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Watch: The secret lives of Vancouver's life-saving trees

Here's why adding more trees to communities like the DTES is a matter of life and death.

The sun is barely up and the snow is drifting down in the - 1 C weather, but two city workers are diligently shovelling nonetheless.

Methodically, they remove the gravel from the tree well of a sapling that didn’t make it after two years along Richards Street.

Don Morrison, Park Board Acting Supervisor for Urban Forestry, assures that the trees planted by the city have a low mortality rate.

“Less than 5 per cent die,” he says gesturing to the row of approximately 45 trees. This is the only one that died and crews are replanting it as we stand there.

Collectively, there may be a larger amount of green space in Vancouver than in most other places in North America. Just look at Stanley Park or the stretch of Richards that spans West Georgia to Pacific with more trees than cars. But that’s not the case for other densely populated parts of Vancouver and it’s putting lives at risk.

Why does Vancouver need more trees?

On any given weekday during planting season (fall to spring) there are four crews of two out conducting stump removal and tree planting for the city.

Between 2010 and 2020 they planted 150,000 trees, averaging 2,000 trees planted annually. While they hope to slowly increase the number of trees planted each year, Morrison says they’ve encountered challenges like running out of places to plant with enough soil. “A lot of those easier planting locations were utilized. And so now we're coming into the challenge of where do we plant and unless we actually provide spaces and create spaces, we really don't have the room to plant excessive amounts.”

Last year the Urban Forestry team and City Engineering department were granted a climate levy of $500,000 each. The teams have combined forces to focus their efforts and money on tree planting in underserved communities and low-canopy areas like the Hastings corridor of the Downtown Eastside.

“We have big holes within the city,” explains Morrison. “There's canopy deficiencies and it leads to some of the heat island effects and some of the extreme temperatures that we've seen. The heat dome that occurred in 2021 is a perfect example of some of the problematic situations that we've seen in the past.”

Will it work?

A total of 569 people died in the heat dome in 2021 and the coroner's inquest found there was a significant reduction in mortality of people that were in proximity to trees, says Morrison. Trees act as a beneficial cooling agent; mature trees reduce temperatures at a surface level by providing shade and blocking the sun from concrete structures that retain heat.

Areas like the Downtown Eastside where residents are forced to be outside during extreme weather events need solutions tailored to reduce climatic effects.

“When it comes to the actual heat dome, I think [more trees] will make specific neighbourhood differences,” asserts Morrison. “So planting the small amount of trees that we did isn’t going to necessarily impact climate change, what it's going to do is reduce the impact to local residents at the neighbourhood level.”

Managing director of Climate Resilient Infrastructure at the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, University of Waterloo, Joanna Eyquem, thinks that it’s great that Vancouver is investing in “passive cooling measures.”

“I think when people think about tackling extreme heat sometimes they immediately think about air conditioning, which is called active cooling, but we actually need to do both,” she tells V.I.A. over Zoom. 

The trees will take approximately 10 to 20 years to mature, depending on the species, but Eyquem says, “we need to be planning actions that are short term and long term.” 

Because of the long timelines, Eyquem says we need to start now. She says she is seeing more municipalities treat their trees as assets that need to be actively managed into the long term because they not only reduce extreme heat risk but also provide other health and well-being benefits for people’s quality of life.

Tree planting challenges

The inequitable differences between tree planting in the Downtown Eastside compared to other neighbourhoods in the city such as Shaughnessey or Kitsilano is due to a combination of slow development and soil volume.

Typically the city waits until building development takes place and works with the developers to create new opportunities for tree planting, but, seeing the need that's happening right now with climate change and the need for climate adaptation, the Park Board and Engineering teams preempted the process and began planting earlier than they normally would.

“Development is a challenging thing to balance with trees because they’re both vying for space,” says Morrison, noting soil volume is one of the largest preventing factors for excessive plantings across the city. “If you look at some of the different lot sizes in the Downtown Eastside compared to Shaughnessey or Kitsilano “you see that there's not as much actual room for trees,” he explains.

If you want to support the tree above, you have to have an equivalency or more of soil below the actual tree. And a lot of places on the east side of Vancouver have significantly smaller lot sizes for homes and properties which means that crews either don’t have the ability to support tree planting or have to create it which takes a tremendous amount of time and money.

Of the $1 million levy split between the Park Board Urban Forestry and City Engineering, almost half has been spent on preparing and installing soil, diverting utilities, labour, urban design, and reforming the concrete sidewalks that were torn up to create adequate root space and drainage and only 220 trees were actually planted between the two teams.

Tree planting solutions

“Trees just going in the ground is the small and easy part,” he says, but replacing trees in a highly urbanized area means having to navigate hazards both above and below ground such as trolley lines, hydrants, sewer systems, electrical wires, and gas lines.

The parks board works closely with engineering and utility providers to ensure that planting locations minimize any impact on infrastructure. They also consult staff arborists who make species recommendations based on the area.

For instance, along Hastings, they have planted Parrotia persica because they are less likely to interfere with the trolley bus lines above.

The city is also planting different species of climate-adaptive trees to accommodate the changing and at times extreme environment in Vancouver while also experimenting with technologies to minimize the impact on sidewalks, curbs, and gutter edges.

Permeable moisture from the road and sidewalks are being used to water the trees long-term and there are types of trees that can be planted in areas where there will be drainage issues from dropped leaves (like the ones we saw this fall).

“I think the idea of targeting those kinds of urban hot spots where we have little natural infrastructure at the moment, but also where vulnerable communities live who may have fewer resources to help themselves, is a common theme,” says Eyquem. “It is exactly one of the measures that we put forward in the extreme heat guidance we produced last year and it's great to see people following it.”

But she also suggests that social change is needed. “Maybe alongside green infrastructure, [we could be] changing how we check in on the vulnerable people and how we work as a community…it's not structural, but it can make a real difference to life and death.”

With files from Stefan Labbé

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