It’s not easy being a tree in the big city.
Especially if that city is Montreal.
While all urban trees are subject to an undue amount of strife brought on by pollution, the weight of automobiles and people crushing their roots, and the indignities of human contact that include too much handling and bike locks damaging their bark, Montreal’s trees are also victim to two particularly noxious threats: snowplows, which break their skin, and salt, which poisons their circulatory systems.
Saplings are raised for about 10 years in a nursery before they’re considered ready to tackle the pressures of city life, at which point they’re typically shoehorned into a too-small plot of earth in the sidewalk wholly unsuited to a healthy upbringing. The result is the majority of trees downtown or on busy thoroughfares are young, spindly and doomed, more reminiscent of a Charlie Brown Christmas than the shade-bearing guardians that elevate the grand urban boulevards of cities like Paris, Barcelona, Washington and Chicago.
It costs anywhere between $1,000 and $6,750 to grow, transport and plant one tree, and the city replants thousands a year. Beyond the air-purifying and oxygen-creating benefits of trees, the presence of a healthy green canopy has been shown to improve the physical and mental health of residents, increase property values and entice people to purchase more at shops.
Harsh conditions, negligence and a lack of political will on the part of the city are largely to blame for the dearth of healthy downtown trees, observers say. Geoffrey Little, a Plateau resident who walks daily to his job as a librarian at Concordia University downtown, started noticing a few years ago many of the city’s street trees were dead, damaged or severely stunted.
“Dead trees were seemingly left in place for a long time, and their replacements didn’t appear to be too securely planted, nor did they seem to have ideal conditions to thrive,” he wrote in an email to the Montreal Gazette. “Many mature trees also bore the signs of damage from snowplows.”
Little sent a letter to every councillor in Ville Marie last February, and to Denis Coderre, who is mayor of both Montreal and the borough. After two months with no response from anyone, he called the mayor’s office twice. Finally, a spokesperson sent a detailed note in late April outlining the many difficulties involved in nurturing downtown trees.
Skeptical about the city’s will or intent to improve its track record, Little created a Twitter account, Montreal Deadwood — @MTLDeadwood — (“Documenting dead, absent, and distressed trees in Montreal’s urban forest. Bark worse than bite”) to generate interest and hopefully shame the city into action. The fledgling site posts dozens of pictures of dead, dying or neglected trees downtown, as well as many spots where the previous tenants have died but have never been replaced.
“(Trees) are community assets that belong to all Montrealers,” Little said. “We should value them like we do other infrastructure like water and transportation. Montreal is a beautiful city, but the lack of trees in many parts of our city centre is a significant embarrassment.”
It’s been 16 years since the city published an ambitious 30-page Montreal tree strategy. It notes one of the reasons Europeans founded the city was because they were seduced by the island’s multitude and variety of trees. Today, Montreal has roughly 1.2 million trees, 265,000 of which are street trees, with a total estimated worth of $1.2 billion. The tree strategy noted, however, that Montreal lacked an overall inventory and plan to protect its assets, particularly those in high-traffic areas downtown.
It proposed rigorous maintenance programs for trees new and old, stricter rules to protect trees from negligent contractors and overzealous snow clearers, and more money to plant more trees. But the words do not appear to have been followed by actions.
“The city did a really beautiful urban tree policy plan in 2005, wrote out all they were doing wrong,” and suggested concrete fixes, Lovato said. “But as far as I know, (the plan) hasn’t been widely implemented.”
Intentions are good, but conditions difficult, said José Pierre, director of the parks and horticulture division for the Ville Marie borough. He holds a stack of photos showing trees with gaping, snowplow-inflicted wounds that impede the tree’s circulation and usher in disease, trees with root systems cut in half or branches lopped off by contractors, vandalized trees.
The main factor influencing a tree’s survival is the amount of soil available for the root system, Pierre said. The norm for the amount of space reserved beneath sidewalks for trees has gone from two cubic metres to five, and the borough is pushing to go as high as 10 cubic metres so roots have a place to grow. Numerous trees towering four storeys or more downtown testify to the fact it’s possible given the right conditions.
But in most cases, the soil and roots have to fight for space with the reams of infrastructure packed beneath a city sidewalk – gas, cable and phone lines, electric wiring, sewage and water pipes. Gravel and concrete hem it in on all sides, and there is the weight of sidewalks, which need a mix of 80 per cent gravel and only 20 per cent soil to support the load, a bad mix for trees.
A copious amount of salt is needed to keep the downtown core’s heavily trafficked sidewalks clear of ice, and it piles up in the planting ditches surrounding the trees, creating a cumulative toxic effect.
And the scrapes inflicted by snow-clearing machines can inflict mortal wounds. The nature of Montreal’s environment means it can only plant the hardiest, most salt-resistant trees downtown, such as honey locusts and black locusts, red oaks, ginkgo bilobas, elms, white and green ash trees or the Kentucky coffeetree. A lack of diversity can be a tree population’s worst enemies, as Dutch elm disease showed a generation ago, and the emerald ash borer beetle reminds us now.
Municipal bylaws call for the protection of trees at construction sites, but the onus is on the city to prove the contractor inflicted damage, which can be tricky. With fines at $500 a tree, to a maximum of $5,000, the developers of million-dollar sites often ignore regulations.
“We go down and tell them to protect the trees, cover them in wood, and they say, ‘yes, yes, they will,’ but then you come back a few days later and nothing has been done,” notes Benoît Lepage, a horticulturalist and arborist employed by the Ville Marie borough.
At the historic Mount Stephen Club on Drummond St., none of the small trees in front has been protected from the cranes and excavators working inches away, even though the project has received heavy media attention because construction work damaged the building, and has been going on for months. One of the trees bears significant scars.
