Big trees, little trees: what of the in-betweens?

Big trees, little treesby Jennifer Humphries

The Glebe has lost several majestic trees in the past year to infill and development. We have also seen the destruction of numerous mid-sized trees, unwanted by investors and builders. New builds and renovations that seem to summarily tear out existing trees and critically impact other urban-core neighbourhoods such as Westboro, Hintonburg, Old Ottawa South and East.

“We keep seeing the loss of perfectly good trees, some from natural causes but most from indiscriminate intensification,” Daniel Buckles said in a recent conversation. Buckles is co-chair of the environment committee of the Champlain Park Community Association (CPCA) and a community leader in tree issues. He works in participatory action research and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University. I wanted to tap his knowledge about Ottawa’s approach to trees and how current bylaws affect our tree canopy. He and other members of the CPCA, with a ward-level group called Big Trees of Kitchissippi, have done an enormous amount of work to map trees, both existing and lost, and to advocate for tree conservation.

Daniel Buckles, co-chair of the environment committee of the Champlain Park Community Association (CPCA) and an adjunct professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University, plants a Burr Oak sapling in Champlain Park. Now, a little water and wait.

This work is especially timely as the City of Ottawa mobilizes its 20-year Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP), adopted by council in June 2017. The UFMP comprises 26 substantive recommendations aimed at enhancing our urban forest; many of the recommendations reflect input provided by community associations including the Glebe CA. While not establishing a canopy-cover target, the plan calls for “a comprehensive urban forest canopy cover study to verify or revise the current target of 30%.”

The UFMP’s first four-year phase includes the formation of an External Stakeholders Working Group. In May, the City Forestry Department invited 22 community groups to be part of the working group; I am pleased to represent the umbrella group Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability (CAFES).

Will this tree survive? During First Avenue reconstruction in 2015, builders dropped the grade. The tree has no protection zone and the fencing is simply wrapped around the trunk. Roots are critical to tree survival but are frequently damaged during construction. Tree protection guidelines exist but are often ignored or only partially followed. Photos: Angela Keller-Herzog

The first task of the working group is to participate in a Tree Bylaw Review Project to review and update the two existing bylaws that regulate activities related to trees. These are: the Municipal Trees and Natural Areas Protection By-law (No. 2006-279), that applies to city-owned lands, and the Urban Tree Conservation By-law (No. 2009-200), that applies to private property in the urban area.

The bylaws and in particular the Urban Tree Conservation By-law (UTCB) have been a major concern for urban core community associations. Recently the Champlain Park CA convened a meeting of CAFES on the theme “let’s talk about trees.” A key aim was to review a series of cogent recommendations by Big Trees of Kitchissippi for improving the UTCB. The 21 participants represented 15 community groups including the Glebe CA. They discussed enhancements to the recommendations that they hope to see in the new urban tree bylaw. You can see the original draft entitled “Rethinking the Urban Tree Conservation By-law,” dated March 17, at

What needs to change in Ottawa’s tree bylaw?

The UTCB dates from 2009. It is intended to protect trees on private property, specifically “distinctive trees,” defined (for properties of one hectare or less, i.e. those in the Glebe) as trees that are 50 cm or more in diameter measured at 1.2 m from the ground. Unfortunately, a lot of viable trees with much longer potential lifespans are left vulnerable to destruction during infill and demolition or build projects. No doubt large trees should be protected but cutting out the middle-aged ones could result in a future population consisting of saplings and trees nearing the end of their natural lifespans – not much of a “canopy.” Tellingly, most cities across Canada protect trees of 30 cm or more and many protect those of 20 cm or more. Lower thresholds for smaller types of trees such as evergreens and ornamentals are also in place in some cities.

Trees-at-RiskKey concerns with the current UTCB:

  • the high 50 cm bar for consideration as protected (“distinctive”);
  • the low bar of proof of “danger” by builders;
  • the urban myth that roots invariably affect home foundations (many species have roots that go deep rather than wide);
  • the sequencing of processes such that variances can be obtained prior to the tree permit, so that obtaining a building permit effectively assures granting of a tree removal permit;
  • the short (seven-day) window for public comment on granted tree removal permits;
  • derisory fines for removal of a distinctive tree without a permit (the CPCA-CAFES recommendations call for increasing the current $500 negligible fine to $10,000); and
  • general lack of enforcement.
Gregg Edwards of Third Avenue stands with his pink and purple Saucer Magnolias, magnificent for two glorious weeks in May and still lovely after that with bright green foliage. The pink is 26 years old and the purple is 13; both are at maximum height – great for locations with overhead wires! Photo: Donna Edwards

So is the real problem intensification? “There are many environmental benefits to intensification,” Buckles said, alluding to prevention of urban sprawl. “The province mandates intensification and so cities prioritize it. It’s a how problem rather than a what problem. Compared to many other cities in Ontario and outside, the Ottawa approach to trees and development has been crude, almost like clear-cutting a forest… The ultimate issue is undervaluing mature trees as part of the city’s infrastructure. The benefits of trees are not taken seriously in the city planning discussion – where they should be.”

The opportunity is now to make the city we want in the future. Trees, even the fastest growing, take years to achieve maturity and contribute to the canopy. If we want a green city for our kids and theirs, we need to plant and preserve now!

Buckles’ advice: “Plant a sapling near a very old tree while the senior is still healthy. When the old one is gone, your young tree will be there to carry on.” And will continue yielding big benefits for your health and well-being.

Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Glebe Community Association’s Environment Committee. You can contact her at

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