Let's stop chopping of our urban trees and embark on a scheme to plant lots of fast-growing trees that soon leave us in the shade, argues Vassili Papastavrou. In this week's Green Room he tells us to take cover, because we need city canopies more than ever before.
Councils don't like dead wood - at least not outside their chambers
While cycling to and from my home in Bristol, I have become aware of the large number of trees that are disappearing from surrounding streets.
A quick glance on Google Earth shows gaps like missing teeth along the once tree-lined avenues. It appears that a reason can be found to remove any urban tree.
Other neighbours shared my concern for the disappearing trees, so we looked in vain for an organisation that might help us; but there was none.
So, together we set up a local group called Bristol Street Trees. We also found out first-hand how nearly impossible it was to plant street trees in new locations, despite a huge willingness amongst the public to contribute money.
As we add to our collection of photographs of stumps, it seems that we are witnessing a dramatic loss of urban trees on public land, and street trees in particular.
Even if replacements are planted they are often species of tree that will not become large; the dramatic London planes are going, only to be replaced with rowans or flowering cherries, which will never provide the same benefits.
Though our interest is local, the problem is national. Scouring the press, we have found the most bizarre reasons for removing trees.
In Whitehall, street trees were removed as part of the "war on terror" and received global media coverage. In the London Borough of Islington, "killer pears" were given the chop.
In my local area, trees are removed for three main reasons: there are concerns about the hazards posed by "dangerous" trees, worries over often bogus subsidence claims, and road re-alignment projects which seem to require completely unimpeded sight lines, despite the slow crawl of urban traffic.
We live in a risk-averse society, but the danger from trees is tiny. Each year, about three people in the UK are killed by falling trees in public places, which works out as roughly a risk of one in 20 million.
The presumption should be one of retaining the tree, rather than reaching for the chainsaw at first sight of a 'problem'
The UK's Heath and Safety Executive considers a one-in-a-million risk as very low and the threshold for what is considered acceptable.
Contrast this with the risk of one-in-16,800 for an average Briton being killed in a car accident in any one year.
The risks to our health and well-being from removing trees are far higher. The benefits that urban trees bring are only just being formally recognised.
We now know that they can reduce urban temperatures by 4C (7F); more urban canopy cover will be critical as temperatures climb as a result of global warming.
Trees also absorb floodwater and slow run-off and increase house prices. Studies in the US show they can even reduce crime rates.
Urban trees also absorb pollution of all kinds, particulate, chemical and noise; their ability to do this depends on their size.
The conflict between risk and benefit is a head-on clash between two major ideologies in a rapidly changing environment. Local councils are stuck in the middle, so no wonder their decisions are controversial.
In the case of an individual tree, only the problems it presents are considered; there is no mechanism to balance the benefits provided by the tree.
Big trees in city streets can produce huge root boles
It is no coincidence that the biggest arguments happen over the biggest trees. Even ancient and veteran trees, some hundreds of years old, are under threat.
The very cavities and hollows that are seen as "problems" are important for woodpeckers, bats and other wildlife. Woodpeckers drum on dead wood, carefully choosing sounding boards that amplify the noise. But councils don't like dead wood - at least not outside their chambers.
Notable trees on private land are legally protected, as are all trees in conservation areas. In contrast, trees on public land have no protection.
Some councils do not even provide advance notice of tree removals, let alone consult residents. Days before one local tree was removed, a notice appeared on it saying: "Help, I need a solicitor".
Although there are many to make the case for the prosecution, it is Kafkaesque that no one can take up the defence.
The consequence is that the public is completely disenfranchised and watches powerlessly as trees are removed. We often hear of conflicts with tree officers, despite them sharing common values over the importance of trees.
Root of the problem
So what is the solution? Firstly, the discussion on risk that is already happening in the technical journals and industry conferences needs to be brought into the public domain.
Members of the public are quite capable of understanding risks - we do this every day when we decide whether or not to walk under a ladder or cross the road in a particular place.
Instead of reducing the risk by removing the tree, one could remove the bench under the tree
We need to know just how unlikely it is to be killed by a tree.
The presumption should be one of retaining the tree, rather than reaching for the chainsaw at first sight of a "problem". There are ways of reducing risk other than felling.
In a park, it can sometimes be as simple as closing a path, or changing the mowing regime to make it less attractive for people to spend time under the tree.
Instead of reducing the risk by removing the tree, one could remove the bench under the tree. Having fewer people under the tree decreases the risk of injury. Or, one could give the canopy a trim.
"Fell and replace" is usually the wrong approach, as it will not provide us with the canopy we desperately need right now.
Then, we need councils to open up and consult before removing trees and also to develop strategies for increasing our urban canopies.
When trees are identified with problems, there should be consultation about the options, with all the facts disclosed.
But more than facts, we need to give some weight to ethical values, because people care about trees. We wouldn't ignore values in any decision on a historic building, so neither should we on trees.
Councils need to be up-front about the cost implications of different options. In Bristol, the tentative first steps towards consultation have just started with the first meeting this March of a Street Tree Forum.
Home-owners can see trees as a nuisance, affecting their investment
Highways work should also retain trees rather than remove them.
Finally, it needs to become socially unacceptable for householders or insurance companies to petition for the removal of trees when the problem is the lack of proper foundations in our Victorian housing stock.
People who live in tree-lined streets should enjoy the benefits or move out.
Unless something changes fast, we will continue to lose our urban canopy at just the time that we need it most. Now that is a real risk.
Vassili Papastavrou is a biologist who works for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw). He is particularly interested in large, long-lived organisms such as whales and trees
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Vassili Papastavrou? Should councils, other local organisations and citizens do more to preserve and plant city trees? Or are they a hazard to houses and traffic that need to be kept under control? What does our treatment of them say about our attitude to the natural world?
