Concern for the fate of Peterborough’s urban forest

By Kim Zippel and featuring trees of Otonabee Ward –

If asked to describe the places I have lived, particularly during my childhood, the first thing that triggers memories of those long ago homes is the trees: the sumac outside of our house in Kitchener, the silver maple in Waterdown, the flowering almond in Burlington and the twin maples outside of my sister and my window in Walkerton.  While other details have long since faded, these trees loom large because we got to know them so well while climbing amongst their branches, listening to the wind in their leaves, and then when autumn arrived, making forts from those same leaves instead of neatly raking them as charged.  

Photo of a mature silver maple tree with lots of branches, knots that give it character and a somewhat spooky look.
Gnarly neighbourhood character. This Lafayette Street tree is like a bulldog; a majestic street sentinal with bulbous folds and juts that say formidable, not friendly. The perfect Halloween tree!

The sight, scent, sound and feel of trees give us a sense of place, and while we may not always take the time to know and appreciate them, we would certainly feel the loss if we were to loose them from our neighbourhood.  In fact, research recently completed at the University of Chicago indicates a correlation between increased tree density in a neighbourhood and improved cardio-metabolic health.  Data obtained from the Ontario Health Survey was compared to the City of Toronto Forestry records to reveal  a surprising connection between having 10 or more trees per city block and a decrease in cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.  In fact, the relationship was approximately equal to taking seven years off of your life, or receiving a $10,000 raise!

Deep pink crabapple blooms light up a playground on Crawford Drive.
How true it is that the time to plant a tree is yesterday. Fortunately, someone had the forethought to design shade into this southend playground. Today, stunning crabapple trees scent the air, and decorate the east end of Crawford Drive in deep pink every spring.

But the benefits now attributed to trees extend far beyond human health. In a recent Peterborough County City Health Unit (PCCHU) Forum on Shade, guest speaker Karen Morrison – International Association of Ecology and Health – listed the co-benefits of trees as follows:

  • carbon sequestration, critical to lessening the impacts of Climate Change;
  • reduction of airborne pollutants, particularly from vehicle exhaust;
  • green infrastructure that buffers noise, slows traffic, acts as a wind barrier, and cools our cities offsetting the heat radiating from cement and asphalt;
  • aesthetic beauty, privacy, a sense of place and improved mental and physical health; and
  • natural UV protection, i.e., shade!
A sidewalk is flanked by a curb side garden and trees.
This line of trees softens the harder, built urban landscape. Shade, stormwater infiltration, air filtration and noise reduction are just some of the co-benfits trees have to offer.

Dr. Rosana Salvaterra, the PCCHU medical officer of health, builds a strong social and economic case for increasing shade in our city.  Skin cancers now account for one third of new cancers diagnosed in Ontario equivalent to a health cost of $532 million in 2004.  The most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma, is on the rise and the rates in Peterborough are significantly higher than the provincial average for both men and women.  Ironically, as the importance of shade increases, our urban forest is decreasing and our most recent watershed report card, delivered by the Otonabee Regional Conservation Authority, gives Peterborough poor grades with straight D’s across the board for % forest cover, forest interior and forest riparian zone (the lands alongside our streams and rivers).

A maple tree arches over the sidewalk. The tree has lost half of it's bright orange foliage, carpeting the sidewalk in fall colours.
This maple tree, located in a private yard on Spillsbury Drive, provides shade for the Fortye Gate sidewalk in summer, and a blaze of colour each fall. It really is my favourite neighbourhood tree.



And the citizens of Peterborough are taking notice.  Recent headlines report of public concerns over tree loss in our city: Northcrest Ward 5, July 20, 2012, “The Removal of 35 Trees to Make Room for Electricity Poles has Upset Several Neighbours“; Northcrest Ward 5, April 5, 2013 “Trees Cut Back to Make Room for Double-Decker Buses“; Ashburnham Ward 4, August 8, 2014  “Why the Trees Came Down“; Monaghan Ward 2, July 29 2014 “Parkhill Rd. Tree Cutting Surprises Neighbour“; and most recently in Otonabee Ward 1, December 1, 2015 “City’s Snow Dump to Stay Put, Despite Fears Over Kennedy Rd. Woodlot“.  

A photo of tree damage occurring in the Kennedy Woodlot on the shore of the Otonabee River.
Pictured are shoreline trees of the Kennedy Road Woodlot. Changing environmental conditions have caused premature tree death in the riparian zone of the Otonabee River.

