Open Space Seattle:2100

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Urban Forests In Peril?

Arriving in the old email box this morning, comes a press release from the Urban Forest Stakeholders, a group of citizens concerned about the health and preservation of Seattle's urban forest. They raise a number of great points in their press release (I point you to the Observations portion). Trees are tremendously (pardon the pun) important in the urban landscape and there are very few green infrastructure elements that can equal the simple, highly-performing tree for stormwater control, shade, cooling etc etc.

That said, we have to ask, are all of the existing trees in the City now going to be preserved in perpetuity? No, probably not. But without the City taking on a long-term plan for its green infrastructure, people will continue to be upset, frustrated and angry at the City as beloved trees are felled.

So that's why we keep on asking, asking, asking . . . and asking for your support.

Media Release

Seattle’s Urban Forest Stakeholders:
Ilze Jones, AIA, FASLA, Principal, Jones & Jones
Kit O'Neill, K. O'Neill Consulting
Cheryl Trivison, Friends of Gas Works Park,
Erin O’Connor, Roanoke Neighborhood Elms Fund, Friends of Roanoke Park
Richard Haag, Professor Emeritus, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington, Principal, Richard Haag Associates
Richard Ellison,
John Barber, Seattle Parks and Open Space Advocates
Michael Oxman, Certified Arborist

Seattle's good intentions are not saving the City's trees. Seattle government has even adopted tree protection guidelines (Parks Policy 060-P5.6.1 June 1, 2001). But over and over mature trees are destroyed. Seattle needs a moratorium on destruction of healthy trees. All public actions should be evaluated for their impact on mature trees. This city has been responsible too many times – and dramatically in Occidental Park this year – for wholesale destruction of healthy mature trees.

In light of the soon-to-be released draft Urban Forest Management Plan and the aspiration of this city to be counted among the greenest of the green it is time for public officials to set the standard for tree preservation, and be held at least as accountable as private citizens for tree destruction.

· The Seattle Urban Forest Coalition, which drafted an Urban Forest Management Plan in closed meetings, is composed exclusively of city staffers. Although the plan's adoption is scheduled for September, it has not been presented to the citizenry. (A Power Point outline was presented to city council committee members June 13, 2006.)
· This year 17 mature, healthy 35-year-old London Plane trees were destroyed in Occidental Park (citizens took legal action); City is spending $2.3 million to redevelop the park.
· Eleven specimen-quality, 50-year-old Oak trees are scheduled for destruction in City Hall Park. The Parks Department asks to spend $3.4 million to reconstruct the park without these trees. Design is on the board though money has not been allocated.
· The planned realignment of SR520 especially must be evaluated for its tree impacts,
· And the Parks Department plans to destroy more trees: perhaps the city’s largest Weeping Willow, in Dahl Playfield; a mature, healthy cottonwood tree along the Burke Gilman trail; many mature trees to make way for the Zoo’s parking garage; Freeway Park and Denny Park "revitalizations".

A city's Green credentials call for more than techno-talk. It doesn’t matter how “green” our buildings are if our city government is cutting down trees in public parks and rights-of-way. What makes Seattle green are our trees and with trees, it’s not the simple stem count that matters, it’s the mature canopy bringing life to the city. The goals in the draft Urban Forest Master Pan for a healthy “green” city are flawed, since they do not include as the first priority a measure of protection for what we already have. Our first goal should be, as it is in San Francisco's 2006 Urban Forest Plan, to "maintain and conserve the existing urban forest".

The measure of canopy is the number of people it shelters; the measure of a city is the extent of the canopy that is allowed to grace it. Seattle’s average canopy cover is only 18 percent today, a loss of half the canopy measured in 1972. Forty percent is the average urban tree cover recommended by the American Forests conservation organization, which did a study of the Puget Sound region in 1998.

Life thrives in the company of trees, under the canopy and in the canopy. It is the nature of trees to shelter, shade, cleanse and cool the air. A mature canopy: filters 60 to 70 times more pollution than a cluster of small trees; raises property values between 7 and 15 percent; reduces peak stormwater loads on our piped drainage system and absorbs stormwater to reduce erosion and landslides. Studies show that in an inner city neighborhood, the greener the community, the lower the crime rate.

A contiguous canopy is a climate shield. The benefits of trees compound with their numbers. In order for canopy to do that work, to provide high performance, trees must be allowed to grow big—crowns touching, branches rubbing, leaves conversing. We want our trees to loom. Trees root us in the common ground of our lives and connect us to our past—the older the tree the stronger the attachment and the greater the benefits of all kinds.

Since trees have a longevity far in excess of ours, we need stewardship that is trans-generational. We must create a city tree department headed by a city forester. We want not just a tree ethic but an arborist ethic. We want more arborists. We need more than greenwash. There must be a security force to protect our trees. The City offered the rationale for removal that the Occidental Park trees were unhealthy trees. “Hazardous” has been redefined in this city as an excuse to remove inconvenient trees.

There are better ways to fund city parks and city trees than episodic levies. Seattle is named a “Tree City USA” by the Arbor Day Foundation because we spend $3/capita/annum to care for trees. In actuality City Light uses that $1.5 million to top/prune trees under power lines! In other municipalities, support for trees is tied to a tax on stormwater runoff, and stormwater utilities base their charges on a property's impervious area.

To succeed with a master plan for trees in Seattle, we need a change in our attitude—on the part of the public and our elected leadership toward our trees.

First, call a moratorium on cutting down trees to prevent further reduction of our urban forest, especially our contiguous canopy, while we institute more effective vigilance and care of our urban canopy. All city actions that affect mature trees need to be evaluated for their impacts, including upzoning by removing setbacks or watering down incentives for open space.

· Hire a City forester whose primary mission is the cumulative treeness of Seattle.
· Charge the City forester with development of best management practices for our existing trees.
· Charge the City forester with conducting an inventory of every tree in the city, including those in the state’s right of way. Currently there is no record or catalog of removed city park trees or of the category of trees being removed or under consideration for removal by any city or state agency.
· Charge the City forester to double Seattle’s canopy cover with trees chosen for their ability to contribute to a healthy urban environment and creation of canopy.
· Charge the City forester with drafting a tree ordinance that has teeth.
· Perhaps most important at this juncture, include citizens, including certified arborists, in the City’s process to develop an Urban Forest Management Plan, in the drafting and passage of a strong tree ordinance, and in the City’s arboreal decisions.

To start this process we citizens suggest that the city hold an Urban Forest Stakeholders conference, modeled after the bringing together of Northgate Stakeholders, to create a win-win situation for the City.

It is common knowledge that trees are the vital link in the health of the planet. It follows that the health of our city, our citizens is dependent on the health of our tree canopy.


  • You guys are whack jobs. Inventory every tree in Seattle!? I can't stop laughing. Tell you what - you want it, you pay for it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:20 PM  

  • I don't disagree with many of the recommendations but its all about what the City should do, I don't see any committments from your org re: how you will assist the City - how about fundraising? Or how about you taking the lead in taking an inventory of every tree? Or you take the lead in facilitating a tree conference?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:53 AM  

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