Here in Malaysia where we have many beautiful trees, our local council Petaling Jaya (KL) is going to destroy the several hundred year old Sungai Boleh forest reserve. One of the few remaining urban forest reserve in an already over developed areas and replace with high density housing. I grew up in London with such greenery and had hoped to continue see such beauty here, but we are destroying our green heritage.
Rob Hempel, Kuala Lumpur
I've long thought that when I die the obituary listing of my accomplishments should begin with: "He planted trees."
That said, I would like to mention a tree widely planted a few decades ago in the USA which has proven to be an absolute menace: the lovely, shade-bestowing ficus, whose spreading roots tear up streets and mound up underneath sidewalks so severely that the concrete shatters, which makes the sidewalk completely impassable to anyone in a wheelchair or who must use a walker or go about on crutches.
And falling trees can be EXTREMELY dangerous! Several huge trees usually fall somewhere in developed California neighborhoods any time there are winds above 40 miles per hour, or more than a few inches of rain. In Los Angeles and much of the rest of Southern California, shade trees are introduced species -- this is a semi-desert and the few species of large native trees are usually sensitive to air pollution or subject to fires in the summer. That said, please bear in mind that your local council may have a very real and very sensible reason for wanting to cut down a street tree. It would be nice, however, if they planted two trees in a park or a forest for each street tree which they chop down. (We can hope, can't we?)
Christian Leopold Shea, Hollywood, California, USA
An office that I worked for had a Car Park that was lined with lovely mature trees until recently. I asked one of the staff that I am still in contact with as to what happened to them. The response? A female employee who is well known for teetering around on six inch stilletoes no matter the weather fell and hurt her arm while walking on the pavement underneath the trees. The result? No more trees, just a line of stumps where they used to be.
Mick C, Leeds
I entirely support the comments made in the article, and I entirely agree that no town trees should be cut without full consultation with and agreement of people who "live" with the tree. These people should be able to decide that a tree may stay or go and any proposal to cut the tree should include an environmental impact statement (to be made by an independent scientist, who must contact all nearby people as well as the local authority(ies) involved). This assessment must cover what action will be taken to plant a new tree instead of the old one. Only subsidence of a house, identified at a public hearing by informed experts, or of clear danger from death of the tree and the proven threat of falling limbs, should be regarded as proof of the need to cut; and only when all other possiblities have been exhausted. The tree's right to live should be recognised and it should be allowed to live until it is proved it cannot do so without a clear and demonstrable, quantifiable, danger.
Dr C P Mathews, Cheselbourne, Dorset
I was told that in Singapore, the government decided to keep trees in urban areas because they calculated that one tree is worth two air-conditioners in terms of keeping people comfortable (not sure how they compared indoors vs out...). Cooling may not be a year-round issue for you in the UK, but I'm sure it makes a difference in the summer.
Shi-Hsia Hwa, Penang, Malaysia
I totally agree. We need as many trees as possible. Not only in the streets but parks and any suitable area. Not only good for wildlife but also the street scape. Always pester the local authority about the Governments 'Pound for Pound' tree planting scheme. Very useful. Can also try the Government's Specimen Tree planting scheme which is also worthwhile. Always harangue any official not doing the right thing.
richard - East London, london
I am a Councillor in Frinton, we have managed to prevent this rape of the environment by imposing a large tree conservation area.
Would strongly recommend that people get tree conservation orders on all the trees they value.
It really works and here regularly prevents developers destroying trees for profit!
David Evans, Frinton-on-Sea
Matt in Essex - you are missing the real points here. You say "The Victorian legacy is wonderful but that is what it is - the country has moved on... the modern urban environment also needs to be reconsidered." The real point is about climate change and tree canopy cover. This is vital in a warming world - planting small trees in towns just won't help (why do we bang on about deforestation of the tropical rain forests?). And your point regarding insurance companies is equally invalid. If we had more trees in towns (and elsewhere) the amount of flood damage would decline (the larger the tree the more it slows run-off, especially in urban areas). So insurance companies would BENEFIT by not paying billions in flood claims. It seems to me that the debate has passed on from 'the tree officer is always right'. What we need now is thinking that takes account of the wider issues, not just next year's pruning budget.
I am also a tree lover, I feel they really add value to a street and/or house. Not only do they provide environmental benefits but they look good too. I have heard that our brain or senses development is affected by our environment and would not be surprised if looking at trees made us happier or even more intelligent (houses are easy for our brains to decypher the image, but trees much more random). Many people now seem to be obsessed with predictable lines, clean looks and pure finishes (houses, cars etc), but this is the opposite to nature and I'm sure cannot be good for our minds. I know what I prefer to look at.
My flat overlooks an area of high priced houses with many trees around them, with a view over the top of the Belfast lough, I enjoyed it on daily basis. Unfortunately our nearest neighbours decided to remove 2 of the biggest oldest trees in the area, and now I am left staring at another neighbours house (around 30% of my view).
Tony, Holywood, N. Ireland
I'm not sure if this problem is only happening in Briton but I've been noticing it lately here in the States. I remember walking along the side walk in near a street by my house where I'd be surrounded by very large trees and I'd enjoy the cool air I'd receive just walking under it, especially on those hot California days. But now when I walk by I no longer see any trees, just a bunch of worthless stumps that serve no one any purpose. Now it's understandable that the city wants to decrease the risk of there being an accident concerning a tree but at what cost. We have a tree in our backyard and it's a fairly big tree, but when the branches grow too big, my father and I trim the branches down, this method seems much more reasonable than cutting the entire tree down. What the public doesn't know is that we need more large trees more than ever. As the temperatures keep rising throughout the world we will have less protection against the sun or any other natural occurrences. Yes!
we can stay inside and put the ac don full blast, but all were losing is money and energy, when instead, sitting under a tree cost absolutely nothing. Not to mention, that by cutting down the trees it makes the area seem less charming, less desirable to live there because there's nothing alluring there, maybe a stump or two. Now when I walk on the sidewalk all I am is hot and exposed.
