August 2, 2022

Why Don’t We Value Trees in the City of Vancouver? Even the Jurisdiction is Confusing

Last week Viewpoint Vancouver wrote about the magic of trees in the city with data showing the tremendous remediation that trees do in the environment. Trees reduce ozone and sulfur dioxide levels. One healthy tree can remove 300 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, can  cool in heat waves through evapotranspiration, and even improve lung capacity of children that live near spaces filled with trees.

As Viewpoint Vancouver reader City Flaneur stated  in the comments

I think the region needs to be on an urgent campaign to put more trees everywhere ASAP. There should be a requirement to plant a minimum number of trees on each SF lot based on overall size. There are a shocking number of south facing front yards on my street with no trees, even though our street trees are relatively small so they don’t provide enough shade to cover adjacent homes. I think there is a cultural aspect to this choice that needs to be investigated further and multi-lingual resources made available to help residents understand the benefits of more trees in the City. I have the feeling that too many residents consider them more of a nuisance than a benefit, based on the barren yards in my neighbourhood.”

The alleged nuisance value of trees on private lots was confirmed by City Hall itself, when in 2021 the Director of Planning and City Council decided to allow the axing of trees on private property that were below  30 centimeters (12 inches)  in diameter. Previously trees that were above 20 centimeters were protected from being cut down without an arborist’s report.

Why? To speed up development permits.

As one city hall insider pointed out, with so called expediency the city was losing the private property urban forest. The City has hired no new staff but cut out significant processes, without looking at the sustainability cost.

The city had estimated that only 200 trees a year would be removed from private properties.

They were wrong. In the first six months of 2021, 400 trees had been cut down, suggesting that the City was losing 800 trees a year on private property, four times more than estimated. This wrongheaded policy  to cut costs by axing the urban forest is being rescinded this Fall.

Insider Adrien Olmsted thinks that the City of Vancouver has a huge gap in being accountable for trees and their own planting, maintenance and replacement of street trees.  Why? Because street trees are managed and planted by the Parks Board, not the Engineering or Planning departments. That sets up confusion and conflict.

Often on major developments new street trees are planted, and a second row of street trees (to produce an allee) are to be planted within the private setback/frontage.

However as Adrien points out
The reality is that the second row of trees often goes missing and remains that way possibly forever. Eventually the only eyes that you have on those well-intended 2nd row of trees conditions are from the current land owners – who are not inclined to spend dollars on the purchase and planting of a tree. Contractors show up and pave over that tree planting pit and very quickly the intent is lost – not to mention all the time and money also lost to get the trees in the first place.”

And what happens with new public street trees that come in with new development that do not survive or live out their cycle? Adrien says it’s just not a priority for the Park Board, even with a “tree planting pit placeholder” operating as a trip hazard for sidewalk users. What is a priority for Engineering or Planning is not for the independently run Park Board.

Adrien Olmsted concludes:

“The science of why trees are beneficial is well known and has been for a very long time.
The City of Vancouver needs to do a deeper dive, starting with the interdepartmental coordination between Park Board and Engineering on the implementation and maintenance for the long term viability of our street and public trees.

We should  question the current public urban forest management model-the role Engineering plays and whether Park Board should lead when it comes to Arboriculture and the maintenance of our urban forest. Park Board  defers to Engineering for final decisions yet Engineering advises as though Park Board is calling the shots. Let’s put the expertise where it should be and manage accordingly, despite what might be seen as scope creep,  going beyond Park Board’s original intent to manage parks and recreation.

This is not questioning Park Board’s jurisdiction but   prioritizing our urban forest and allowing well-paid and schooled, subject matter experts to lead and manage.

The practise of arboriculture has become more comprehensive in the face of climate change solutions with urban foresters/forestry. We should be incorporating the work of the  urban forestry programs at UBC support  current and future solutions.

We know that the urban forest should be our priority. One of the solutions to mitigate for climate change and urban heat island effect is to plant more trees and maintain them while planning for the succession of the urban forest.

It’s a comprehensive approach, not piecemeal.  Urban trees should not be thought of as an after-thought, or add-on, instead, as an ecological framework/infrastructure to build from.”

We need to get this right.



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  1. I’m a little disappointed in the lack of trees the city has been installing on their remodeled streets, particularly on the East Side that has been identified as being hotter, and lacking canopy.

    Nanaimo and Renfrew were recently redone, and neither got an increase in trees. Both are relatively wide, and definitely have space for some more trees. Nanaimo even has new boulevards that are 100% concrete.

    Richards is great. it’s a relatively narrow street, but has 5 rows of trees in some sections. An extra row of trees seems like a fairly inexpensive way to make a street better in almost every regard.

  2. Good article Sandy.

    The City has a number of existing and proposed projects such as the Plaza of Nations and Oakridge where almost all trees are in planters over parking. The waterproof membranes that protect the structure have a warranty period of 15 and at best 20 years which usually means they will have to be replaced in 30-50 years. If there are small trees, they will have to be moved while the membrane is being repaired. If there are large trees in these planters they will be cut down. A forty year old project on the north shore near the Capilano River with 6 hi-rises has large trees over a parking garage in the centre of the complex. These now have to be cut down, soil removed for structural repairs and a new membrane at a cost of $21 million, then the strata councils will have to decide on how much to spend re-landscaping for another 40 year period.

    Robson Square has no large trees except for the street trees on Hornby, and they have already been replaced once.

    The oak tree on the Eugenia has been replaced after 30 years and will be replaced again.

    The lot on SE corner of Nicola and Barclay has a ’70s era hi-rise with parking covering the entire lot. A few years ago the membrane had to be replaced and instead of replanting the owners just put pavers which put stress on our storm water sewers in heavy rains. I drew this to the attention of City staff. No response.

    There is an illusion in the architectural world that trees on buildings are green. Given the extra concrete needed to support the weight of landscaping that lasts for a limited amount of time, I’m not so sure.

    As you say, what is really needed are coordinated efforts by the City to ensure the right conditions and the right trees are chosen for our streets and open spaces, and that we revert to simpler buildings where below grade basements and parkades do not project beyond the above grade perimeter of the building with trees planted on solid soil on the rest of the lot.

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