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Editorial: More trees, please

Trees help with soil retention and drainage, and offer shade, bird habitat and other benefits to neighbourhoods.
Trees help with soil retention and drainage, and offer shade, bird habitat and other benefits to neighbourhoods.

It’s hard to be-leaf that it took this long. OK, that’s a terrible pun — but it’s a terrible pun about a great idea.

At last week’s council meeting, St. John’s city council caught up with its neighbours a little bit. Now, like Mount Pearl, Paradise and Conception Bay South, St. John’s will require developers to plant a tree as part of the landscaping on every full-sized residential lot.

It’s a requirement that has been something like six years in the making. The way it will work is that the city will require a $150 deposit; if a tree is planted and established, the $150 will be refunded. If the tree doesn’t appear, the city would keep the money and use it to plant a tree on public property.

The main argument against the trees?

As Coun. Art Puddister told reporters, “Some members of council felt we shouldn’t be forcing people to put a tree on their property, because this was an extra cost — not only for the purchase of the tree, but the installation of the tree and the fee itself — and obviously this is something that’s going to be passed on to the property owner.”

But trees are a critical part of neighbourhoods — for water retention, for slowing storm runoff, for making neighbourhoods less like barren wind tunnels of grass and fences. Other benefits from trees? Well, among the ones that have been quantified, higher property values, reduced heating and cooling costs, and reductions in air pollution. There’s even research that suggests proper “greenscaping” improves health and reduces crime rates.

In cities like London, Ont., the rules around tree planting are far more extensive than what’s being planned here. That city requires developers to create and submit a plan for the location of trees in subdivisions, and then the city issues a tender for the trees and invoices the developer for the full cost of the work.

“This allows the city to retain control of the quality of planting and enable them to accurately inventory the trees and follow up on the two-year warranty on the trees,” London’s guidelines say. “The selection and placement of species is based on the City of London’s guidelines for tree planting.”

Still other municipalities are now questioning whether developers should be allowed to take the “bulldoze everything flat and landscape from scratch” approach, instead of retaining existing soil conditions and species. The problem is that stripping and leveling soil and retopping it with a thin layer of topsoil often doesn’t leave enough depth of soil to support tree growth. Compacted layers beneath the topsoil don’t allow for root growth.
It does, however, allow developers to grow and move quickly to new areas and new projects.

The question, in the end, is what kind of city we’re building, and who we’re building it for.

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