There is no doubt, we are losing our urban forest to development, with another 8-10% loss predicted due to the die-off of ash trees from the invasive emerald ash borer.  Furthermore, tree replacement is becoming more difficult says Paul Hambidge, the City of Peterborough Urban Forest Specialist.  

New urbanism calls for planning that is not tree friendly as green space is sacrificed for complete street design; bicycle lanes and sidewalks on both sides of a roadway add significantly to the amount of asphalt and cement being laid down in our city, while underground utilities compete with root space.  So just when we are adding to the amount of impermeable surfaces city wide, we are counterintuitively removing one of our greatest natural deterrents to flooding and erosion: Trees.  

Again the irony in our urban planning strategies becomes apparent when the assessed economic value of urban trees is considered.  A TD Economics special report on the value of Toronto’s urban forest estimates that Toronto’s trees provide co-benfits, in current Canadian dollars, valued at $81.3 million dollars annually, 66% of which can be attributed to natural stormwater management.

Cliff Black stands in a huge puddle left to evaporate days after a rain storm.
While Cameron Street West awaits traditional curb/gutter infrastructure, with some ingenuity and the right trees planted alongside the roadway, green infrastructure would help to soak up the water that continually pools on this street.

But the sad fact is that research has shown that we will never replace the 100+ year old trees that are currently being lost in Peterborough to development and transportation routes because “urban trees can only be expected to live, on average, approximately 40 years now”, states Hambidge.   So, the time to plant a tree is yesterday, and there is no one who better understands this than Ashburnham Ward 4 resident, Peggy Scott.

Peggy is a resident of Sunshine Homes, a community located on Crystal Drive in the southeast end of Peterborough.  Sunshine Homes sits atop a hill that is slightly north and west of Ventra Plastics, a local company that produces plastics molding and provides electrostatic painting and other services.  Unfortunately, prevailing winds carry the airborne effluent from Ventra to Sunshine Homes.  When engineered ventilation failed to resolve the odour problems, Peggy, as chair of the Green Up committee, decided that trees would be the long-term solution for her community.  

It took several years, and many government agencies and officials, before Peggy finally succeeded.  In 2013, the Ontario Ministry of Transportion planted 2,300 deciduous trees on the hillside below Sunshine Homes, as well as alongside the Bensfort Road and Ashburnham access/egress ramps to/from Hwy 115.  Tenacity and a strong belief that trees could improve the quality of life for her community allowed Peggy to set the standard for urban forest renewal.

And there are many other citizens of Peterborough wishing to play a stewardship role in urban forest management.  Fortunately, our City has an Urban Forest Strategic Plan (2011) entitled Our Forest – Our Future.  There are 8 primary objectives within the plan, the 8th being:

“To increase community awareness of the benefit of trees, encourage community involvement and create a shared responsibility for the stewardship of the urban forest.”

And the following recommendation was made to make the objective a reality:

“Develop and maintain alliances with stakeholders to engage the community and maximize opportunities for the protection and enhancement of the urban forest.”

Even with our urban forest policy in place, one might note that all of the print media articles previously mentioned occurred after the strategic plan was adopted in 2011.  The newspaper stories report citizen distress over tree loss, lack of information, and the inability to engage in the decision-making process as regards the destiny of neighbourhood trees.  No wonder we have a “D” on our report card.

However, much like Peggy Scott, other neighbourhoods are recognizing the intrinsic and real economic value of their trees.  These people are getting to know their neighbourhoods, and neighbours, as they unite to protect the trees and renew the urban forest.

A witch hazel shrub blooms yellow in a November garden.
A witch hazel shrub in November bloom, it’s scraggly yellow flowers brightening an otherwise dull month for the garden (Fortye Drive).

It is my most reverent hope that our urban forest policy recommendations will be followed, and citizens, ward councillors and city staff will work as a team to preserve our heritage trees, and to forge ahead with riverbank, street and park plantings.

In the short-term, Peggy Scott has promised to take me on a walk next spring to see how the 2,300 saplings have faired over the winter.  Check back for a progress report in a blog post I’m certain will be entitled, “Peggy’s Forest”.  

And be certain to visit the Otonabee Ward trees featured in this article, and send in pictures of your favourite southend tree; I’ll post it on the map on the home page for all to see!

The sun peaks around the corner of a home on Fortye Drive, lighting up a snowy crabapple following the first snowfall of 2015.
The sun peaks around the corner of a home on Fortye Drive, lighting up a snowy crabapple following the first snowfall of 2015.



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