Opinion Piece

Why we must all work together for trees

An opinion piece by Sue James and Keith Sacre, Trees and Design Action Group

‘Working in collaboration for better places’ and ‘Working together for trees’ are long-standing aims of the Trees and Design Action Group. The evidence-based environmental, social, and economic benefits of trees have been recognised and well documented1 as have the disbenefits2 over the last two or more decades. Many of the disbenefits can be overcome through location, species choice, improved methods of tree planting and management. It would be fair to say that trees deliver more benefits than disbenefits and that the value of those benefits are increasing as we deal with the challenges of climate and ecological breakdown.

The tree that used to ‘shade’ the living room or garden is now an ally providing welcome shade and cooling during periods of increasing summer heat; that row of street trees is an integral part of our surface water management by reducing the rate of flow on the ground as part of local flood reduction; the walking and cycle routes, which are desirable for their encouragement of active travel and health benefits are enhanced by the presence of deciduous trees creating cool routes in summer and letting the sun and light come in during the winter months; the improvement of the spaces between buildings protected from the impact of glare from the buildings; the contribution of trees to biodiversity and nature recovery with the potential to provide continuous green corridors adjacent to and alongside both road and rail networks.

So, the case for urban trees is convincing, but how do we ensure that it is supported and delivered in practice on the ground? Who are the players who will make a difference?

The Trees and Design Action Group would like to see all local authorities have adopted tree strategies so that the importance of trees is a material consideration in all planning applications. Indeed, strategic planning is important for all landowners managing tree populations at all scales.3 While a strategy is a good starting point, it will only be truly effective if all those engaged with the built environment recognise and support the role of trees. This includes developers, planners, and other local authority departments such as transport, housing, and health as well as utility companies and, most importantly, local communities.

Much has been written and said about canopy cover gain and many percentages are tossed into the public realm often without any sound evidential base. Such canopy gain is normally associated with tree planting which results in a numbers game. While tree planting is obviously important it is equally important to remember that the greatest canopy gain in the short term is likely to be from managing and maintaining the trees we already have to a higher standard and therefore optimising their potential to deliver the many benefits as outlined above.

While trees need all the support they can get from policy makers, the role of residents and community tree groups should not be minimised as these groups can help spread

  1.  The Case for Trees (2010) Forestry Commission for England.
  2.  No Trees, No Future (2008) The Trees and Design Action Group https://www.tdag.org.uk/no-trees-no-future.html
  3. https://www.tdag.org.uk/trees-planning-and-development.html and https://www.tdag.org.uk/trees-in-the-townscape.html

the word as to the benefits of trees and how, when properly planted and cared for, they provide valuable assets and not costly liabilities. Members of local communities can lead by example, lobby tree owners and managers to better maintain and manage existing trees, they can encourage support for street tree and other tree planting, help dissuade neighbours from concreting over front gardens where they exist, provide physical support by watering newly planted street trees, and provide eyes of the street for tree protection. They have also been shown to be a strong lobby in responding to planning applications that seek to remove trees and are major contributors to the development of tree strategies as has been demonstrated in various projects such as Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole and the Birmingham Urban Forest Masterplan which was initiated by Birmingham Tree People.

What will be most useful for professionals is to understand how to effectively engage with communities so that they can benefit from this potentially rich resource and work together in creating places where people want to live, work and play.

Therefore, working together for trees involves us all – professionals and public alike – if we are to gain from the many benefits that trees can provide for making better places.

Sue James and Keith Sacre for the Trees and Design Action Group

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