“For sure, it’s a bit frustrating sometimes,” Pierre said. “But we do not get discouraged because we’re working on different projects that should allow us to grow quality, mature trees.”
The borough is increasing the number of trees it plants annually from 300 a year to 900, Pierre said, with 500 slated to be planted this year.
Thick metal grills with a raised collar that protects soil from compaction and trees from snowplows are being tested on de Maisonneuve St., to good effect. But at a staggering cost of $3,000 to $5,750 each, the grills are not a cheap fix.
There are efforts to water the trees more often, and a pilot project involving creating larger soil trenches has been started on Papineau Ave. A concrete slab is placed over the trench like a bridge, so that it does not crush the soil. With Ste-Catherine St. scheduled for major renovations in coming years, there’s hope trees will get sufficient soil space so the city’s signature avenue can one day have a proper tree canopy.
But the parks department needs approval from the city’s engineering department first, which is concerned the concrete slabs might not withstand the weight of specialized vehicles. The death of a window-washer in downtown Montreal after the crane truck he was working on tipped over last April demonstrates the need for stable surfaces. But it also means that providing large enough soil trenches may be a long time off. The city, notes Lepage, is a very large machine, and things don’t always move quickly.
In response to complaints the borough of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve has been lagging for years in replanting its street trees (one opposition councillor estimates the number of trees that have died and not been replaced at 1,500) borough mayor Réal Ménard told 24 Heures newspaper the city has been preoccupied with its war on the emerald ash borer.
To speed replanting, the borough has focused on replanting trees in parks and on private property. Ménard, who is also the city’s executive committee member responsible for the environment and sustainable development, said 500 street trees will be planted this year in the borough, which has been the hardest hit by the ash borer beetle, losing 924 trees last year. The city of Montreal had to cut down 8,698 ash trees between 2012 and 2015. Before replanting, the borough had to hire a contractor to remove 600 stumps.
“When we’re working on rebuilding a sidewalk, whenever possible we are looking into increasing the soil space for trees,” he told the Montreal Gazette. “But it is a considerable challenge.”
Just replanting, however, is not enough, warns McGill’s Lovat. City guidelines and contracts with the companies that plant the trees must guarantee they’re carefully monitored for the first three to four years, when a new tree is expanding its root system and at its most vulnerable. Proper soil with fertilizer and some mycorrhizal fungi that helps roots absorb nutrients would vastly improve the trees’ survival rate. Trees can be easily fertilized when workers are watering them.
“Once they have a well-established root system, they are very hardy and will survive pretty much anything except direct damage to the trunk,” Lovat said. Snowplow operators also have to be held accountable, and better protection is needed around trees.
Trees, notes Lovat, are a necessity, not a luxury, for the well-being of a city and its residents. Winnipeg, which is not a wealthy metropolis, has among the best tree-protection policies in Canada, proving Montreal can do the same.
“When you go to a city like New York, parts of it are just depressing as heck, just steel and cement,” Lovat said. “So, even though trees have a bit more of an intangible valuation compared to putting a bronze statue in a city, I think they are irreplaceable in the urban landscape.”
So, why do we need trees, anyway? Well….
There are many reasons to promote the growth of large, healthy trees in a city, ranging from the mental and physical health of residents to energy savings for homeowners and increased property values
Trees are air purifiers and oxygen suppliers: a large, healthy tree absorbs roughly 2.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide a year, and removes fine particulate matter from the air that exacerbate breathing problems. They intercept dust, ash, pollen and smoke. A 2014 study published in Environmental Pollution found that in 2010, trees absorbed 17 tonnes of air pollution, preventing the deaths of 850 people and 670,000 cases of acute respiratory symptoms in the United States.
Deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory illness increased in the United States after the emerald ash borer decimated trees in the American midwest. One study of 15 states between 1990 and 2007 linked the ash borer to more than 21,000 deaths.
A mature tree can supply the daily oxygen needs of four people.
The presence of a tree near homes can reduce air conditioning needs by up to 30 per cent.
Trees reduce city temperatures by soaking in solar radiation, shading heat-absorbing concrete, asphalt and buildings, and reducing the effect of heat islands.
A mature tree can suck 450 litres of water from the soil, to then release it into the air as water vapour, cooling the ambient air around it.
The presence of trees increases the value of a residential property by three to seven per cent, some studies have found. Trees provide privacy to urban dwellers, lending a sense of intimacy in crowded conditions, and a home to urban wildlife. They can also boost rental rates in office buildings.
Four national studies of the benefits of trees in business districts found that shoppers were willing to pay nine to 12 per cent more for products in areas with large tree canopies. Consumers ranked their interactions with merchants and their perception of the quality of products more highly as well.
Trees absorb noise and odours. They absorb water during rainstorms, easing the pressures on Montreal’s sewage system, which sends raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River several times a year when rainfalls overload its capacity.
They beautify the environment and reduces stress, which encourages greater socialization, further diminishing stress. Studies have linked the planting of trees to a decrease in neighbourhood criminality.
Trees break up the monochromatic architecture of a city of bricks and concrete, giving a diversity of forms that accentuate structural lines and enhance the appreciation of a space.
Workers with a view of nature reported less frustration, fewer medical ailments, greater patience and overall job satisfaction.
Residents in low-income neighbourhoods in Chicago with greater tree coverage reported lower levels of fear, less violent and aggressive behaviour, better neighbour relationships and a drop in crime.
Sources: Trees Canada; U.S. Forest service; City of Montreal; Nature-Action Québec; Pierre Jutras, City of Montreal; The Atlantic; University of Kentucky; Kathleen L. Wolf, University of Washington