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Saving Joe’s Trees

My local councilor in Toronto, Joe Pantalone, advertises himself as the city’s tree advocate. He’s been doing it for years, and he’s been very effective as the primary political energy behind the city’s tree program, through which any resident in Toronto can have a boulevard tree planted in front of their house at city expense, and in some cases, in backyards, too.

The tree program is a lot more than mere civic aesthetics. The trees are a natural air-cooling and –cleaning system, removing untold tons of pollutants from the air while recycling carbon and oxygen and reducing the need for air-conditioning. If the trees go, Toronto will be more than uglier. The city will be hotter—by as much as 5-9 degrees, according to Joe’s 2003 report. I’m not sure the temperatures will rise that much, but losing the trees will make this a much more unhealthy city to live in. Even if you live by economics, trees still make sense.

“Over 50 years,” says Joe’s report, “one tree can generate $30,000 in oxygen, recycle $35,000 of water, and remove $60,000 of air pollutants.” That makes every tree worth about $2500 a year, by my calculation.

Right now, the residential areas of downtown Toronto look like a forest from the air. This is because the last glaciation dropped as much as 300 feet of soil onto Southern Ontario, and this allows the trees to root deeply and grow very large—much larger than they do in Vancouver, where the softer climate would make you expect a perfect environment for climax vegetation.

Joe Pantalone’s program has done more than just plant trees. It has diversified the species that are being planted, so that we’re no longer reliant on the maples that were planted after Dutch elm disease decimated the deciduous forests of Ontario 30 years ago.

But these days, Joe is the deputy mayor in David Miller’s new and non-comatose civic administration, so I’m not sure how much time he’ll have for the trees. That’s a pity, because the trees are in serious trouble, and need an energetic advocate more than ever. The trouble doesn’t come from the much-publicized Asian Stag Beetle, which is currently transfiguring some of North Toronto’s suburbs into a pitiless desert. The trouble comes from two other sources, and they’re about as distant from one another in scale as it’s possible to get.

The first is global warming, which may not exist empirically, but is a common sense reality to anyone able to add one and one and come up with two. What it has brought to Toronto is summers that are hotter than they used to be, and feature less rain. Over the last few years, the big boulevard trees, which can suck up hundreds of gallons of water daily in hot weather, are becoming seriously stressed by late summer. The ground is drying up well down into the subsoil, as an early fall excavation on my street emphatically demonstrated last year. The trees respond to this by dropping leaves, or by showing leaves that have turned black along the edges. Another sign of water starvation—or of the diseases that water starvation brings—is an unusual number of empty boughs.

The second trouble comes from a piece of local government income-producing efficiency. Over the last four or five years, the City of Toronto has stopped basic charges for residential water supply, and has installed electronic water meters in nearly every residence. At a glance, this program appears to be perfectly reasonable and sound: it will conserve water and penalize compulsive hand-washers and other clean freaks, and will bop all those idiots who run their automatic sprinkler systems during rainstorms.

But it’s killing the boulevard trees because now that homeowners have to pay for the volume of water they use, many of them have stopped watering the trees. Two big maples died on my Euclid Avenue block last summer. They were mature, but they died from neglect, not age. They’ve been delimbed, and are now waiting out the winter with big yellow “X”s spray-painted on the trunks, ready for spring removal. A half-dozen more trees along the street were in serious trouble by mid-September, and we’ll see how many come back this spring. Three or four other trees have died in the last four or five years, mostly through owner/occupant inattention. At this rate, the street will be able to pass for one in downtown Moscow by 2010, and I’m not really joking when I say this.

I’m doing what I can in my little enclave. I haven’t been able to plant a tree of my own because the natural gas line ran exactly along the route where a tree ought to go until the gas line was shifted to the side of the property last fall. I’ll ask for a tree this spring. But I did run the hose for a few hours a week for the tree on the rental property on the south side of our house, and I scowled at the tenant who’s trained his mutt to piss on the tree’s trunk every morning and evening. And I had a talk with my lovely Italian neighbour Vittoria on the north side, and she’s now giving her tree a good soak once a week instead of merely teasing it by sprinkling the grass around it.

Joe Pantalone, meanwhile, needs to make some changes in his advocacy program. The first and most obvious thing to be done is to prepare and thoroughly distribute a circular that tells people that boulevard trees need to be watered and sets some minimum guidelines for how to do it.

That’ll help, but the water metering remains a serious roadblock to getting people to do what the trees need. If, as his report says, a boulevard tree is worth $2500 a year, the city needs to reinvest some of that in keeping them alive. My suggestion is that any residence that has a boulevard tree in its front yard should get a $20 annual reduction in their water bill. This may or may not pay for the cost of adequate watering, but the gesture will likely prove educative for everyone, and might encourage more people who don’t have trees to plant them.

That approach is likely to prove more successful than more dire means, such as charging residents for removal of a tree they’ve allowed to die before its time. Tree killers could also be fined, or maybe they could create a special police division to beat up on tree-abusers and sell their children into slavery. Those measures may sound extreme, but in Germany during the middle ages, people took tree murder so seriously that the penalty was to cut open the offenders’ stomach, nail a piece of their intestines to tree trunks, and force them to run around the tree until their waist was the size of a supermodel’s. I’m not suggesting that the City of Toronto ought to do this, but I do think that letting a boulevard tree die from neglect should be treated as a serious offense against the community’s well-being.

From a political point of view, taking tree neglect seriously—one way or another—has a high probability of a successful outcome, which is the sort of thing that civic governments these days are pitifully short of. It’s also a sensible and decent thing to succeed at, which the marketplace has made the most scarce commodity of all. The alternate approach, of course, is to petition the federal and provincial governments to do something real about global warming. But that, in the current political climate, is a little like wishing aloud that snowballs won’t melt in hell.

February 18, 2004 1240 words

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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