Special Report: Urban Forest

Hamilton's Urban Forest Needs Better Protection

Tree planting, naturalization and restoration in the City of Hamilton needs to happen on private land, in a more strategic and better supported way, and in a hurry.

By Giuliana Casimirri
Published February 28, 2014

this article has been updated

 

As Hamilton, Ontario continues to shake off its sooty industrial reputation and build an ambitious city, exciting initiatives around the city are giving life to palpable changes and real hope. However, creating coexistence with our 'green infrastructure' - the trees, urban green spaces, and woodlands within our city boundary - continues to be one of Hamilton's greatest challenges.

Escarpment Trail last autumn (RTH file photo)
Escarpment Trail last autumn (RTH file photo)

On the urban woodland front in particular, we are definitely losing the battle, in large part because we haven't even been putting up a fight.

This article highlights the benefits of our urban forest, some of the history of tree protection by-laws (and attempted by-laws!) in Hamilton and a new urban woodland by-law proposal, and describes Hamilton's forest cover status today and some thoughts on how we might strive to enhance and expand our urban forest.

Hamiltonians should be proud of the provincially significant natural areas and geographical features that they have protected and continue to steward. The Dundas Valley, Cootes Paradise wetland, the expansive Royal Botanical Gardens properties, and the Niagara Escarpment are among some of the area's greatest assets.

But when it comes to remnant urban woodlands located predominantly on private land, these last patches of forest in our increasingly developed matrix are getting smaller, farther apart and fewer in number.

Our urban woodlands provide countless social and health benefits and serve important ecological functions as they control storm water runoff, reduce energy consumption, filter pollutants, store carbon, and provide habitat for local and migrating wildlife.

Importantly for urban dwellers, they sustain human mental and physical health and provide critical 'near nature' spaces for children and adults to connect with and build appreciation for nature. Municipalities across Ontario have recognized the benefits of trees and the urban forest canopy, and as a result have enacted by-laws to regulate tree cutting on private land.

Chedoke Radial Trail last autumn (RTH file photo)
Chedoke Radial Trail last autumn (RTH file photo)

Mish-Mash of By-Laws

So where is Hamilton's by-law? Well, we have a mish-mash of by-laws on the books offering some protection. Unfortunately, none of these offers a comprehensive and cohesive regulatory package to protect trees on private land in all of the City of Hamilton.

We are also lacking any kind of long-term strategy to protect urban woodlands or an overall approach to urban forests.

A comprehensive by-law was proposed in 2009 but never adopted. That proposal would have harmonized pre-amalgamation tree protection regulations and would have provided protection for individual trees and woodlands in both the urban and rural areas of the whole of the City of Hamilton.

It was a solid by-law but it slipped away. At the time, City Councillors seemed to have been sufficiently deterred by development and agricultural stakeholders.

Because very little monitoring of land use change is currently undertaken, there is no data available to know exactly how much urban woodland has been lost or degraded in Hamilton in the absence of a clear by-law. However, in 2012 and 2013, two large woodlands were significantly devastated in Wards 7 and 8 and these cases brought the issue into the news again.

After the privately-owned portion of the Crerar forest on the east mountain was cut, local residents created a website and campaign to draw attention to the issue.

New Draft By-Law

On the recommendation of Council, City staff have developed a new version of a draft by-law, the Woodland Conservation By-Law for Private Property Within the Urban Area (City Wide) (PD02229(d)) [PDF]. It was presented to the Planning Committee on December 3, 2013. You can watch Joey Coleman's recording of the meeting:

As currently drafted, the by-law would require landowners to obtain a free permit from the City before tree removal can occur in urban woodlands. It only applies to trees in woodlands half an acre (0.2 hectares) or larger, within the 'urban' boundary of the City (as defined by the Hamilton Official Plan).

The proposed draft by-law would not apply to individual trees on private property or trees in rural areas. However, in the former municipalities of Ancaster, Dundas, the Region of Hamilton-Wentworth and Stoney Creek, pre-amalgamation by-laws will still apply and in some cases these would protect individual trees and trees in rural areas.

