Victoria’s Urban Forest: Asset or Liability?

In Victoria Foundation’s 2014 Vital Signs report, Victorians ranked the natural environment as the best part of living in the city and with good reason. However, while Victoria’s urban forest is a substantial natural asset, it’s largely taken for granted.

Beyond their aesthetic value, Victoria’s street trees lower stress, increase community pride and social well-being, sequester 110,000 tons of air pollutants each year, preserve road surface and provide $2 million of storm water service per year.

Conservative estimates show that for every $1 invested in Victoria’s urban forest, about $4 is returned in economic benefits. Yet years of neglect have left us with a diminishing asset and growing risk to public safety from unhealthy trees and a forest past its prime.

Since 1995, inventories and reports produced by and for the City consistently urged Victoria to adopt an action plan to address an increasingly vulnerable, hazardous and aging urban tree population. Recently, the City commissioned another inventory of all City owned trees that was accompanied by a “tactical plan” for managing all public trees. While considerable public resources have been spent on these documentations, many recommendations have not been acted upon, most notably the implementation of an action plan.

As a result, resources invested in these inventories and reports have not been well used. Over 800 hazardous street trees were identified and remain threats to public safety, with a similar number needing urgent action in our parks and green spaces. Nearly 1500 sites where trees were removed have not been re-planted, nor has a comprehensive action plan been adopted for urban forest revitalization since it was first recommended nearly 20 years ago.

After years of trying to get this issue on the City’s agenda, during the summer of 2014 I reviewed all of the above-mentioned reports. A pattern of unfulfilled promises and minimal action is clear. Drawing on more than 30 years experience working on sustainable communities and consultations with experts on the social and economic benefits of investing in urban forests, I developed six comprehensive recommendations.

The City of Victoria must undertake the immediate removal and replacement of hazardous trees. Existing vacant spaces need to be replanted, and a long-term tree planting campaign must be adopted. The City should establish two committees to ensure the health of the urban forest: one to recommend updates to our weak Tree Preservation Bylaw, and task another to recommend on increasing benefits provided by our urban forest, such as food production. Finally, Victoria must commit to a comprehensive action plan that sustains the social, environmental and economic benefits provided by our urban forest. These recommendations were offered to help ensure the long-lasting health of Victoria’s urban forest and maximize its benefits for us and for future generations. But like the reports before them, my recommendations went largely unanswered.

Why the foot-dragging? Trees are the only public investment that increases in value over time. A 2005 report commissioned by the City assessed the monetary value of Victoria’s urban forest at $39,139,000 for street trees alone, a sum that only increases once social, health and environmental benefits from all of Victoria’s trees are taken into account.

There are many compelling reasons for the City to act now. Again, Victoria is losing valuable assets and facing increasing risks to public safety from unsound and hazardous trees. The social, economic and environmental benefits of a healthy urban forest, as well as strong public support for it further stress the need for prompt action. The City needs to move quickly to address hazardous trees, (re)plants vacant sites, adopt a long-term tree planting program and to engage a supportive public in preserving, maintaining and increasing the long-term benefits of a healthy urban forest.

If you too care about healthy trees, please make your feelings known to Mayor Helps and city councilors. Their leadership is required to reverse the decline of Victoria’s urban forest.

The full report of Victoria’s Urban Forest: Asset or Liability can be found here.