Tag Archives: city trees

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.

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.

Farewell to the trees

To the left has been “beautified”. To the right are the 60 year old trees to be clear-felled for more such “beautification”

To the left has been “beautified”. To the right are the 60 year old trees to be clear-felled for more such “beautification”

Imagine if trees gave off wi-fi signals, we’d be planting so many trees and we would probably save the planet too. Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe.” So runs the meme that swept social media recently. Truly we despair here at how hard it is to keep established trees and how ready are so many people to take the chainsaw to them.

Perhaps it is due to our recent pioneer history that we have failed to develop a reverence for big trees. That, and the fact that our houses are notoriously cold in winter and we want every bit of sun and warmth we can get.

There is no argument that large trees in suburban settings can be a problem for residents, especially as sections get ever smaller. That is why we have always advocated for trees in public areas where they have the space to reach maturity and to give grace to our environment. All power to council arborists and parks staff who are tasked with looking after such vegetative assets. For assets they are, although not in a financial sense. A tree can be chainsawed down in a morning but it may have taken a very long time for it to ever attain stature.

What would Cambridge be like without its street trees like these on Taylor Street (Photo: Michael Jeans)

What would Cambridge be like without its street trees like these on Taylor Street (Photo: Michael Jeans)

Leave it to the populace – the ignorati – and we would have nothing taller than 3 metres and older than 20 years in urban settings. Can you imagine the main streets of Cambridge without the trees? I do not know the history of those trees but it is a fair bet that there have been efforts by some people over time to take the chainsaw to them. Thank goodness those tasked with the civic environment have stood firm for, without those trees, Cambridge would just be like any other unmemorable small town in New Zealand.

There is no doubt that trees can make a mess. It is called the cycle of nature. Do they make a bigger mess than humans? Would we rather live in paved, concrete wastelands to avoid the leaf drop, the seed dispersal, the spent flowers, birds’ nests and occasional fallen branches?

Imagine the lake scene at Te Ko Utu in Cambridge Domain without big trees (Photo: Michael Jeans)

Imagine the lake scene at Te Ko Utu in Cambridge Domain without big trees (Photo: Michael Jeans)

I write from the heart. We are truly distressed because it appears that we have lost a local battle to save the row of handsome pohutukawa that line the Waitara riverbank. They are sixty years old, just achieving the beauty and stature of established trees, but they are to be clear felled.

“Those trees are past their use-by date.” Ah, no. Pohutukawa have no use-by date. They are a very long-lived tree. “We don’t want them getting too big.” “They are messy.” The fact that they are in a position where they do not shade any buildings and their natural fall of litter does not affect any private property is irrelevant to these folk. “They are not native to this area.” That argument is specious. Not only is the natural occurrence of pohutukawa a mere 10km north of here, but these same folk will think nothing of replacing them with a golden robinia or flowering cherry.

In a battle of jurisdiction between local authorities, where power has been vested in an engineer, the good burghers of our local community board have reportedly been out asking people: “Do you want to keep the trees or do you want the area beautified?” That is a Tui billboard moment.

There is no way to reason with people who see no merit in trees. There’s none so blind as those who will not see and minds have been made up. To such people, trees are completely expendable and of no beauty. They will be long dead before any replacement plants can reach maturity and in the interim there will be decades of a windswept, bare riverbank. It will have an expensive boardwalk and some seats painted sky blue, however, for beauty and history lie only in man-made objects. We could weep.

This is not a story unique to our area. It is repeated often up and down the country in some form or other. Trees need human protection if they are to hold the chainsaw massacre brigade at bay.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

I see back at the start of 2007, I wrote about these trees in the Taranaki Daily News, saying: “Waitara would be a bleak little town without these splendid trees.

These trees were planted to hide the ugly sight of the old freezing works. Unfortunately the trees are to be removed but the arse-end of the freezing works will remain. This is, apparently, “beautifying the area”.