With and Without Trees
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In a heat wave in Montreal in the summer of 2018, more than 50 people died. Most of the people who died were isolated, vulnerable and living alone. But there was another key link among some of the deaths. According to Global News, “Public health also found most of the victims also lived in ‘heat islands,’ which are spots in a city that are significantly warmer than surrounding rural areas because of human activity and development.”

As clearly depicted in the image above, trees and other natural assets provide key services to cities. They cool heat islands and the people who live there. And, according to Jeff Speck in Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, they also take in car exhaust before it hits the stratosphere and they absorb heavy rainfall, taking pressure off stormwater systems.1

The small town of Gibsons, British Columbia, was the first local government in Canada to start to measure and account for the value of their natural assets and the infrastructure services they provide. Their pioneering Eco-Asset Strategy is well worth a read. As provincial government expectations and Public Sector Accounting Board reporting requirements pushed all local governments towards asset management, Gibsons took it one step further.

Here’s what they say in their groundbreaking report, Advancing Municipal Natural Asset Management:

“Our foreshore area provides protection from storm surges and sea level rise. Our creeks, ditches and wetlands help us effectively manage stormwater. A naturally occurring aquifer located beneath Gibsons stores and filters drinking water so pure it meets health standards without chemical treatment.

“The value of these natural assets is clear to us now, but before the Town recognized their economic significance we were – in hindsight – at risk of making decisions without all the facts … Our planning, investment and reporting decisions and practices were narrower and more limited than was desirable.

“Today, for example, we have the numbers and evidence to show that it is smarter and cheaper, by orders of magnitude, to invest in maintaining and expanding green infrastructure, such as forests, urban parks and stormwater ponds, than to design, build and manage engineered stormwater infrastructure.”

As noted in the video below, which celebrates Gibsons Real Estate Foundation of BC award, “by actively working with nature’s power, local governments can save money, reduce risk and increase resilience to climate change.”

Please watch this two minute video on the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative.

We have some work to do in Victoria. And we need to start with trees, which are the most significant natural assets in Victoria (within municipal jurisdiction). According to a recent staff report to City Council, Victoria has made limited progress over the last four years to implement the 2013 Urban Forest Master Plan. The City currently cares for over 40,000 trees on public property. Staff told us that:

“Despite the efforts of staff required to make that progress, it is important to recognize the challenges presented by the recent increase in pressure on staff capacity. In the past few years, operational demands associated with supporting Victoria’s unprecedented growth have resulted in reduced capacity to plan and process the recommended actions in the pro-active manner necessary. The total annual City investment in tree care and management is approximately $1.7 million.

“Staff acknowledge Council’s sense of urgency regarding climate action. With increased investment and focus, the City can more effectively address the challenges highlighted by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its special report on the impacts of global warming. In regards to the role of the urban forest, Victoria has the necessary strategic direction; however, to respond to this call for action staff recommend an updated approach, as envisioned in the Urban Forest Masterplan, in pursuit of the goals identified for the long-term benefit of citizens.” (Read the full staff report and detailed deliverables here pgs 42-44)

The new approach is going to require bold action and it’s going to cost money. But because of the work of Gibsons and elsewhere, we know this is money well spent. As Jeff Speck, Walkable Cities author cited above, points out, “Because they have such a powerful impact on walkability, street trees have been associated with significant improvements in both property values and retail viability. Since this enhancement translates directly into increased local tax revenue, it could be considered financially irresponsible to not invest heavily in trees.”.2

Staff recommend restructuring the Parks division to establish a dedicated team focused on the management and enhancement of the urban forest. This will enable staff to take better care of trees on public land, plant more trees, plan for the future, and also turn more attention to retaining trees on private land, which account for two thirds of the urban forest canopy.

How will we fund the roughly $1.8 million per year to do this? In 2013, Council determined it needed to make more immediate investments in capital infrastructure than had been previously anticipated. We instituted a time-limited 1.25% tax increase per year for three years to invest in infrastructure. That ended in 2015.

Now we need to do the same with trees. A 1.25% “Urban Forest Levy” tax increase each year for five years, will enable staff to accelerate the implementation of the Urban Forest Masterplan. This will meet the demands of our passionate and forward-looking residents who have been coming to Council, meeting after meeting, to ask for bold action on the urban forest. And, it will allow the city to continue to make efforts on climate change, the greatest crisis facing us.

Care passionately about trees and want to get involved? Check out the Trees Matter Network.

 

  1. Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save American One Step at a Time (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 227-28.
  2. Speck, 223-24.
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