Why do so many New Zealanders hate trees?

IMG_0878I read a report last week about leading Auckland mayoral candidate, Phil Goff’s plan to plant a million trees around Auckland.  Good luck on that one, Phil, I thought. For many New Zealanders do not like trees.

I was telling Mark about findings in The Sceptical Gardener, by Ken Thompson, who is clearly interested in the effect of a garden and trees on real estate prices. First he quoted a US study. From Lubbock, in Texas, no less. The shorter version is that if you have a garden that is a rich, layered eco-system that supports a wide range of different birds, the correlation is that it adds US$32,028 to the value of your real estate when you go to sell it. There is more – another chapter on determining the value of trees, both planted on your own section and also on the road verge. A Perth (Western Australia) study shows broad-leafed trees on the road verge add AU$16,889 to the value of your adjacent real estate. That is a very precise sum.

“Not in New Zealand,” was Mark’s comment, articulating what I had already thought. “It is more likely to devalue your property by that amount in New Zealand.” For many New Zealanders do not like trees.

4589Why, when we live in a country that was until very recently, heavily forested, do so many people hate trees here? Why do so many folk want to hack back or cut out anything over two metres in height? And why do we so often see the death sentence pronounced and carried out on trees once they have reached about fifty years of age? “Past their use-by date”, it is often claimed even though the tree may in fact have a life expectancy of hundreds of years.

I used to think that maybe it was a visceral response that harks back to the difficult conditions encountered by our early settler forbears who arrived expecting to find pleasant green, rolling lands but instead had to start by hacking out dense, impenetrable forest in order to find a place to stand.

Upon reflection, it is more likely a response to conditions whereby our climate is not quite as warm as most of us would like and our housing stock is generally of low quality – at least when compared to other western societies and cooler climates. Often poorly insulated, if at all, and inadequately heated, most of us rely on passive solar heating so we want sun, sun and more sun. Woe betide any tree that might block a ray of sun or indeed any view. We are still a very new country with little respect, let alone reverence, for the past.

Third floor balcony of a Sydney apartment

Third floor balcony of a Sydney apartment

I am just back from a visit to Australia where both our two daughters live and I could not help but notice the greater role played by trees in that country. Sydney daughter has a third floor apartment with a good-sized balcony and how bleak that setting would be without the surrounding foliage. It is high density living not far from Bondi, with heavy traffic and residential high rise all around. Yet despite that, there are only three apartments that overlook her living area, both indoors and outdoors and the trees cushion the heavily urbanised environment. The trees are a combination of large specimens on the verge and trees planted in the garden of the ground floor apartment.

Canberra suburbia

Canberra suburbia

Canberra daughter lives in a much harsher climate (hot in summer and very cold in winter) but is in one of the desirable leafy suburbs with large street trees. Canberra is a planned city and in her area, the trees are allowed to grow to maturity even at the expense of footpaths. There aren’t many footpaths at all and those that do exist, appear to be laid in slabs which would accommodate tree roots better than the unimpeded level surface poured in one that we demand in NZ suburbs. Additionally, front fences are banned – only hedges allowed – which avoids the prison look of some of Auckland’s leafy suburbs. Daughter tells me that public policy is such that where tree replacement is required, no more than 20% of trees be felled at any one time.

So good luck to Phil Goff and his million trees. Increasing housing density in Auckland means that leafy public plantings are going to be even more important to soften the urban environment. But he will be fighting some hostile attitudes from many residents.

064Some readers may recall our lost campaign to try and save about 29 mature pohutukawa that lined the river in our local town of Waitara.

IMG_5481Believe it or not, some folk actually think this barren wasteland (now grassed) is an improvement. Three small specimens have been planted to replace the missing twenty-nine. Eventually, that is. As long as tree-hating local residents and the powers-that-be don’t hack them out before they ever reach maturity. For this is New Zealand and urban trees are not greatly valued by many.

7 thoughts on “Why do so many New Zealanders hate trees?

  1. Cindy

    I’ve planted 30 trees on our 2000m2 section in the last year (mostly fruit trees, others native). I can’t imagine not having trees!

  2. Michael Parsons

    Great article Abbie; drilling down below the surface is not easy on this one.. I have been wrestling with this for a long time.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thanks, Mick. There is a social class correlation though I wasn’t sure how to work that into the article without getting onto very thin ice. I say social class and not socio-economic – if you look at the residential areas of the nouveau riche, the house is the thing. It must not be masked by trees. Mark and I have never forgotten standing on the deck of a house near Urenui with an unimpeded view of the coast – maybe 100 or 120 degrees of view. “Now if only I could get the farmer to cut down those trees,” said the house owner, pointing to a little row of trees maybe four kilometres away where the treetops punctuated the view of the sea. We were both silently gobsmacked that anybody could think that such a small section of the view warranted the removal of all trees. But nothing, apparently, must frame or soften a view of either the sea or the mountain.

  3. Gary Baigent

    It is an ingrained and retarded carryover from our ancestors who were terrified of heavy native forests. These are the same dickheads who introduced today’s huge vermin problem too; probably an intentional “disaster” to destroy the frighteningly green environment?
    If you look at mid-20th Century city and rural New Zealand photographs, the housed sections are desert-like cleared, just a boring and conformist bare lawn with a couple of, usually English, shrubs … but then, compare images to city life today, and we can see a huge contrast; now many houses are surrounded by trees, and enlightened ones in natives – so there has been a radical change. This is not to say that the change is universal; there are still many throwbacks who love the chainsaw, the droning mower and the vacant bare section. But they are a dying breed?

  4. Renee

    You’ve made me think of the pohutukawa trees planted along the suburban main road I grew up on. There was one on our front lawn. Every couple of years throughout my childhood, I would find with dismay that the Council had come and hacked it back again to a couple of stems. I felt so sorry for that tree and wished it was a giant spreading thing that we could play in, instead of two sad little stems no higher than (as you said) two metres tall. I see they have finally left off, but the poor thing will never be a grand specimen now.

    On the other hand, the pohutukawas planted in the two-foot-wide grass verge over the road from me by the owners will eventually lift the footpath and probably damage their pipes too. While the shading factor is definitely a major issue for many people, I suspect the poor siting of many, if not most trees and shrubs planted in suburban areas is also to blame. I’ve seen a totara planted a foot from a house. There is an English oak planted on a small front lawn down the road that has been turned into a two-metre-high topiary of indeterminate shape. Don’t people know that they grow? Of course, those pointless 10 year sizes on tree labels don’t help.

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