Oscar Medina, Escondido/California United States
I agree completely with saving urban trees but NOT to plant just any "fast-growing" tree to replace them. Here in the US we have major problems with invasive non-native trees that have literally taken over our woodlands and created a mono-culture tree farm of one species. The Chinese Tallow is one example. It is grows very fast, is worthless as lumber, provides very little use to wildlife, outcompetes the native vegataion needed by wildlife and spreads uncontrollably everywhere! You cannot kill it by cutting it down. Herbacide (with a permit) must be applied. Needless to say, it is a major bane to our wild areas here in Texas and many other areas of the US. If you replace trees USE NATIVE TREES!!! They belong there, the wildlife uses them to one degree or another, they grow well where they are found with far less care, water, etc. regardless of soil type, cold, heat, dry or wet conditions. Hey, that's why they are "native"!
Bill Tarbox, Magnolia, TX
I've been involved with the planting of lots of trees in our local parks. We have three main tree killers: young blokes with attack dogs who pull off branches for 2 mins of fun for their dogs; council contractors who will mangle the sturdiest of tree guards in order to ring bark the base of the trees; and some elderly residents who, if they can't kill the tree themsleves, lobby the council to have them removed. In fact we have one old chap who's almost managed to clear his whole block!
Matthew McCabe, London Borough of Haringey
Planting any tree is good, provided it is not ailanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven)or another invasive species, but weedy ornamental trees are not very attractive & useful to wildlife. In Islington the council have planted a lot of these such trees lately eg Gingko. Vandals & drunks have destroyed many of these before they have become established. last year the council replanted one spot in York Way (near King's Cross) three times after the trees were broken. People are pathetic.
Dominic Stiles, London
Been to Stratford on Avon recently ?
The beautiful Bancroft gardens alongside the River Avon are being brought up to 'World Class' standard so for the past few weekends distraught residents and visitors could watch gorgeous cherry and willow trees being cut down to make way for designer trees in sterile landscaped areas.
The trees had significant value to our town in terms of visual beauty and giving shade in the summer months but it wasn't enough to save them from 'progress'.
Suggest you stay away from Stratford until the 'improvements' are finished - and don't expect to see any mature trees.
Tim Baker, Stratford on Avon, UK
The author is most definately correct in asserting the problem is in protecting publicly owned trees. I imagine its not the risk of killing someone that is an issue, but of being sued. Council owns tree, house subsides, house owner claims insurance, insurance sues council for not removing tree is the concern I imagine.
I also imagine the cost of moving the bench and replacing a whole tarmaced footpath is also far more than removing a tree, to utilise the example given.
There has to be more comittment to protecting trees, both politically and financially, and especially a procedure put in place for consulting local residents when works to street trees are proposed.
Well done Vassili; but Bristol Council supports the Forest of Avon, which has planted thousands of trees in the past twenty years, and has just voted an extra £50k for new planting this year, so they are not all bad. Bristol's street and park trees represent a vast arboretum of some 300 species, and include at least 200 veterans; this is a priceless resource for the city, which should be far more valued by every citizen that it is. And the money nationally for parks maintenance has halved over the past twenty years as a result of the continuous pressure for efficiency or productivity savings; as a result the quality of our parks, and hence our lives, has fallen steadily.
Richard Bland, Bristol UK
We too have a problem with councils removing trees however there is a move afoot now to increase the planting of urban forests - Pretoria and Johannesburg are planting upwards of 20000 new trees per annum. With regards to the root problems there are methods to curb the root growth without killing the tree, simply forcing the tree to reroute the roots biologically, without damaging the tree at all. This is a bit more difficult to do with older established trees but not impossible. We are currently setting up a new project called "Turning Deserts into Forests" a tax exempt company seeking to plant "Trillions of Trees" especially in Africa to stop global warming and provide employment, prosperity and food especially for the most poor in Africa and would welcome any support
Ian Loots, Cape Town South Africa
I absolutely agree with Vassilli, we all need to do more to protect our urban trees, too many tree lined avenues have been lost over the years, leaving a barren landscape. I have one happy story though, one household in my sisters street paid someone to ring bind a tree outside their house wishing to kill the tree and make way for a dropped curb. Lots of local residents spotted this skulduggery and alerted the local council and the police. The tree still stands tall and beautiful because of people power!
Col Linehan, Bristol, England
Hear Hear, the council in cardiff central seem determined to lop off the top of every large tree they can get their hands on it's a disgrace. That and the trees they are replacing them with - ornamental cherry - are all diseased and are not able to survive the changing climate conditions, shame on them!
Here is a diary of a central Bristol Lime tree planted close to where I work: Planted 2004 - hot summer, no aftercare and almost died so I watered it every few days throughout dry periods that year and the next. Next year - Stem severely damaged by council strimmer, put plastic tree guard around base & two months later this was actually strimmed off. I Replaced this with sturdy metal mesh. Next year tree snapped in half by vandal, - I cut off and removed the top half and attemped to make a clean cut. Following year tree recovered and grew strongly. Last week vandal pulled tree right over breaking most of the roots - purchased two ties and strapped tree up to existing post & cross fingers.........
Great article Vassili - its a long hard struggle trying to stop the removal of perfectly healthy mature trees in Bristol, and an equally difficult one trying to keep newly planted ones alive. If more people took reponsibilty for trees in their neighbourhood perhaps we can turn the tide. The next time we have a drought, look on your own doorstep & get out the watering can!!
Councils are doing this to save money on street sweepers.
Totally agree with this. Locally the council is planting several thousand trees in the city for exactly the reasons stated above. People need to be more critical of the tendency to see one incident of a falling tree branch as being excuse to fell thousands of trees. Councils are receiving massive amounts of tax - hold them to account for spending on something of value.
Trees are not alone, hedges in this rural area of Somerset are disappearing on a daily basis.Where new housing is planned on what is currently green field sites, the hedges including trees are being ripped out of the ground,this well in advance of the commencement of building work.It would appear that thought may be given to the preservation of mature trees,providing that they meet a pre determined set of criteria for survival, but mile after mile of hedgerow is disappearing.
Les Miles, Yeovil Somerset
Having worked with plants my entire life and being employed as an arboriculturist I must state that I don't think that articles like this allow people to see the full scale of what a council arboricultural officer deals with on a daily basis. Let me assure all readers - anyone who chooses to work with trees and spends time studying them at college or university does not take any decision regarding them lightly, certainly if a tree is removed it is for a reason that is just and appropriate because of either a health and saftey risk or as a result of one of the many acts of parliment (such as sight lines for roads as mentioned above) which we have a limited control. I read with interest the comments regarding health and safety and risk assessment - trees have a number of possible structural defects not to mention a substantial list of different fungi and bacteria that can affect them in a number of ways. I believe the statistics provided above is 1:20 000 000 in terms of people killed by trees but this isn't the only risk to worry about - we have to consider damage to persons and property. I like the comment of 'move the bench from beneath the tree' but that won't stop a person sitting beneath the tree if they want to.
Subsidence/insurance risks regarding trees are frequently cited as a reason for trees to be felled. Frequently this is the case - particularly in areas of highly shrinkable clay. The bare fact is that for councils to regularly prune trees to the specification that is required to significantly reduce the 'risk of tree related clay shrinkage subsidence' for the long term (and do this on a very regular basis)would be both incredibly expensive, and also practically impossible to do due to the volume of work required - not to mention the fact that the 'wonderful leafy trees' mentioned above would actually resemble hat stands with no leaves being present. Also to be aware here is that felling trees actually saves insurers money in repair costs to properties - if more expensive and significantly larger underpinning schemes are required where do you think insurance companies will recoup the money from? Let me add a parting thought. The trees that cause the emotion tend to be the large forest type trees that define our captial and oldest towns and cities (London Plane etc - which incidently isn't a native tree). These were planted by the victorians to fullfil a specific need and requirement - they were managed very efficiently in a time when wages for the average joe (or josephine) were very, very low. These same trees are the ones that the public wants to see replanted time and again. They were designed by nature to live in forests not urban areas therefore they do not easily mesh with it - they create untold problems if left to grow unchecked - could all those who want to pay more council tax please raise there hand. Large forest type trees belong in large gardens, parks and woodlands not in the middle of towns. The Victorian legacy is wonderful
but that is what it is - the country has moved on, we once thought the world was flat and the sun revolved around the earth, thoughts change and things change - our concept of what is appropriate in the modern urban environment also needs to be reconsidered.
I am all for the trees. believe me living in the sahel of africa, I see the need. But are there really that mane people that want to remove trees for fear of one falling on them. Just seems a bit....odd. And as for quick growning trees, we need to preceed with caution as there are many quick growing trees that do so because they sap the soil of important nutrients. SO you may have a nice tree in 4 years, but in 20 the soil may be worn out. So lets get more trees out there, but make sure you know what the long term results are. And for all you people scared of trees falling on you; you're welcome to come down to west africa where there is an even far lesser chance than in england, where it is the same likelihood that a mountain will fall on you.
Steve Amodio, Ouagadougou
Wait a minute, people are afraid of getting attacked by trees??
Move to New Zealand!! We have trees by the squillions and you can't sue for personal injury!
Mimi Adams, Christchurch, New Zealand
I collect good questions to ask polititions who turn up on my doorstep. "What do you consider valid reasons for felling a tree" will be added to my list. Thank you for this suggestion!
Steve Swift, Alton, Hampshire
Damn right! It's bl**dy ridiculous that council idiots are felling old trees just so they can make cost savings on street repairs. I think the costs would be more than compensated for if we all lived in streets with more trees, given the benefits of shading, wildlife attraction, cleaner air ... and just that feeling of being closer to nature. Councils... LEAVE THE TREES ALONE!
Ross Marnie, Glasgow, Scotland
Having worked for 10 years as an arboricultural officer in local government, both in the UK and NZ, I can confirm that retaining trees in an urban environment is a lost cause. I meet people daily who inform me that they love trees BUT, they want the tree in their garden removed as its dropping leaves/berries/twigs, shading the garden, lifting the paving slabs, attracting birds, presenting a potential hazard or exacerbating an asthma condition. Ultimately, the decision on whether a tree stays or goes is 'influenced' by councillors, elected members with no formal arboricultural background but with a tendency to make decisions which please the public, especially when approaching an election. In my experience the vast majority of council tree officers are hard working and committed to protecting those trees that are worthy of keeping, even if it is against the tree owners wishes and attracts much adverse attention. On the bright side, in my opinion the tree protection rules in the UK are second to none.
Tim Errington, Auckland NZ
Councils go on about their green credentials but they cannot be trusted to fulfil important public duties like tree conservation, they are far too eager to use a chainsaw nowadays.
There are no trees in MK that are currently big enough to drain water from under property - unless, that is, you live in one of the few original areas? In which case the tree is likely to pre-date your property and maybe it has more right to be there than that building does? The downside to MK is that a lot of the trees here are fruiting, and no one picks it so the major 'danger' issues are avoiding the rotting fruit come October. Unfortunately there are so many vehicles here that the fruit is too polluted to eat, or else this is one household that would!
Helen, Milton Keynes
Well done Vassili for highlighting the issue...the problem is, I think, you might be fighting a losing battle. The council can't (or won't) afford to keep large trees alive, they are too expensive to maintain and are cheaper dead. The insurers / solicitors insist the large growing trees should be felled to eliminate risks to buildings / people.
And who is replacing them ? No one. At the current rate of loss there will be virtually no street trees in Bristol by 2050...(except a few cherry trees). I don't know about other cities but I guess the pressures are similar.... This is the urban environment most people are voting for (if they can be bothered to vote) and willing to (not) pay for. So tree-less cities is what we will get.....Vas don't give up hope, stand as a councillor to kick the current lot out...you'll get my vote (and money for trees).
Clive Stevens, Bristol
Too many trees disappear due to the brown envelope mafia giving jobs for the boys. The paranoia of safety giving them "justification" for employing a "tree surgeon". There is no such thing as safety and it's a bumpy universe. Get used to it. Bits of tree fall down so what! How long before we have more security cameras than trees?
Of course, I agree with Vassili Papastavrou. The oldest trees still standing are all hollow. They were not dangerous; they are not dangerous. They remain standing because they are hollow. In the Great Storm of October, 1987, acres of trees were felled by the strong winds. It was the hollow trees which remained standing. We need trees; we need trees which are rotten (hollow)inside: they are so important both to wildlife and to we, ourselves. Wake up England!
H. Hawes, Newport
I heard that my housing association was to cut four trees down - I sent them a message imploring them not to, as it's rare we have such a glorious oasis similar to the one I see from my bedroom window. Lo and behold, they agreed and have stated they will not remove any trees. Also, our local council (Manchester) has incentives to plant street trees - and we are actively measuring up the pavements and filling out the forms ready for a hopeful acceptance!
Paul Graham, Manchester
We have just had 5 healthy trees chopped down in a few hundred yards in the cause of a road widening scheme which will provide a bus lane, which our local County Council assures us will save 4 minutes on a 9 mile bus journey.
Total local opposition to the scheme and the fact that the buses lose far more time than 4 minutes before reaching the start of the relatively short bus lane-about a mile at the most-was, of course, totally ignored.
Britain's tree heritage dates mainly from the Victorian era, a time when ladies preferred to remain pale and un-suntanned, hence leafy suburban avenues of lofty limes, plane, oak or chestnut with 80+-year life spans, in relatively wide grass verges. Today's Highway Engineers want small trees that (at least to their minds) need less pruning and clearing over the road - so cherries, rowans and birches with about a 40-year life span. But many of these trees are actually more bushy and end up lop-sided through being pruned to clear a road or powerline, while big-growing limes etc could grow above and out of the critical zone. If someone would let them and not top them when they get to 5m. So the tree collection is declining in stature, amenity and age. Developers and highway engineers squeeze verges to widen roads, and existing front gardens are made into carparking. There's the complaints about stuff falling from tress onto cars making them dirty. Utilities prevent new tree planting because of the constant need to dig the road or pavement up, so destroying roots, and the lack of good soil depth. In other parts of Europe, gas, cable, electric and water can be run through the same basic route underground, chambered in a box so all are accessed at the same point, and trees are planted alongside - but not so the UK, becasue of 'incompatibilities'. Finally, there is vandalism - not always by kids but by householders who don't want newly planted street trees to interfere with their sunshine quotient - so trees may be cut through at their bases and left standing in their tree guards as if nothing happened. If someone is killed by a tree everyone gets to hear about it - because it is so rare - and every tree then becomes a 'potential killer'. It's a nightmare to be an urban tree.
Michele, Vancouver. Canada
Can't agree more. When I first moved to Harrow, my back garden resembled more like being in a wooded area. You felt a sense of being surrounded by nature, birds chirping, wind flowing thru' leaves etc. Not anymore. Some communities here seem hell bent on having cutting down anything green! And pleasant front gardens are now a distant menory.
In many parts of Adelaide, Australia, local councils have a "significant tree" rule which makes it illegal to cut down trees over a certain size, even if they lie on your own private property. Whilst this can be annoying, especially if you honestly are concerned that the tree is about to fall over and destroy part of your house, it does have an upside for keeping the streets reasonably green.
Graham G, Adelaide, Australia
Your picture of the tree with the comment: "instead of reducing the risk by removing the tree, one could remove the bench under the tree" is priceless. Brilliant article. Keep up the fight - it's an important one!
Juliet Neal-Boyd, San Francisco, CA USA
Trees in the city give a good puls on the psych of all beings. Closer to our nature. Smells better than exhaust pipes too ;)
Wandsworth Council managed to chop a number of trees on Magdalen road after complaints from the adjacent (private) tennis court. The residents of the road were up in arms but there's noone quicker than a council worker with a chain saw. Now there's a bleak gap in a once leafy stretch of road and the tennis courts look like an exercise area for the nearby Wandsworth prison. It seems that once the trees are gone, they're gone...
I totally agree, it angers me that in my road there is not one tree, and when councils do plant them it is the same limited choice of Flowering Cherry, Alder or Mountain Ash. What has happened to mighty Oaks, and soaring Poplars. Trees are not the problem it's those who smash the pavements parking on them, and concrete over their gardens. We need more greenery in our towns.
John Nelhams, London,UK
Hear, Hear! Too many trees are ruthlessly removed, or brutally pruned to resemble telegraph poles. Nothing can beat trees for civilising a city, and in my opinion they should have automatic protection (that is, they should only be removed if there is a really good reason for it).
Peter Humphreys, Swindon, UK
I battled this and lost against our councilman 3 yrs ago. He happened to have rented a space for his office on the Main St and 'asked' the parks dept if they could 'move' the tree (25 feet tall mind you!) as it was blocking his law business sign. They cut it down with no forewarning, after much protest, promised the neighborhood org. a new tree which never materialized and the councilman moved out a year later.... In Texas we need all the shade we can get with weeks over 40º.! Better save what you can now ready for a sunny day.
daniel, Fort Worth, Texas, USA
in hounslow where i live i have noticed more and more lovely mature trees being cut down and when i phone my local council office to find out why this is happening i get told things like this tree is dangerous thats if you can actually get though to the right department. when there are new trees planted they seem to be small and never seem to grow,it as if they are stunted and will never replace the lovely mature so called dangerous trees cut down in the first place,im am totally discusted with this urban de-forestation and will oppose it wherever i can.
paul taylor, hounslow middlesex
Yes trees are beautiful and beneficial, but they can also wreck your property. In a hot summer they want every drop of water they can get and if it's under your house they'll go and take it. The trouble is the people who designed and built the treelined avenues have long departed with their profits. The problems of house subsidence and tree disease are very real now with incidence of long hot summer months. The trees' welfare has to be balanced against your property being damaged and becoming potentially worthless.Proper management has to be the answer and sometimes they have to go and hopefully smaller ones put in their place.
Barry, Milton Keynes
After asking if we agree with this article the writer highlights the scale of problem trees face. Surely it is the houses and traffic that are the hazard to the trees that do so much for us. Felling city trees should be resorted to only after every alternative option has been seen to fail. There are plenty of skilled tree surgeons who can remove deadwood, trim back canopies and manage risk far more cheaply than the cost of removing a large tree once felled.
Jonathan, Slough, UK
I applaud Vassili in his actions.
I've long believed that many of the problems we are facing, both locally and nationally, are as a result of fewer trees.
More trees can help reduce flooding, they contribute to a reduction in global warming.
Personally I favour new legislation that any tree removed for whatever reason has to be replaced immediately, nearby, with 3 native trees of a similar size and stature. This goes for builders, domestic properties, public parks etc. etc.
There were once many trees in my area and they too have been cut down... why? Because everytime a tree branch fell on a parked car (due to storms etc) people were suing the council for damage! The council did the most cost effective thing, and there you go- no trees!
Now those very same people who blamed the council for falling branches are now blaming them for lack of greenery... typical
Graham, Ashford Middlesex, UK
Well done Vassili only please talk louder.
Cities for cars or Cities for people ?
Our local council in collaboration with a group of shop keepers have passed plans to fell the only 2 decent trees in our town, the reasons have been proved to be nonsense or at least easily fixed. The tree officer for the council has recommended a Tree Preservation Order as there is nothing wrong with them and should be preserved. The council went against his and other officers advice and for their own unfathomable reasons voted to fell them.
About 1500 people immediately signed a petition to save the trees and a protest group has been put together. The only people who want the trees gone are the council and some shop keepers.
No sensible reason has been given. A report was commissioned by the protest, it found the trees in good order and non problematic to the local environment and in fact beneficial.
The protesters are now looking at a maladministration investigation at the way the council has acted.
To add some confusion it has been discovered that one tree is in-fact a Falklands Conflict Memorial...
Steve Price, Malvern, UK
I totally agree. I live on a terraced street that once had trees. Now there areas are bricked over and used to park motorbikes or put the week's rubbish bags.
I really feel like making a similar stand to my council (Northampton Town Council) but feel a tad powerless and a tad folly to expect anything to be done.
Trees would vastly improve the run-down area I live in - once a proud industrial terraced street is now a gloomy, grey, dirty street. Footpaths and roads have not been relaid in decades so I believe this has a lot do with attitudes, respect, crime and even prosperity in the area.
More trees are needed!!
Atlanta has a great organization called "Trees Atlanta" that could be modeled in other cities.
James, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Yes to all these words of wisdom by Vassili, and I hope others add their voices as well.
Jeanette M. Thomas, Prague Czech Republic
I think this is absolutely vital. I used to live in Manila where there where almost no trees except in the encalves of the rich. Trees and Green areas in general makes the quality of life in cities increase greatly.
Save our trees!!!
It amused me when I first started working in the Netherlands, when I read in the Dutch paper an article about Coronation Street. They described it as a soap opera based in a typical English city, with terraced houses and no trees. It's something that outsiders find most strange, and having lived over here for 9 years, I now feel the same.
Jim Cornish, Gent Belgium
I love the big old street trees - the London Planes, horsechestnut and near to my house an ancient oak tree on the edge of the school playground.
It would be an ecological disaster if the fear mongerers and insurance companies demand their removal. No birds, insects, bats, squirrels and no natural shade.
All old trees need to be carefully managed and preserved, plus when needed a careful policy of replacement with similar long lived specimens to continue the natural life cycle. Trees are not just for life - they were there for your great great grandparents and will be there for your great great grand children
Suzette keith, Barnet, London
I work as a Building Surveyor having Studied Building Surveying and the Environment at Plymouth University. Unfortunately it is often necessary to remove Trees which are too close to properties especially in areas of High Clay content in the soil. I personally Don't like advising people that the cause is a Local Authority Owned street Tree. As For claims of "Bogus Subsidence claims", It is impossible to have a tree removed by a Local Authority without proof that the roots have caused the subsidence. This investigation normally takes over a year to prove it is the tree. Faced with foundation damage to their home or the removal of a street tree, most reasonable people will concede that the tree removal is a necessary evil.
Nick Brown, Tring,Herts
Vassili, I totally agree with you! At last a tree lover who feels the same way. In fact lots of people feel this way, but we don't have much of a voice. Croydon is losing trees very fast, due to reasons you cite, plus urban vandalism. I also support IFAW. Best of luck to you.
Susan Betts, Croydon, Greater London
At last a sensible and like mind!
sue chadwick, slough, Great Britain
I live in San Francisco and we have an organization called Friends Of the Urban Forest. The city actively encourages tree planting along the sidewalks and will offset some of the cost to plant and maintain them. The species of tree is carefully chosen for each location to prevent any problems with it in the future, such as getting too large for the space, damaging underground infrastructure etc.
Adam, San Francisco, USA
I agree with your writer. Trees do far more good than harm and we have a collective responsibility to conserve them. Life and the world around us would be a lot more unpleasant without trees.
keith barrett, london
"Home-owners can see trees as a nuisance, affecting their investment"
Well tough titty, they don't own the trees we all do. And anyway if a building is only treated an investment, the owners desrerve all they get - this selfish and greedy behaviour has had massive detremental effect on the economy for millions, let alone the environmental and social degredation it brings on us all.
Nick S, Northampton
I agree with your writer. Trees do far more good than harm and we have a collective responsibility to conserve them. Life and the world around us would be a lot more unpleasant with trees.
keith barrett, london
I absolutely agree with Vassili - trees are an essential part of any city. One thing he failed to mention is the impact that they have on other aspects of the weather; living in such a wet and windy city as Edinburgh, it is striking how much worse the treeless areas are in high winds and heavy rain.
Adrian Miller, Edinburgh, Scotland
Good grief. If people are worried about getting hit by a tree, just stay out from under them. Play in the highway instead - please.
Jim K, Freeland USA
I agree with every word he says. I thought that in the uk councils had a better attitude towards trees.Here no government official cares 1 jot for any tree or indeed any plant unless it is contained within a plastic pot .I ,with others, have witnessed 4 council workers employed on weedkilling a small street in our town which contained 1 dandelion and 3 blades of grass. I think "our" attitude to the natural world is motivated by fear.Also it is us who are paying those 3 superfluous workers .
joanna, castelnau d'auzan france
Just how much CO2 is locked up in a tree? plant a tree and cut down greenhouse gasses
roger tedman, nimes
In the area that I walk my dogs each day I can count at least 100 trees that have been removed or replaced with smaller varieties. Roads that are called Avenues have been stripped of all large trees and the grass verges are now used as parking spots. Even the back gardens of nearby houses have had mature trees ripped out due to scare mongering by so called Tree Surgeons. I have tried to conteract this by planting some larger trees in our back garden.
Royalsabre, Gravesend, Kent
I completely agree whole-heartedly.
Here in Canada, trees are generally not removed from city streets. We now actually plant trees (albiet tiny ones) in the narrow midians on residential streets, which have never in the history of our town been planted there. If you cut trees on your property, you also need permission or you can get fined up to $15k a tree.
If a tree is a hazard to a home, it should be up to the homeowner to go to the council. They must have a surveyer come and prove that either the roots are getting too close to the home causing structural weakness, or that the tree is dead and or considerable height to fall on said home (although the lovely trees lining Britain's streets are more round than tall). At least that's how things are here.
In the US tree-lined streets are iconic of suburbia, whereas concrete jungles are the quintessential hallmark of urban living. I contrast these to some of the streets found in Colombo, and on a former visit to Bangalore, India. There, magnificent creeper-covered giants shade broad thoroughfares and offer heavenly solace from the humidity and sun. Some are perhaps centuries old. But there too trees are disappearing as new buildings crop up (seemingly overnight). But then again I am cheered at the sight, more common there than in the west, of a thick wall respectfully making a break around a tangled and ancient fig so that its roots and branches grow unhindered. I am not sure what the motivation is for leaving these be - perhaps its something as simple as a financial inability to cut them down and reconstruct the walls, or perhaps it is a reverence for their age or symbolic significance (in a Buddhist country, Bodhi trees are seldom cut). Whatever it is, aside from the !
obvious benefits of reducing CO2 and temperature, these trees add a surreal sort of aesthetic that to me connects these old cities to their jungle ancestors, now in ruins.
Shermin de Silva, Philadelphia, USA/Colombo Sri Lanka
Chopping down a tree in an urban street can cause much more subsidence because it is no longer absorbing water, that water now goes to swell the subsoil causing ground heave and increases the flooding risk in the area.
jon, Leics UK
I agree entirely with your article. I see trees being taken down all the time in Stamford, peterborough and pretty much everywhere. Not to mention all the benefits scientifically they provide a sense of coalition between modern housing and nature. I have always wanted to be part of a "Save the trees Group" and would love to see things likr this popping up in every major town and city across the country. I once shared a lift with a guy from the local council who was responsible for assesing if a tree could be taken down or not and he said it was more about how much money was on the table rather than environment and situation. Disgusting!
Trees are a beautiful part of nature and offer some brief break from the highly stressful and chaotic daily life we all live. Thats gotta be worth alot!
Nice to hear a lone voice speaking up for the trees. London is one of the loveliest major cities on the world with Trees everywhere. Lets keep it that way. If people do not like the trees they should remember what came first.
This very scenario is taking place in Milton Keynes. We have wide boulevards lined with semi-mature plane trees of some 50 - 60 years of age which are being removed by MK Council and English Partnerships to make way for development or to change the street-scape by building up to the boulevard. English Partnerships have commissioned a landscape report which recommends replacing some of the plane trees with vertical species of Hornbeam and other more ornamental, smaller habitat trees such as flowering cherries. We urgently need to protect our trees and maintain the beauty of boulevards lined with plane trees which are just starting to gain a majestic feel.
We also suffered the removal of beautiful specimen arboretum grown trees from a roundabout close to M1 Junction 14 so that the road could be slightly widened. If a little care had been taken not all the trees had to be removed. These were particularly fine species. Apparently English Partnerships are now suggesting replacing them with plane trees that have been removed from elsewhere in Milton Keynes. What nonsense is this!! Mature trees cannot be successfully replanted unless they have been container grown and prepared for removal - the plane trees will die.
We need action and help before any more are destroyed. Trees take a very long time to mature - a chainsaw can devastate the streetscape in a matter of minutes - and has already done so in Milton Keynes. This does need urgent intervention - there are other ways of achieving the development that English Partnership wants to achieve - the trees must be saved - they are more important than the buildings.
julie barrie, Milton keynes
Have a look at Milton Keynes!! Urban Eden, a group fighting for the preservation of those elements (such as our boulevard trees), have been saying these things for years and fighting the engineer and council endlessly! It's a national issue...and it needs more media cover...England would be all tar and paving in a few years....! Trees provide structure which survives much longer than any other element within the built environment!!
Liezel Kruger, Milton Keynes
I agree with Vassili we must do whatever we can to protect all trees from destruction.
Angela Williams, Bexhill, England
I totally agree - what would be great is if there was a national group working to protect/plant urban trees
steven finlay, preston
It does not seem to be true that notable trees on private land are protected. In October a piece of rural land next to the estate where I live changed ownership, and the new owner chopped down a three hundred year old beech tree. I had seen this coming, and pleaded with Sheffield Council to issue an emergency preservation order, which they did not do. When I complained they said that there was no protection for the trees, and all they could do was to ensure that the owner replaced the tree. So in three hundred years time it will be just as it was.
Karen Vincent-Jones, Sheffield, England
it is unfortunate that we as a people have not figured out how important trees really are .it is not for us to say if they should stay or if they should go,unfortunatly we continue to believe it is our decision,and i thought after seeing all the damage man has done to the earth we would realize this!it doesnt look good for our friend the earth and any one associated with her.we are a cancer to her,our maybe just a flu that she will get rid of (with a pandemic from asia perhaps?)sad but true as she can only take so much of our nonsense!
steven ungrodt, saint joseph,michigan,u.s.a.
Coming from Sheffield Europe greenest city, I fully appriciate trees and the benefits they do clearly have in urban areas. Trees should be planted in every city in as many places as possible!
I wholly agree. What we need is an 'Urban Woodland Trust' to protect existing trees and promote the planting of trees and mini-woods in urban locations.
David Norris, Wadhurst
I seem to remember reading on the Science/Nature pages a year or so ago that scientists had discovered that planting trees in the northern hemisphere was counter-productive to global warming, as they trapped warmer air and therefore raised temperatures in colder climes. What do we do? It's all so confusing...
Andrew Whiteside, London
In this part of the world, concrete and paving is prized over trees. We used to have small pockets of urban forest trees, but they have been replaced by urban cemeteries or upmarket housing. The value of trees in the tropics and the link to increased flooding, higher temperatures etc does not seem to register with councils here either.
MV Hayman, Malaysia
I am an unashamed tree hugger, now 53, and have been since I was a very small child. My wife, was 15 when we met and I could never understand her fear of trees, despite her early years of being brought up on a farm. Now I am delighted to say she loves trees almost as much as I. We are both members of the Woodland Trust and my ideal job would have something to do with trees and wildlife. The WT Ancient Tree hunt is well worth looking into.
I tried several times to find out from a neighbouring council if certain Yew trees had a TPO on them. It was amazing the resistance that I met. They even had a person alledgedly responsible for trees in their employ but she never returned my numerous calls.
I understand that in built up areas tree health needs to be addressed yet that doesn't mean reaching for the chain saw at the first sign. In the Netherlands recently there has been much of a todo about the great tree that sheltered Anee Frank, luckily the trees protectors won through. I am fortunate enough to have lived in Africa and fell in love with the Baobab, the Blue Gum, Jacarandas to name but 3 and only the Baobab is indigenous but to see the wide streets in October with the Jacarandas in bloom is heaven.
Long live our beautiful trees. To preserve them Aluta Continua.
Dex, High Peak Derbyshire England
I totally agree with Vassili. Trees, hedges and open spaces too are vitally important to our general wellbeing. Too often these are sidelined by councils who are too eagre to take the easy way out or to pander to the Health & Safety jobsworths.
Keep our trees. Look after them and respect them and we will all reap the benefits.
Graham Gilbert, Totnes
When I objected to council workers "pruning" (butchering) the flowering cherries outside my house, I was told people want them pruned so that their roots don't damage the houses' foundations. I'm not sure pruning the trees does limit their root growth, but allowing it does, small flowering cherries surely do not need such harsh treatment!
Helen Austin, London UK
Totally agree with your piece - the council recently re-paved large areas of the housing estate that I live on, and guess what - all the trees were removed to be replaced with tarmac with no apparent plans to replant any - just looks desolate. One thing you haven't mentioned in your reasons is incredibly anal people who dislike the mess trees cause in their gardens - this in my experience is one of the most common reasons why people don't like trees.
David, Romsey, UK
people seem keen to pay more in order to move to a 'leafy' area and then promptly concrete over the gardens in the name of convenience!
mind you, when they try and sell the house they do buy a small pot to provide 'kerb appeal'...but then forget to water it.
johanna booth , liverpool,uk
Yes, he is completely right. Sadly not all urban residents agree. The nature-phobic and generally fearful seem to have the upper hand at present, and we all suffer as a result.
Yes, I agree; We need those trees to keep the city civilized. Mike
Mike McCann, BristolUK /WilmingtonDE_US
Cutting down trees is nothing short of environmental vandalism. NIMBY homeowners in the UK are the most selfish group one can find. From buying a house next to a racetrack or airport, then getting it shut down or restricted due to, shock, the noise... through to buying a house with an oak tree in your drive and cutting it down because, shock, it's too big! There must be a mechanism for protecting a rural/suburban environment, there are for planning, road building, areas of natural beauty, preservation orders, grade listings...
A small number of my neighbours have been lobbying the council to remove Lime Trees from our street on grounds that the sap is 'damaging' the paintwork of their cars. Thankfully, the council has so far ignored their pleading.
Paul A, London
I wholeheartedly agree with Vassili. The problem is not only the felling and the failure to replant properly - but also the widespread vandalism in the form of the lopping and height reductions that are inflicted on so many trees. As a former tree surgeon I know that most of this practice is totally unnecessary. Can you put me in touch with Vassili?
John Parham, Bristol UK
The basic problem as with all environmental issues is selfishness. We in the developed world have so many possessions and yet all we ever do is get greedier and more protective of what we have without any regard for the consequences of our selfish actions to others.
John Brown, Hull
In the last week two trees have been cut down not by the council but by home owners, we could do with measures to prevent/reduce this from occurring. Over the last 4-5 years our neighbours have cut down over 8 pine and beech trees, replacing them with flowers. Not only damaging to the environment but makes rural Fleet look like central London!
Marc A, Fleet, Hampshire, England