A revised draft by-law and staff report, addressing Councillors' concerns from the December 3 meeting, will be presented to the General Issues Committee in April 2014. The draft by-law will then be brought forward again at Planning Committee to determine if it is ready to go through a public review and comment process.

Broader Urban Forest Context

It is important for Hamilton residents to support this draft by-law, because conserving urban woodlands on private lands contributes to the City of Hamilton's overall urban forest canopy cover and health.

However, in order to understand the necessity and significance of any tree protection by-law, it is critical to understand the broader urban forest context in which it is being applied.

Currently, the City of Hamilton Forestry and Horticultural Section is responsible for trees on public lands (parks, road allowances etc.). The 2008 - 2011 Corporate Strategic Plan for the City of Hamilton identified maintaining or increasing the cumulative amount of tree cover in the City, with the objective of moving toward 30 percent, as a key performance measure or Desired End Result (DER).

This goal follows recommendations established by Environment Canada for the minimum amount of forest cover required to support just the most basic levels of biodiversity.

In other words, if we want any other living things to survive in our city - like common birds, or amphibians, or small mammals, or insects - then we need at a minimum 30 percent forest cover in a region or watershed. The Forestry and Horticulture Section has also set a goal of reaching 35 percent tree canopy cover on public lands in the urban areas of the City by 2030.

Several Challenges

There are several challenges to both the 'maintain or increase total tree cover DER target' in the City's strategic plan and the 35 percent goal set by the Forestry Section.

First, and probably most disheartening, while the City has at least set a forest cover target, there is no concrete plan of action in place outlining just how this target will be reached.

For Hamilton to reach 30 or 35 percent total forest cover, we would need to almost double the total urban forest cover that was last assessed in 2009 at 18.76 percent.

Unfortunately, we have no data about how the current urban forest cover is distributed throughout the City, as the 18.76 percent figure aggregates both private and public lands (including all backyards and commercial properties, and the protected areas of the Escarpment, and some Conservation Authority lands, as well as other public protected forest areas).

Identifying only a total urban forest canopy cover goal does not serve to direct tree planting or urban forest enhancement to land uses or neighbourhoods in the City where canopy cover is lowest and presumably would have greatest health and environmental impacts.

Second, while the Forestry Section has adopted the Environment Canada minimum forest cover target as a goal, this target was intended for a whole watershed or the entire municipality. The Forestry section is only currently mandated with planting or managing trees on public lands within the municipality.

Even if we planted trees on all of the public land available in the urban area, and all those trees grew and we didn't lose any more to ice storms or invasive pests or diseases in the future, there just isn't enough public land available to reach 35 percent forest cover for the municipality as a whole.

Finally, it is also very unlikely that the City of Hamilton Forestry and Horticulture Section will be able to reach the 35 percent goal for urban forest cover on public lands with their current resources and approach.

A recent Spectator article reported that the City currently removes more trees on public lands than it replants.

For example, a Free Street Tree Program, offered for a number of years, plants approximately 6,000 trees each year on public rights-of-way, but in comparison, more than 9,000 trees on public lands were removed in 2013 due to wind and ice storm damage, and on average an additional 1,200 City trees are removed each year due to natural mortality.

The City of Hamilton's urban forest is not alone in facing serious weather and insect stressors but so far we have only been reacting to these stressors rather than proactively planning our urban forest so that it can be more resilient to future stress.

Better Engagement and Collaboration

Given this context, it is clear that if Hamilton is to have any chance of achieving its current urban forest cover goals we need an effective by-law to at least preserve existing trees and forests located on private land.

Long-term sustainability of our urban forest likely requires better interdepartmental collaboration, a broader natural heritage and urban forest monitoring program, and much better engagement and collaboration with the public sector.

Collaboratively developing a comprehensive strategic urban forest plan that lays out clear goals, targets and specific actions for implementation would set Hamilton well on its way to enhance its urban forest and increase the City's overall sustainability.

