of our neighbourhoods. EDIT: I’ve since spoken with staff, who explained that they prefer to plant on the inside of the sidewalk (further from the street) to avoid obstructions to traffic. When trees grow over the road, they have to trim trees back to ensure they aren’t in the way of emergency vehicles, which tend to be higher than typical traffic. Also, at council this week a farmer commented on tree obstructions on rural roads, where they drive very tall farm equipment on the shoulder to avoid traffic. So while it’s still important to have trees lining the streets, ensuring that it’s far enough from traffic is also important! Having trees in urban areas not only provides some habitat for birds, squirrels, and other lovely critters, but it also provides shade (which can significantly reduce our need for air conditioners in summer), blocks wind and noise, and actively improves our sense of well-being, among other benefits. If we were to picture our ideal street, it’s hard to imagine it not having trees lining both sides.

A tree-lined street, lush and shady. This neighbourhood could sure use wider sidewalks though, and bike lanes.

But if we want to have an urban canopy, and we want to shift the burden onto the municipality to plant and care for these trees, then we’re looking at additional costs. If the municipality is going to run a major planting program, we’d likely have to look at having an arborist on staff rather than hiring a local arborist periodically. Larger municipalities often have an arborist on staff or retainer, but that comes with a cost. Meanwhile, existing programs could provide free or near-free trees, so long as residents agree to the minor work involved in caring for one in their own front yard.

So who’s up for it? Are you willing to take on the task of raking leaves a few times a year, in exchange for more shade, lower energy bills, and better mental health for your whole neighbourhood? If you want to see this in our community, please consider helping to make it happen. You won’t regret it!

How to Save the Most Trees

Ultimately, the way to save the most trees is to build upward instead of outward. If our population growth happens predominantly within the existing built boundary of Brighton, we can save entire forests elsewhere. That means more apartments, six-plexes, and other density additions to your neighbourhood. We should be looking to add more trees and people to our established neighbourhoods in order to live more sustainably here while preserving more natural spaces nearby.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: