Trees currently cover between 28 and 33 percent of Seattle’s land, making us one of the nation’s greenest cities. But advocates for a new, stronger tree protection ordinance believe the city should go further to protect its canopy, by restricting tree removal in ways that could prevent new housing development in the single-family neighborhoods where most of Seattle’s large trees are located. In doing so, they have insisted that the only way to mitigate climate change is to take actions that prevent development in their exclusive neighborhoods—a literal example of failing to see the forest for the trees.
The city is currently considering amendments to the city’s existing tree protection ordinance that would add new protections for significant trees, create a “fee in lieu” of preserving specific trees that would fund new tree plantings elsewhere, and require property owners to replace any tree they remove that’s more than six inches in diameter, among other new rules. Advocates want the city to go further, by reducing the maximum size and number of trees that can be removed from vacant lots, for redevelopment, and by individual homeowners.
One impact of greater tree protections would likely be less development in areas where density is allowed, including both urban villages (which were just modestly expanded under the Mandatory Housing Affordability act) and single-family areas where homeowners just gained the ability to build auxiliary units, including backyard cottages. Trees, unsurprisingly, are concentrated in areas of Seattle that are wealthy and white, and scarce in areas that are not; a 2016 city analysis found that in “census tracts with high numbers of people of color, tree canopy is as low as 11% while in areas with not many people of color there is 55% canopy cover.”
Given that disparity, it was hardly surprising that the people who showed up at city hall this morning to advocate for more stringent tree protections/development restrictions were people who identified themselves as residents of neighborhoods like Laurelhurst, Ballard, and North Seattle. One by one, they came up to make their case. A group was given extra time to sing a song decrying development, and then a member of that group, dressed up as a tree, shouted “I am a magnificent tree! … Every tree counts, especially us mature trees!” into the microphone. A man said developers who were building “million-dollar townhouses and large apartment buildings” in his neighborhood probably go home to neighborhoods with “very nice trees.” A woman said that development and the resultant tree removal is destroying “opportunities for tire swings, hammocks, tree climbing, playing with sticks, cool spots to place your picnic blanket [and] piles of leaves to jump into.” And a man asked the council if they had thought about drivers, asking rhetorically, “When it’s hot, where do you want to park?” and argued that “you need the trees” to keep cars cool.
Seattle could mandate that every tree removed from a single-family lot be replaced by one in public right-of-way currently used for parking, greening the streets that are used by everybody rather than just private backyards.
All this absurdity was just the precursor for what will likely be a lengthy debate over the proposed new tree protections. None of the proposals are especially unreasonable on their face. But it would be a shame if, taken together, they made it harder to build housing for the people that are moving here, the people who already live here, and the people who are being driven out by housing scarcity.
And, as Dan Bertolet at Sightline has pointed out, there are ways to protect and expand Seattle’s tree canopy that don’t involve telling people they can’t cut down six-inch trees or preventing development of new housing to spare a large tree in a vast single-family backyard.
For example, the city could allow developers to build taller buildings in exchange for protecting trees when replacing single-family houses with denser housing types. Seattle could mandate that every tree removed from a single-family lot be replaced by one in public right-of-way currently used for parking, greening the streets that are used by everybody rather than just private backyards. Or the city could target the use of in-lieu fees so that they fund new tree cover in the areas of town that are actually short on trees, such as Southeast Seattle.
None of those solutions will be proposed in earnest, because they would face enormous resistance from homeowners who want to protect not trees in general but “their” trees—the ones that shelter birds in their yards, provide piles of leaves for their kids to jump in, and shade their cars. Meanwhile, thanks to Seattle’s restrictive land use code, more and more people who would like to live in the city are forced to move to suburbs (created, incidentally, by clearcutting forests) and drive to their jobs—a perverse inversion of the idea that planting and protecting trees is the solution to climate change.