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.