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Take back the streets

Updated: Apr 19, 2020


Recent discussion on community forums about the destruction of trees on James Street in Centretown highlights the sad history of Ottawa Hydro’s insensitivity to trees in mature neighbourhoods, and poor arboreal practices. Similar incidents have happened in recent years in Kitchissippi, including in Champlain Park. This year alone we lost three trees on one street because past pruning of the middle crown had weakened the trees so much they literally split down the middle of the Y shape.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for a while now and would like to launch a discussion on one aspect: how to manage situations where burying of wires will not happen. In short, I believe we should begin to lobby the City for a new policy and practice related to street trees in residential neighbourhoods that would strike a reasonable compromise between tree planting on the City Right of Way and optimal use of private front yard space.

In fact, the City is already and unofficially offsetting new City trees from hydro lines, even when this means planting a “City” tree on “private” property. Have a look at the attached photo from Daniel Avenue in Westboro. It shows the fire hydrant, a Y shaped maple planted about 70 years ago, the hydro pole and in the foreground a young sampling planted by the City to replace a mature maple that split down the middle. It is offset so much it is actually on the property of the house owner. The City and the owner discussed and informally agreed on the location of the tree, even though technically it remains a “City” tree. This is a good thing as it will give the tree a better chance of retaining a crown. However, the informality of the arrangement creates some ambiguity that may be important in the distant future (for example, who is responsible if the tree dies or fails in 30 years?, etc.).

I would like to see an explicit change in City policies that would encourage, support and protect home owners that plant street trees on their own front yards. This could avoid the Y shape of the maturing tree that inevitably leads to early decline and death when planted under hydro lines. How might that work?

One option is for the City to provide and plant the tree on the private part of the lot and care for it much like they do for any street tree planted on the City right of way. Why not, given that trees are a public asset that contribute more effectively than anything else to absorbing and storing carbon. All that is needed is an agreement with the property owner defining roles and responsibilities. Similarly, the City could care for the tree for a specified time (three years, for instance), after which the tree would become the property and responsibility of the property owner. Attention to location within the lot (to avoid old foundations or leaking water lines, for instance) remains a critical detail in any case, to be worked out through expert advice and selection of appropriate species.

We need to Take Back the Streets where street trees are being lost at a fast pace and often not replaced or replaced and managed poorly. Infill in the mature neighbourhoods of Kitchissippi and elsewhere has destroyed an inordinate number of healthy, mature trees vital to climate change mitigation and adaptation (not to mention healthy neighbourhoods). Infill as practiced by most non-resident builders has also left neighbourhoods bereft of new trees as builders fill front yards with driveway, rock-gardens, astro-turf, and decorative shrubs where trees could grow and beautify the street. Let’s take back the streets, starting with a new City policy for tree planting near hydro lines that enlists property owners as co-creators of the next generation of urban forest.

P.S. By the way, the City already has a template for this kind of agreement (attached). Community groups that propose to plant a tree on City property have to sign an agreement to plant and care for the tree for three years (all watering, pruning, protection from snowplows, etc.). After three years, the tree belongs to the City. The legal principle underlying this type of agreement is that ownership involves a bundle of rights that can be separated and distributed. Many cultures make this kind of distinction, giving some rights and responsibilities to the person that plants a tree even if they don’t own the land. -- Daniel Buckles

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