Protecting Urban Trees during construction

My first house was on Booth Street. It was a new townhouse in 1980, built by RJ Nicol. At the curb line was a very large street tree. I selected the my house in part because of the large tree in front. During construction, the approved plans called for its protection by wrapping the trunk in snow fence. The water main trench was cut out to the street a foot or so to one side of the tree. The sewer cut on the other side. Then the gas company came along and when they reached the tree, dug a hole on either side of it and drilled under it to insert the gas line.

The tree died, and was removed within a few months. After much lobbying, I got a new oak tree planted at the end of my driveway, which thrives there today, the only oak along the street.

 The City’s new tree protection policy always struck me as toothless, a “feel-good” by-law that imposes bureaucratic steps and permits and fees, but doesn’t really do any good. There is a story in the Citizen demonstrating that not much has changed:

Compare that to what I recently saw in Toronto-the-good:

The signs are posted on four sides of the tree. Every construction worker has to see it. It has a phone number for workers, or members of the public, to call for more information or report improper activities. Of course, it also has some bureaucratic jargon (“TPZ”) and cutesy phone number. 

It also doesn’t specifically forbid someone cutting a trench through the site provided they backfill to the original level. It would be better to cover off that eventuality specifically. And also cutting back the tree canopy and branches. And even better would be the requirement that trenches nearby be backfilled with structural soil, which would actually encourage tree recovery after construction.

In the Toronto case, note that the TPZ extends around the tree:

Tree lovers in Ottawa can look at these pictures of what could and should be done and weep:

Once you have overcome your sadness about what Ottawa could do, but doesn’t, copy the address of this blog post and email it to your Councillor.

Ottawa needs to know that other municipalities acting in the same legal framework as Ottawa are doing better. Some bureaucrat could show initiative and phone Toronto to get their policy paper. And Councillors and residents must know what the rules are, keeping in mind that any “minimum” standards the city elects to have will immediately become the “maximums” and the “mandatory procedure” imposed on construction crews. So if we want a minimum of six feet protected around the tree, future cuts will be directed to be six feet away from the trunk (not 8, not 10, not 20…).

And I don’t think we need to have a huge inspection staff. There are tree lovers everywhere. Post the signs with the “hotline” number and neighbours and community-minded people everywhere will be calling to report infractions.

We can and must do better.


PS: I love that the Toronto sign forbids storage of materials on the tree roots. We saw construction of the GT-360 fibre  optic cable ducts down Albert Street a dozen years ago. As they got west of Albert, the contractors stored all their heavy equipment up close to the base of a giant Elm tree on the NCC property between Albert and Slater. One Saturday, I saw a heavy equipment operator changing the oil and some mysterious white fluid from the engine of a large tractor. He drained both out onto the surrounding soil and grass. That summer, the left side of the tree where the vehicle was parked, died. Then the whole tree sort of dried up, and was chopped down. Once again, I don’t think a City inspector would have happened on the site at just the right moment, but I did. And so might other Citizens. With a convenient number to call, the City can crowd-source much of its enforcement.

6 thoughts on “Protecting Urban Trees during construction

  1. Sad that your blog is banned at City Hall! They need to read this.

    Especially sad is that Toronto’s example contrasts so sharply with the case in the Ottawa Citizen. It’s a sorry state of affairs even when the City of Ottawa is actually *trying* to protect an urban tree and the rules are *relatively* clear (if less than effective). Even worse when you’re trying to get them to lift a finger to protect a tree the Urban Tree Conservation Policy and By-law defines as “Distinctive” as we were trying to do with the 160-180 year old Oak tree at 115 Northwestern (may it rest in firewood).

    The punchline rings true: we can and must do better!

  2. I’ll do as instructed and send this post to my councillor but I am not holding my breath for an answer. I can’t even get an Acknowledgement from his Staff on the email I sent with my own blog entry about the disgraceful path in Centrepointe Park, never mind any action on the path. However, this reminds me to do an updated photo, showing how the path at one point continues to sink and crumble under the weight of the maintenance vehicles.

  3. Hi Eric,
    It’s Geoffrey Hall from Councillor Katherine Hobbs’ office – I managed to get your blog un-blocked in our office! Just thought I woud jump in here as this has been something the Councillor has been working on with city staff – especially after the debacle at 115 Northwestern than Dennis noted.

    The loss of trees from infill development in particular came up as part of the City’s study on small-scale infill housing, and the staff working on that report (due in September), have been in touch with people in Toronto and Calgary in particular, both cities with strong tree protection, as you noted above. I saw the Toronto ones in action while I was in Toronto in April, and they definitely appeared to be working.

    The basic idea coming forward is to require applications for building permits to show where the trees on the property are, and which are “distinctive” so that the Urban Tree Conservation By-Law can be enforced BEFORE the builder has permission to build, which often forces the hand of the Forestry department.

    Anyway, great post, and glad you’ve brought this better way to the public’s attention.

  4. Received separately from Councillor McRae:
    “This is excellent info. The addition of signage is a terrific way to ensure that everyone working on-site knows about the protection that is required”

  5. Here are the comments from Rich Chiarelli’s office, (made in response to Julia R, a reader, who forwarded my post to her councillor) which note that the Ottawa by-law has all the provisions to do what the Toronto TPZ does. However, I have not (yet) seen any similar posting or fencing “in action”, have you?:
    “As you are aware, Ottawa passed the Urban Tree Conservation By-law No. 2009-200. I would like to draw your attention to Schedule A section 10 which states: Outline the protection measures during construction for trees and woodlands being retained that may be impacted by the construction. Where feasible, show that efforts will be made to protect trees on adjacent property that may be impacted by the construction. Use the following protection measures for retained trees:· erect a fence at the critical root zone3 (CRZ) of trees;· do not place any material or equipment within the CRZ of the tree;· do not attach any signs, notices or posters to any tree;· do not raise or lower the existing grade within the CRZ without approval;· tunnel or bore when digging within the CRZ of a tree;· do not damage the root system, trunk or branches of any tree;· ensure that exhaust fumes from all equipment are NOT directed towards any tree’s canopy.”

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