By Sandra Storey
Special to the Gazette
Boston, with support from people in Jamaica Plain who care about the local environment, is starting to look at more of its forest and fewer of its trees, to paraphrase an old adage.
Trees that are most visible and countable and have gotten much of our attention—street trees planted along roadways—make up only 10 percent of the total of the approximately 400,000 trees here. That remaining 90 percent of Boston’s tree cover grows elsewhere in the city, much on private property.
For years, those trees not in the care of government have been largely ignored in regulation and research. When people and officials talk about protecting trees here, as they should, the discussion until recently has often centered on the small percent that are street trees.
At a Boston City Council hearing chaired by JP’s District Councilor Matt O’Malley and co-sponsored by Councilor Ayanna Pressley on June 18, where the percentages were noted, that may have begun to change. A lot of information included in this column was presented by relevant City administration officials on a panel, including Chris Cook, Commissioner of the Parks and Recreation Department and new Chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space; Commissioner Carl Spector, Environment Department; Liza Meyer, Chief Landscape Architect; Greg Mosman, Arborist; and Max Ford-Diamond, Arborist/Warden.
Trees, especially mature trees, give a lot to urban areas in addition to beauty and summer shade, including reducing bad stuff: storm water run-off, air pollution, the “heat island effect,” rates of respiratory ailments and energy usage. Trees also increase a property’s value.
At the hearing, O’Malley listed the positive qualities of trees and quoted a study that says every tree gives $293 worth of benefits a year.
Preserving mature trees and the overwhelming majority that grow in less visible places than sidewalks requires revisiting some basics, it became clear at the Monday morning hearing.
Rather than count individual trees, which doesn’t work well, it was explained, the City now uses a new technology to measure what is called the “tree canopy.” That’s done by flying over the city and using lasers to determine percent of coverage.
O’Malley said in a recent interview that he’s “pleased” that Cook has said a new tree canopy survey would be done every three to five years from now on.
Mayor Thomas Menino’s 2007 goal of increasing the number of trees by 100,000 in 10 years was not achieved and has been dropped. Now, the goal of Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration, stated in Imagine 2030, is to increase Boston’s canopy to 35 percent by 2030 from its current 27 to 29 percent.
Increasing tree canopy significantly obviously cannot rely on street—not when hundreds of trees are being lost on private property at the same time.
In order to achieve the 35 percent goal and the most benefits, Boston is going to have to focus on preserving older trees on private land.
About 30 percent of the U.S. tree canopy has been lost to development, experts say. Local experts at the hearing said we don’t know much about Boston’s tree mortality, because statistics about tree loss have been kept only on the relatively tiny amount of street trees until now. Keeping better records about all trees needs to begin right away.
Meanwhile, it seems that removal for private development is one of the largest causes of mature tree loss here as well.
“The City of Boston is currently in the third largest building boom of the City’s history and [the boom] has contributed to a decrease in the number of mature trees and green space overall,” said the April 9 City Council order for the tree hearing, which drew more than 100 people.
“The focus on development needs to include the importance of our city’s trees and recognize the link between healthy mature trees and creating healthy neighborhoods,” the order said.
Boston now has only two processes that have any relationship to protecting trees on private property from removal for development. Cook described them at the hearing: 1) The Parks Commission must approve developments within 100 feet of a City-owned green space. 2) Parks and other City officials involved in reviewing larger development projects often ask what the developer will do to protect trees or expand them on the site.
Compared to many cities around the country with a wide variety of specific ordinances governing tree removal on private land, Boston is lawless. Ordinances in other cities often protect trees based on diameter, age, type of tree, location and/or other factors like public view. Permits are required to remove the specified trees on private property, and the permits usually have conditions attached.
“I am committed to strengthening some guidelines” regarding tree removal for development, O’Malley said. “The private sector needs to be committed to help strengthen our tree canopy.”
O’Malley suggested that Boston might have a rule, for example, that developers would have two or three trees planted for every one that is lost to development.
Study of this idea and other cities’ ordinances, like those in Atlanta, Palo Alto, Portland, Ore. and Austin, Tex., would be helpful in crafting our rules. Some cities have an array of separate tree ordinances that have been passed gradually over years, and a few say they have such a large tree canopy they are not concerned.
Boston needs to toughen up and focus on preserving and expanding our entire tree canvas. Are we really environmentalists here? This is a test. Can we recognize the value of a healthy atmosphere as well as the good that comes from creating housing and jobs? Good development and plenty of trees do not need to be mutually exclusive goals. We need to make protecting trees on private property a priority if Boston is going to thrive.
Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.