It is also clear that our urban forest management approach needs to recognize that most of the City's natural heritage and urban forest assets are on private lands and it is ultimately the community (including homeowners, tenants, businesses, schools, institutions, etc.) who will determine the extent to which urban forest targets are achieved.

Let Your Councillor Know

Tree planting, naturalization and restoration in the City of Hamilton needs to happen on private land, in a more strategic and better supported way, and in a hurry.

Far from just being a nice thing to do, scientific research has demonstrated that tree planting in backyards or on other commercial properties, will benefit property values, air quality, energy conservation and overall neighbourhood social and health status and importantly, it is also ecologically significant.

In a dense urban matrix, even small patches of forest, restored habitat and individual trees contribute to the total amount of 'green infrastructure' and this is significant for biodiversity.

Please let your City councillor know that our urban forest is important to our health, our environment and ultimately, our quality of life and that at a minimum, remnant urban woodlands need effective protection.

A draft "Letter to your Councillor" and information on how to contact your councillor are available on the Hamilton Urban Forest Coalition website.

You can also connect with the Hamilton Urban Forest Coalition via our website or follow us on twitter @HamOntUrbForest to find out about upcoming tree planting and naturalization projects and urban forest appreciation tours and monitoring projects we are planning.


Update: This article originally stated that the new draft by-law will be presented to the General Issues Committee on March 19, 2014. However, the presentation has just been delayed until some time in April. You can jump to the changed paragraph.

Giuliana Casimirri, PhD, is an environmental sociologist, intercultural negotiation and community forest researcher, kid and nature connector and organic gardener.

18 Comments

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:40:10

"However, creating coexistence with our 'green infrastructure' - the trees, urban green spaces, and woodlands within our city boundary - continues to be one of Hamilton's greatest challenges."

Really? This is one of Hamilton's greatest challenges? I think the people of this city have more to worry about than planting more trees in a city that is covered in trees. We seem to be "co-existing" with them just fine.

"Green infrastructure"? Please don't equate trees to our real infrastructure such as roads, hydro wires, airports etc. Call it what it is - nature.

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By Yoman (anonymous) | Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:50:25

We definitely need more trees, green roofs, etc. But realize that Hamilton is far from changing its reputation from being steel city. The real problem is that Dafasco effectively owns Hamilton, and when people think of Hamilton, they think evil, flame-throwing, filling the skies with smoke. The pollution spewing out from that factory is what has effectively killed Hamilton's core, literally resulting in increased cancer rates. This is why LRT has not happened for decades. Because the City/ Dafasco don't want to face the pressure to either shut down or clean up their operations that would inevitably come with new residential developments. Too many interests, and big money tends to win.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 28, 2014 at 16:55:19 in reply to Comment 98066

I guess someone should break the news to you that one of the city's official goals is to be a "healthy, safe and green city" and point (h) under that goal is:

"(h) More Trees Please: Council will commit to supporting efforts to make our city green by pursuing an urban forestry strategy."

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 28, 2014 at 16:56:58 in reply to Comment 98067

Your post would have included Stelco pre-bankruptcy, right?

The influence of steel is waning as the money dries up, and someday soon the city will have to face the future.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted February 28, 2014 at 17:32:43 in reply to Comment 98067

The correct spelling is Dofasco. Their product is steel, their strength is people.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted February 28, 2014 at 17:34:33

Just a note of housekeeping. Joey Coleman's recording is incorrectly dated to 2014, I'm assuming it was actually recorded in 2013.

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By Yoman (anonymous) | Posted February 28, 2014 at 21:22:48 in reply to Comment 98079

Wwho cares re spelling. I rote it in sa drunken stuppor.

Us steel and dafisco. All that polluting industry needs to go. Sure creates job but premature death too.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 28, 2014 at 21:23:52 in reply to Comment 98081

That's correct. If you click through to the YouTube page you can see that it was "Streamed live on Dec 3, 2013".

