Another day in Auckland…

Another day in Auckland and another tree falls. No, not just one but three – all native Puriri.

“Where will the wood pigeons go now?” an anguished neighbour asks as the chain saws roar and a wood chipper finishes the job, grinding once proud trees into garden fill.

Day  two in the same suburb: workmen dispose of two mature palms in record time  – but with the same destructive clamour.  And so it has been since our  former  PM John Key  and his Government  took their political  axe to  the general protections for  trees in 2009 .

Ever since that flourish of individualism  in the form of the Key Government’s amendment to the Resource Management  Act, Aucklanders have grown  accustomed to the angry buzz of chainsaws cutting down magnificent specimens – some with good reason: Nearby, a 90 year old  Pohutukawa brightened our summers –  but  nearly wrecked its owner’s decking and  house foundations.  It had to go.  Ditto a  towering Poplar in a  backyard too small for it.  A block away a  huge Oak was felled by an early winter storm and  nearly demolished its owner’s house.

In some places, tree roots  raised footpaths and road surfaces; their leaves  routinely block gutterings.  So while trees bring benefits, they can  also  pose problems in Auckland’s  increasingly overcrowded  suburbia.  Still,  they didn’t deserve the fate the  Key Government decreed for them.

 Writing about   the move  in  the  February 2018 issue of  North and South magazine, columnist  Margot  White had this to say:

 ‘Trees don’t just stand there, looking pretty. Considering things from a purely anthropocentric perspective, they protect us from the harsh UV rays of the sun; absorb noise; mitigate flooding (apparently we’re going to get more of that); filter our polluted air and water; sequester carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that makes the planet warmer; and so on. The bigger the tree, the better – a typical 20m-tall street tree may provide three to seven times the environmental benefit of one that is 10m high’.

That captures many of the reasons  for a healthy urban tree cover but there’s more. In a  2015 Landcare Research policy brief  Marie A. Brown from the Environmental  Defence Society  noted the impacts of the legislative change.

‘The reduction in general tree   protection as a  result of  the  RMA amendments is likely to lead to an accelerated loss of the urban forest, and fewer instances in which  mitigation planting is required to address that loss. This risk is  highest on private land where only a small percentage of the urban forest is now protected.’

Developers in the city must have  celebrated  when the  amendments became law, but from the start, it went against the  communal grain here and in terms of  trends overseas.

As  chainsaws tore  away much of  Auckland’s  tree canopy,  the US Department of Agriculture reported on what was happening in America, saying many communities were planting trees in an effort to  become more sustainable and liveable.

‘ A robust tree canopy can also attract businesses and residents. Scientists now  have the ability to qualify and quantify the  benefits of  urban tree canopy” said the report.

Those  observations are duplicated almost everywhere you look on the Net,   but  some specific  examples  stand out:

  • People who were shown  images of nature demonstrated decreased heart rates and blood pressure, and overall  reduced stress.
  • In a Chicago study, areas with better landscaping and trees  had fewer instances of  domestic abuse, less crime, and stronger relationships among neighbours.
  • Other studies confirm the ‘mind-body-tree connection One shows that hospital patients whose rooms faced trees and landscaping , experienced an accelerated recuperation time (8.5% faster) and smaller consumption of pain-killing drugs than those whose windows faced
  • Trees are shown to increase property values between 3.5% and 10% according to a  1988 US Forest Service report .

All this is affirming news for  tree huggers  and others who see both beauty and utility in urban trees.  But  nine years after  National’s   law change, The Tree Council  estimates that  30% of Auckland’s tree cover has  disappeared – though its Secretary Mels Barton  concedes that the figure  is  an estimate.

She believes that the  true picture when  data is finally released by the Auckland Council  will be much  higher from the city areas because the overall figure will include the forested areas of the Waitakere and Hunua Ranges.

“Council is enabling the removal of  thousands of protected trees  annually on a non-notifiable basis” she said.

She added that The Tree Council and  Government  were working on a draft paper for  reforming the way trees are protected “but  David Parker (the Minister for the Environment)  doesn’t seem to think it’s urgent”.

Councils from Christchurch to Auckland are active in  tree planting –  but mostly in  public spaces. The Tree Council is however concerned that in Auckland, even   protected trees on public  land are being felled.

She also  believes the  Auckland Council  corporate bureaucracy is delaying release of   the remote sensing LiDAR data necessary to get an accurate picture of  the loss of Auckland’s trees, because that picture will not be  pretty.

Her concern is that the urban trees being lost are the mature specimens that confer all the services and benefits we need in the city (pollution and stormwater treatment, carbon sequestration, temperature reduction, oxygen production etc) and if they are being replaced it is by saplings which will take up to 50 years to provide the same level of benefits – if they are even allowed to reach maturity before being removed again.

Overseas, things are very different. To a greater or lesser extent  varying countries still have  tree protection measures in one form or another.   Urban tree cover is seen as  vital because of climate change. The World  Economic  Forum and SENSEable city, a laboratory at the Massachussetts Institute of  Technology (MIT), developed the Green View Index of Treepedia. It’s a metric  that evaluates and compares the treetops of cities.

The GVI is  calculated using Google Street View which measures the density of canopy cover in street images. So far 12 cities  around the world have been studied, among them  Boston, Geneva, London, Los Angeles, Paris,  New York, Tel Aviv and Vancouver.  In New York, 2,300 volunteers recorded more than 685,000 street trees in all five boroughs, with stats on species,  health,  width,  and GPS coordinates.

In Godzone, the root of the problem still  lies in those 2009 amendments. But  the lack  of any sense of imagination let alone balance can be changed  by imitating the practices  of a little known city  – White Rock in British Columbia, Canada.  White Rock   has a no-nonsense approach  to the issue of tree  pruning and felling.  In the dry language of  bureaucracy  one of its  policy statements on tree cover reads:

‘Except for dead or hazardous trees, the  City has  initiated replacement tree requirements with the objective of increasing overall tree canopy in the City  over time.  The City will require the posting of securities for replacement trees prior to the issue of  any permits, and prior to any tree cutting  or removal  (our emphasis).

‘A minimum of  two replacement trees will be required for one tree cut or removed, however,  the number and size of replacement trees is actually dependent upon the size of the ‘protected’ tree’ removed i.e. up to as many as six replacement trees for one tree of trunk diameter 85 centimeters cut or removed.’

Perhaps that forthright formula might help policy makers  regain the balance between property owners’ rights and community well-being – before it’s too late.


*Auckland Council did not reply to initial requests for comment – watch this space.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.