1. A new report on Seattle’s tree canopy—a measure of how much of the city is shaded by trees—shows that the amount of tree cover in the city declined by half a percentage point (from 28.6 percent tree cover to 28.1 percent) from 2016 to 2021, the equivalent of 255 acres of tree loss.
The largest portion of this loss was not, however, due to development in single-family neighborhoods, as opponents of new residential density frequently imply, but in the city’s own parks, where 45 percent of the total tree loss occurred, largely because not as many trees were replaced in parks relative to other areas, resulting in a higher percentage of tree canopy loss.
Although “neighborhood residential” (traditional single-family) areas accounted for more than a third of the total canopy over the five years covered by the study, less than 7 percent of tree loss (17 acres) resulted from development in those areas, while development in multifamily areas accounted for another 14 acres of trees lost.
The report does not specify what kind of development happened in these areas or whether it involved increases in density (as opposed to land owners building bigger houses), but it does conclude: “most trees in [neighborhood residential areas] were likely lost due to reasons other than development.”
So why did Seattle’s residential areas lose so many trees? According to the report, the reasons “may include disease or hazard risk, storm events, or aging trees at the end of their lifespan. Trees are also removed to accommodate other uses (e.g., solar arrays, views, gardens, etc.).” In other words: In addition to natural losses, homeowners are removing trees on their own property for reasons that have nothing to do with housing.
Tree canopy losses were greater, as a percentage of the overall canopy in 2016 compared to 2021, in areas with more people of color, lower incomes, and less access to opportunity, including the Rainier Valley and South Park. These areas have fewer trees already, and lost ground over the past year despite efforts to plant trees in historically under-forested areas. It’s unclear from the report exactly why this happened, although the report notes construction of light rail at Northgate accounted for a significant portion of the overall loss in these “environmental justice” areas—an example that contrasts an environmentally positive project, light rail, with the trees it displaced.
As for why the city’s parks are losing trees at a faster rate than others areas, the report says the methodology researchers used might not capture undergrowth, and that newly planted trees take a long time to grow and show up in tree canopy assessments. According to a Parks Department spokeswoman, “it’s not that the rate of replacement has been slow, but the growth from those replacement trees is slow as they have more evergreen trees that start from seedlings and take time to show in the canopy. Loss of a tree is an event, it’s sudden and immediately noticed. Growth is a process that occurs over time and regaining canopy can take many years.”
Overall, Seattle has just over 28 percent tree coverage—hundreds of acres shy of the city’s goal of 30 percent tree canopy by 2037.
2. City council members expressed frustration earlier this week that the mayor’s office is several months behind schedule establishing a small alternative response pilot program for some emergency calls that don’t require a police response. As PubliCola reported last year, the mayor’s office and council signed a “term sheet” laying out steps, and deadlines, for a pilot program that would send civilian responders to some calls, including “person down” calls and wellness checks.
The term sheet included a number of milestones that were supposed to culminate in a pilot program, including a comprehensive set of policy recommendations, a budget, and a final plan that was supposed to launch in January. During a meeting of the council’s public safety committee, a council central staffer said “part of the delay has been the hiring and onboarding” of new Community Safety and Communications Center director Rebecca Gonzales, whom Harrell nominated to lead the city’s 911 dispatch office in January.
But committee chair Lisa Herbold said Gonzales’ appointment should have no impact on the long-planned pilot. “There is absolutely no reason, I believe that we need to delay these conversations about a pilot any longer, regardless of the status of the of the new director coming on,” Herbold said. “We’ve got a lot of good people who’ve been working on this for a while—for several years now— and we need to make sure that we’re driving this forward and creating some momentum where there currently appears to be very little.”
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, the council’s most vocal advocate for an alternative response system, echoed Herbold’s comments. “If we have another hearing like this, where the timelines are so off, and the progress is so on the surface unclear at the next hearing on this topic, I would be supportive of reevaluating the process entirely to find a different path for achieving these goals,” Lewis said. “I just think the sense of urgency around this needs to be much, much higher from all of the parties involved.”
“[Mayor Harrell is] not interested in reelection, which is so exciting, and so he doesn’t make decisions out a fear to get reelected.”—Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, speaking about the city’s work on homelessness at a national conference this week
3. Seattle Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington caused a bit of a stir at the National Alliance for Ending Homelessness’ annual conference in Oakland this week, when she commented on stage that she appreciated working with Mayor Bruce Harrell because “he’s not interested in reelection.” Some in the room interpreted the comment as a statement that Harrell won’t seek reelection after one term, while others said it was more ambiguous.
The context for Washington’s comment was a list of things Seattle is doing right on homelessness; she was talking about why “relationships matter.”
“He’s not interested in reelection, which is so exciting,” Washington said, “and so he doesn’t make decisions out a fear to get reelected. He literally said to me one day—I said, ‘Hey, if we end this contract, it’s gonna be all over the newspapers,’ and he said, ‘I don’t make decisions that way, I make decisions out of doing the right thing.'”
Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Washington “was saying that the mayor makes decisions not based on what is popular, or in other words what will support a re-election campaign, but based on what is the right thing to do.”