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By Greglenko (registered) - website | Posted March 01, 2014 at 22:10:53

After reading the first several lines I had to stop reading for a GREAT reason and post this reply. While the author of this blog states "creating coexistence with our 'green infrastructure' - the trees, urban green spaces, and woodlands within our city boundary - continues to be one of Hamilton's greatest challenges." Its something that is being tackled with one of Canada's Largest Volunteer Environmental Clean-ups called, The Escarpment Project. While it may be surprising to know that something that large is happening in Hamilton, it's not a surprise that most people haven't heard about it because it started only 3 years ago and grew astronomically in small period of time and continues to grow. Check it out for yourself at www.escarpmentproject.ca

Comment edited by Greglenko on 2014-03-01 22:14:09

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted March 02, 2014 at 03:44:34

Being one with mother nature makes you feel renewed,refreshed. We have lost much of mother earth, as caring for mother earth has not been the priority.People like the capitalist live in a fog,as if making a buck while destroying the natural world should continue.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted March 02, 2014 at 09:47:08 in reply to Comment 98085

Car drivers poison and kill well over 100 people in Hamilton every year. Let us look at the most serious threats first.

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 12:29:32

The greatest asset of living in Hamilton is proximity to conservation/ green areas. Can never lose sight of this. Minimizing sprawl and/or stringent development rules must be a focus or developers will hack it down. (For reference, see 'Ancaster'.)

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By Reflippy (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2014 at 21:07:37

I'm kinda surprised this article didn't even mention the lands that just got ploughed over near Felker's Falls just at the start of this winter. 5 square km of mixed open fields and urban forest, the last known breeding location in urban lands in Hamilton of the Ring-necked Pheasant and who knows what else. (can't post an URL as reference, but google "Goodbye Pheasants and Felker's Falls as we knew it.")

We've got all kinds of lands throughout the city begging for adaptive reuse that already was clear-cut ages ago. I don't know why it's even legal to clear urban forest at all right now.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 04, 2014 at 07:14:22 in reply to Comment 98164

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By gcasimirri (registered) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 14:56:53 in reply to Comment 98075

NB: The City of Hamilton's original Strategic Plan had listed developing an Urban Forest Strategy as a goal in 2007. No further mention of an Urban Forest Strategy is found in any subsequent plans or reporting on strategic plan implementation.

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By Really (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 15:54:16 in reply to Comment 98116

The suicide rate is double the rate of deaths by auto in Hamilton according to Public Health. Isn't that a more serious threat?

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted May 29, 2014 at 16:17:19 in reply to Comment 101795

But is Hamilton's suicide rate disproportionate to the rest of the province? Are the obvious, well-documented low-hanging fruits that improve the suicide rate and can be implemented at the municipal level?

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By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted May 29, 2014 at 17:08:14 in reply to Comment 101796

Ontario has among the safest roads in North America.

In 2010, there were 0.63 road fatalities per 10,000 licensed drivers. This was the second lowest rate in North America, and marks the 12th consecutive year that Ontario has had the lowest or second-lowest fatality rate among all jurisdictions in North America.

The number of licensed drivers on our roads increased by more than 143,000 to over 9.2 million in 2010, an increase of 1.6 per cent from 2009.

The number of registered vehicles also increased by nearly 123,000 to over 8.5 million in 2010, an increase of 1.5 per cent.

There has been a long-term decrease in the number of drinking and driving fatalities: a 63.6 per cent decline since 1988.

Recent efforts to reduce fatalities from speed-related collisions in Ontario have resulted in a 23 per cent reduction, from 113 in 2009 to 87 in 2010.

If Hamilton is like the Provincial norm, the vast majority of adult Hamilton resident are licensed drivers and own cars. They are already the best of the best. Are you saying they are the low hanging fruit? You want to significantly alter their behavior because you think you can, because you think it will have a real and significant impact on health or because you have some other agenda?

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