Trees and development: 
a fragile balance

by Jennifer Humphries

Beer store maple 1
This maple on the former beer store property on Bank Street will disappear with the new development unless a new location and a way to transplant it are identified.

We tend to take categorical positions on changes in our neighbourhood, like infill development. We are either strongly in favour (infill gets more people into our community, using less land, keeping people in the urban core) or passionately against (infill reduces sunlight and greenspace, and often doesn’t mesh with the look and feel of our community).

Full disclosure: I lean to the status quo, that is, let’s respect and retain our architectural heritage. It’s a huge value to the community and attracts visitors who also enjoy our solid red-and-yellow-brick 90-year-old and century-old homes and tree-lined streets. However I support infill where there’s a great location for it and when the project bears a pleasing similarity to our existing built heritage. Take a look at John Leaning’s The Story of the Glebe,1 which offers an engaging look at the history of our homes, institutions and green spaces from 1800 to 2000. Leaning illustrates the beauty of what we have but he also shows how easy it is to demolish what is good and historic in the interest of expediency or profit.

Beech tree 183
This beech tree, photographed in October on Glebe Avenue, has been removed, subject to a Distinctive Tree Permit. Photos: Jennifer Humphries

But change is a part of our landscape in the Glebe. How can we admit change but preserve what is good and beautiful, specifically, our glorious mature trees?

Trees are highly vulnerable in infill projects. Recently on Glebe Avenue a beautiful mature beech tree was felled to make way for building. It was 53 cm in girth and considered a “distinctive tree”2 under City of Ottawa bylaws. The permit to remove it was granted by forestry officials in response to the developer’s application. The sign read, starkly, “53 cm beech in rear yard to be removed due to infill development.”

I wanted to take a look at the developers’ position to see if there was room for engagement and discussion. Maybe there is.

What do developers consider when making decisions about what to do with trees? John Herbert, Executive Director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association, gave me some insights.

“Trees have value,” he said. “Builders want to retain trees. They are a huge benefit in terms of marketing and sales. But each situation is unique. For example, builders look at root systems, not only potential impact on a new structure at time of construction, but what will happen 20 to 30 years down the road. It may not be realistic to retain a tree with a massive root system on a property.”

Herbert also noted that it might make sense to replace an old tree that is reaching the end of its life cycle with a new one with years to live.

While Herbert’s comment that builders value trees is encouraging, it seems that mature trees are frequently downed to make way for structures, and new plantings are small, squeezed and often look like an afterthought.

I touched base with Mark Hutchinson, Vice President of Green Building Programs for the Canada Green Building Council. He referenced the Leadership in Energy in Environmental Design (LEED)3 rating system that the Council uses to certify green buildings in Canada. LEED includes site development credits aimed at reducing site disturbance during construction, protecting and restoring vegetation, and maximizing open space.

While its earlier versions neglected greenspace, the latest LEED V4 added credits for “tree-lined streets.” But an article on the website states, “Sunlight, water, and soil are the three critical ingredients needed to grow all terrestrial plants.” The author then affirms that in LEED V4 “Soil: health, re-use, volume and quality have all been completely missed.”

Can a balance between trees and development be found? Let’s hope so, since we need both trees and greenspace, and homes in our community.

A ray of hope is Ottawa’s new Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP). Among the first items that city staff are working on is the Tree Bylaw Review. The review will include incentives for tree conservation and compensation for trees removed for development. We are hoping to have an update soon from the city on it and other items to be undertaken in UFMP’s first year.

Trees and homes both merit our concern. Dedication to three-way dialogue and cooperation between residents, developers and city officials is critical to achieving a balanced, workable approach. If you have thoughts on any of this, please contact me at the email below.

1 The Story of the Glebe, by John Leaning, October 1999 (available at the Ottawa Public Library and for sale online.)

2 Distinctive trees, considered to be trees of a diameter 50 cm at 1.2 m, are protected by the city. Residents/developers must make an application to the city if they wish to remove them.

3 LEED info:;

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

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