Taking Action for Trees
by Denise Deby
When a tree falls in Ottawa's urban forest, more people are hearing, thanks to groups such as Big Trees of Kitchissippi, Tree Fest Ottawa and Hidden Harvest Ottawa, three initiatives drawing attention to the importance of trees and offering ways to protect and celebrate them.
Summer foliage: Ottawa's urban forest. Photo courtesy of Graham Perry
Urban trees provide biodiversity and habitat, produce oxygen, clean the air, decrease storm run-off and improve human health and well-being. However, Ottawa is losing trees to urban expansion and intensification, pollution, harsh weather and invasive species such as the emerald ash borer, all exacerbated by climate change.
Residents in Ottawa's Kitchissippi neighbourhood came together last year to address the destruction of the area's large, older trees, particularly by infill construction. The resulting group, Big Trees of Kitchissippi, includes members of the Westboro Community Association, Wellington Village Community Association, Civic Hospital Neighbourhood Association, Westboro Beach Community Association, McKellar Park Community Association, Champlain Park Community Association, The Champlain Oaks Project and the Volunteer Gardeners of Clare Gardens Park.
"The main focus of the group is...number one, to save Kitchissippi's mature urban forest canopy," says Big Trees of Kitchissippi member Deb Chapman, a volunteer gardener at Clare Gardens Park. "And number two, to try to raise awareness of the value of these trees to our urban environment; and number three, to call upon the city to enforce its own bylaws that are there to save these big trees."
Big Trees of Kitchissippi has documented numerous cases where developers have destroyed or damaged bur oaks, silver maples, spruce and other established trees, even though Ottawa's Urban Tree Conservation Bylaw also requires people to obtain a permit to remove large or distinctive trees on private land. The Trees and Natural Areas Protection Bylaw requires developers to protect trees on City property.
For example, excavation for a new house on a property in Champlain Park last summer damaged the roots of a 65-year-old black walnut tree in a neighbour's yard, necessitating the tree's removal.
Big Trees of Kitchissippi wants City staff, councillors and the mayor to acknowledge the value of mature trees, require that trees be included on site plans before approving redevelopment projects, and address what they see as a disconnect among City departments responsible for forestry, planning and building. In an open letter to the city, member Daniel Buckles called for a culture shift at the City and in the development industry, and for consideration of community rights to tree canopy as well as individual rights to land.
The group adds it's not enough that the City has committed to planting trees. "The little saplings that have been planted in the stead of these mature beautiful trees are just not the same," says Chapman.
A different group of volunteers has launched Tree Fest Ottawa, an initiative that uses images and stories to convey the significance of trees. They've compiled profiles of local tree advocates and held a series of events that include tree walks, a concert and a photography exhibit, "PhotoSynthesis," at Lansdowne Park in September and October. The exhibit used photos and text to depict the work of eight "tree enthusiasts," including botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, violin maker Guy Harrison and foragers Ferme et Fort.
Christine Earnshaw, founder of Tree Fest Ottawa, says they wanted to present the knowledge of different types of tree specialists. "That's the interesting part, putting them alongside each other, and trying to get...a broad perspective and understanding from different angles and different viewpoints."
By inspiring people through art, Tree Fest Ottawa hopes to encourage action. "This is...a positive way of putting out information that people can take away, and hopefully have an increase in sensibility and caring for trees," says Earnshaw.
Finally, Hidden Harvest Ottawa, established in 2012, makes use of fruit and nuts from urban trees by connecting volunteer harvesters, tree-owners and food banks. When fruit is picked, the volunteers, the tree owner and a food agency each get a quarter share. Hidden Harvest Ottawa makes the remainder available to local businesses to turn into jams and other products.
Around 1,200 volunteers have signed up to pick apples, grapes, serviceberries, elderberries, black walnuts and other produce. They've gleaned fruit from several hundred trees each season, and thus supported more than a dozen food agencies. With each public event, they're also raising awareness about local edible trees.
"There are a lot of mature producing fruit and nut trees in our city, even more than we had originally imagined when we found the original 17,000 on City property. There's just as many if not more, likely more, on privately owned land," says Jason Garlough, Hidden Harvest Ottawa's co-founder. Accessing the trees, though, poses a few challenges.
Garlough notes that the City pays to clean up and compost or throw away fruit that has fallen on streets, sidewalks and parks, but not to gather fruit while it's edible."We're so used to not seeing those mature trees as producing renewable resources; we're seeing them as producing waste and leaf litter and things that...cause liabilities," says Garlough. He suggests the City could hire volunteer managers to organize harvests in the same way it supports community clean-up days.
Tree groups encourage people to let City councillors and the mayor know about the importance of trees and the need to protect them. The groups also hope the message reaches the City during its consultations to develop an Urban Forest Management Plan. The City's process to come up with a comprehensive, long-term urban forest strategy launched in September and continues through 2016.
For more information:
Big Trees of Kitchissippi <https://www.facebook.com/BIGTREESofKitchissippi
Tree Fest Ottawa <http://treefestottawa.org/>
Hidden Harvest Ottawa <http://ottawa.hiddenharvest.ca/>
City of Ottawa Urban Forest Management Plan <Ottawa.ca/urbanforest>
Denise Deby writes on environmental and social justice issues. You can find her at http://denisedeby.com and http://greenlivingottawa.com.
The PERC thanks the above organizations for their support.
Thank you to Sustainable Eastern Ontario, the Community Foundation of Ottawa, and the Ontario Trillium Foundation for sponsoring the Winter 2015-2016 edition of the PEN.