City trees. An asset, not a liability

High density living amongst the trees in Sydney

In the week before I left for Australia, I had seen coverage about the loss of trees in Auckland. The loss of up to one third of all Auckland’s established trees, in fact. That is an astonishing number to have been removed  in the last five years. Too many New Zealanders hate trees.

It was interesting to hit Sydney and Canberrra where temperatures were rising rapidly for summer and to hold conversations with people who value trees a great deal more. I was told more than once that good tree cover in the city can lower the temperature in summer by as much as two or three degrees, making the leafy suburbs much more liveable. And the whole term “leafy suburbs” is used to describe the affluent areas. Sadly, the more down market the area, the more barren and treeless it tends to be.

I photographed this sign in Canberra but ringing in my ears were the cries I often hear in our local city of New Plymouth to fell trees where the roots are starting to lift the seal. It is a curious fact that as soon as this occurs, legions of people suddenly speak up for the welfare of the elderly who, in our local area at least, are allegedly incapable of coping with an uneven surface. Having travelled in Asia, Australia, Europe and the UK, I can assure you that a bit of lifting or cracking of seal is NOT seen as a reason for removing trees in those places.

Privacy on the third floor balcony

My second daughter gave me food for thought. She bought a third floor apartment with a good sized balcony overlooking a very busy road. In a densely populated area of Sydney, there are only about three apartments out of many (but I failed to count how many), that can see onto her balcony. It is amazingly private and that is due to the trees, both the street trees and the elongated Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ that are on the apartment property.

The street trees are huge. It is a ficus outside her place. And yes, the roots do get into the drains. Just before she bought her apartment, there had been a major repair required on the building’s main sewer pipe. If this happened in New Zealand, the resulting cries for the removal of the offending tree would be deafening.

“Would I have bought this apartment if the trees weren’t here?” Daughter commented. “No. Not a chance. It is the trees that make the busy road and being overlooked bearable. Maybe repairing the underground pipes from time to time is a price I have to pay for living here.” That is NOT a New Zealand sentiment!

Yes trees can cause a lot of damage in storms and when the roots penetrate pipes and crack sealed areas. But never before has it been so important to keep our big trees in urban areas and cutting them down to replace them with shrubs or small, suburban trees which are never going to get much above three metres is not an adequate substitute. Trees generate the very oxygen we breathe as well as contributing to ecosystems and the environment.

Elder daughter drove me round new Canberra suburbs. With typical over-sized freestanding houses on small sections, there is no room for big trees to be planted on these private properties. That is where town planning to allow for plantings in public spaces becomes so very important. If big trees are not established on road verges and in neighbourhood parks, such subdivisions will forever be barren wastelands of concrete and brick. As well as up to three degrees hotter on scorching summer days.

The established – and higher priced – leafy suburbs of Canberra

The established, older areas of Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne all have B I G street trees and how lovely that is to see. It is time for Auckland to rise to the challenge of planting more trees rather than felling them in ever increasing numbers. Planning is critical to create sufficient space for trees to be able to reach maturity. And time for all New Zealanders to cast aside the pioneer mentality that trees merely exist for humans to fell them.

If you don’t have trees, then you don’t get to experience the opening of the first flowers on the jacaranda. In Sydney. In October. Ours at home won’t bloom until February.

8 thoughts on “City trees. An asset, not a liability

  1. Peggy Cruickshank

    If only it were true what you say about UK. Sadly, the city of Sheffield is losing many beautiful old trees for similar reasons – uneven pavements etc. The Council let a contract for maintenance and the contractors have decided that they make more profit by removing the trees. It seems that nothing and no-one can stop this.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Oh, I have seen talk of the Sheffield trees on social media. I had not realised that it was the result of a local council being stupid enough to set up a contract where the private contractors got to make the decision on tree retention. That is really awful and seems good reason for a major shake-up at the council. But at least there has been a massive outcry from residents at the felling. Though that will be cold comfort to those having to live with the consequences.

  2. tonytomeo

    In some big cities, the difference between disdain and appreciation for trees can be only a few blocks. Some ethnic groups really hate trees and others love them. Some age groups really hate trees and others love them. I get that in San Jose and Los Angeles. In my neighborhood, I had a neighbor who ‘just’ moved in on another ridge send me a letter to ‘tell’ (not ask) me that he would be sending a crew over to cut down some of my firs that were interfering with his view; but that I need not worry since he would be paying for it.

      1. tonytomeo

        Several of us got the same letter. Sadly, some of the neighbors found it necessary to respond with a ‘polite’ notarized letter that explained that any crews that arrived to any of our properties to remove trees would be trespassing, and so on. It was necessary because we did not want to be liable for any problems, and we felt that ignoring his explanation of what was to be done could imply consent. I would not mind if he cut down some of my trees up on the ridge where I could not see them, if he had made arrangements to do so, and if they were trees that I had no use for. Some of the firs that I could see contained enough lumber to build a small house, with very tall trunks as wide as six feet. Anyway, we never heard from him again.

  3. Susan

    I’ve just spent a few weeks living in Hancock Park in Los Angeles and have been so impressed by the wonderful number and range of mature street trees in this area. There are active community organisations encouraging and educating residents about the value and care of this green asset and no tree removal goes unquestioned. Walking around in the last few days of 100 degree plus temperatures really makes one appreciate the shade trees!
    The other interesting development I’ve seen has been the replacement of those classic water hungry green front lawns and parkways by a small number of residents with drought resistant bird friendly well mulched front ‘gardens’, apparently there is a financial rebate available for turf removal.
    While there are some really lovely green city areas in Australia sadly the main trend I’ve seen has been the building of the ubiquitous mcmansion on a small block covered in hard landscaping, and no parkways (nature strips), expensive houses in barren suburbs and ‘leafy’ suburbs losing their green canopies as valuable blocks with mature gardens are subdivided. Sad, time it was turned around

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It is certainly encouraging to see positive attitudes in some areas, even as we regret that they are not so common where we live. With smaller section holding ever larger houses, it becomes even more important that councils make the external nature strips, as I see Australians call them which is preferable to our term of ‘road verges’, of sufficient size to accommodate large trees over time.

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