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Urban Forest Management Plan and the current culture

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

Following is an open letter to the City of Ottawa regarding the launch of the Urban Forest Management Plan.

Dear Martha [Copestake}, Forestry Services, City of Ottawa

Thank you for organizing the launch of the Urban Tree Management Plan yesterday at Lansdowne. There are many positive features of the initiative,  and I will do what I can to support the process. I feel compelled to flag, however, two immediate concerns relevant to the planning process outlined by Mr. Van Wassenaer and his firm.

First, much can be done now to protect the urban canopy and replant for the future, without waiting for the plan to be fully developed and approved. These would be what Deputy Mayor of Vancouver Andrea Reimer last week (see Ecology Ottawa video) called the third ingredient in the success of the Greener City plan for Vancouver: 84 separate actions by the City before the plan was even passed. She said these created momentum for the plan and credibility. We need these actions for this plan too. The most obvious candidates are things like:

  1. resolving the administrative contradictions and irrationalities between building services, infrastructure services and forestry services;

  2. enforcing the provisions on damage to distinctive and City trees already contained in the by-laws;

  3. stopping illegal curb-cuts and hardscaping that eliminate space for trees in the city right of way (street trees);

  4. requiring planting of trees instead of shrubs in front yards (when reasonable);

  5. requiring that public notices of applications for a tree permit be visible from the street (instead of hidden away).

I‘m sure there are many more actions that can be implemented immediately with a minimum cost, provided the other Andrea Reimer ingredient (leadership) is there. You should not under estimate the importance of these to credibility and the momentum needed by the proposed plan.

Second, I think much more attention is needed by Mr. Van Wassenaer up front to doing a diagnostic of the current de facto strategy or tree culture in Ottawa. This must be truly understood if the new plan is to be meaningful, and cannot be achieved with a simple “listening” process (without cross-examination and serious diagnosis). While this may sound a little harsh, my experience suggests that the current culture/de facto strategy in Ottawa has some very constraining features:

  1. Building services and infrastructure services that see trees as pests,

  2. A legal department unwilling to enforce by-laws defended by other cities across the country,

  3. Political leadership that sees trees mainly as spring and fall photo ops,

  4. Forestry services that accepts being at the bottom of the pecking order,

  5. Architects staring at their own navels without seeing the opportunities in the land they design on,

  6. Excavators (who do most of the specific damage) that bring their biggest machines to work in restricted spaces (and don’t invest in specialized infill machinery),

  7. Infill developers that want to repeat the same basic design at every site, as though it were an assembly line in the suburbs,

  8. A realestate industry that has over-hyped the very large dwelling (many now unsold) and failed to target other demands,

  9. A surprising number of citizens that think trees are going to destroy their foundations and water lines,

  10. Media that fails to talk about collective rights to tree canopy alongside individual rights to the use of land,

  11. Heritage perspectives that don’t see natural heritage other than in the built form, etc.

If the proposed plan does not recognize and address these kinds of issues in a meaningful way, it will become just another document on the shelf, reviewed every 5 years until it fades away altogether.

There is a lot of knowledge and experience in the “urban forest” community in Ottawa, much of it represented at the Fair session yesterday. Mr. Van Wassenaer would be well advised to do more than just listen to them, by also engaging people in a hard look at the current culture a new plan will need to shift.

Warm Regards,

Daniel Buckles



Champlain Oaks project

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