Tag: tree canopy

I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees

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.

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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. Continue reading “I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees”

Save the Yards!


Yesterday, longtime Seattle writer (and my erstwhile colleague) Eric Scigliano published a jeremiad on Crosscut making the case that the city should keep two-thirds of Seattle’s land zoned exclusively for single-family housing because single-family homes have yards, and yards have trees. (Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda suggests allowing very low-density multifamily housing in 6 percent of the land currently reserved for single-family houses in Seattle; a separate proposal, to allow duplexes and triplexes of the same density currently allowed in single-family zones, was scuttled after neighborhood activists protested that the change would ruin Seattle’s character.)

In short, Scigliano’s argument was that because a majority of the trees in the city are on private property, in part because we haven’t taken good care of our publicly owned trees nor planted enough of them, we need to make sure no new development encroaches on these yards so this privately owned tree canopy can continue to exist.

Once you’ve gathered your jaw off the floor and returned to seated position, I have a few rational responses to this insidious bit of anti-density sleight of hand:

1) As cities like New York make clear, density is not in itself a danger to urban tree cover. (NYC’s tree cover is comparable to Seattle’s despite that city’s vastly greater density).  Allowing two-story, low-density multifamily housing on the edges of current single-family zones, as the HALA plan suggests, does not endanger trees.

2) In fact, density is a far more environmentally sound than exclusionary large-lot single-family zoning, which uses more resources and also forces people into the suburbs when demand outstrips housing supply, as it currently does in Seattle. Suburbs destroy open space and lead to car-dependence, which contributes to the car dependence that’s currently destroying our planet.

3) Privately owned tree cover is maintained only by the private beneficence of private property owners. In other words, the tree canopy is only as good as its owners’ desire to maintain it. In other words, a property owner can chop down just about any damn tree he or she wants. Relying on the altruism of private property owners is a lousy way to make public policy, and (as anyone who’s mourned the loss of a treasured tree or bemoaned the construction of a megamansion next door knows well) often backfires. In contrast, our public urban forest, which is maintained by the city and funded by the taxpayers, can’t be destroyed at a property owner’s whim.

4) Just imagine if single-family exclusionists expended as much time and energy advocating for properly protecting and fully funding the maintenance of Seattle’s publicly owned trees as they do raging against the possibility that they might get more neighbors. Certainly, our public tree canopy wouldn’t be in the dire straits Scigliano describes in his plea to maintain low density in our growing urban area if people cared as much about saving urban forests as they do about maintaining their property values.

And 5) Density opponents forget that the quaint Craftsman cottages on 5,000-square-foot lots they are fighting to protect (because TREES) came at the direct expense of actual forests, which were razed to make all those expansive lawns and private outdoor space possible in the first place.

If erstwhile treehuggers like Scigliano really want to protect and expand the city’s privately owned tree canopy, I’m sure they’ll get behind this modest proposal (h/t Josh Feit): Raze all the city’s driveways (and ban new ones). Think about it: Driveways take up valuable space that could be turned into lovely urban groves, and who could argue that car storage is the highest and best use of potential urban forest? Just imagine all the trees we could plant if property owners just gave up their car storage and contributed (even more than they already do) to Seattle’s critical private urban forest. If my proposal goes through, lawn superfans like Scigliano will probably be able to stop paying any attention at all to Seattle’s struggling publicly owned trees (like the ones homeowners sometimes plant in public planting strips and then forget) and focus exclusively on maintaining the only urban forest that really matters: Beautiful trees on private lawns, preferably behind tall, well-fortified fences.