Despite its many benefits, little community or municipal effort has gone into ensuring that Hamilton's urban forest, as a whole, is protected, enhanced, and appreciated into the future.
By Giuliana Casimirri
Published September 22, 2014
Hamilton is fortunate to retain significant patches of forest and natural areas within its urban boundary. Combine these areas with Hamilton's tree-lined streets and parks and trees on private property and you are looking at what constitutes our 'urban forest'.
Crerar forest, a 4 hectare city-owned woodlot on the mountain
Our urban forest is part of Hamilton's charm and we use and appreciate these areas for recreation, fitness, solitude, and nature connection. We also value our urban trees and woodlands for the shade, privacy, air quality improvements, and noise buffering they provide.
There is also growing recognition that our urban forests are critical stopover sites for migratory birds, repositories of our increasingly threatened biodiversity, sources of native plant seeds for restoration purposes and the filters and buffers for our creeks and watershed.
Unfortunately, despite this natural richness and its varied benefits, little community or municipal effort has gone into ensuring that Hamilton's urban forest, as a whole, is protected, enhanced, and appreciated into the future.
McMaster forest, a 115 hectare woodland bordering Dundas, Ancaster and West Hamilton (RTH file photo)
The Hamilton Naturalists' Club has played a role since its inception in 1919, in urban forest protection, inventory and education, but using the term 'urban forest' to describe Hamilton's natural areas is relatively new.
In May of this year, with the help of a Metcalf Foundation Sustainability Internship, the HNC launched the Urban Forest Project, to engage citizens in the implementation of urban forest and green space enhancement, assessment and protection initiatives.
The project also aims to build support and enhance collaboration among various community partners for the eventual development of an Urban Forest Strategic Plan.
The term 'urban forest' is a useful catchall term to describe all the trees in a city, including trees and forests on public and private land and natural or planted trees.
Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail, Dundas Valley Conservation Area (RTH file photo)
'Urban forest' is increasingly used in the context of municipal planning because it conveys that our urban trees and forests on public and private land are a significant part of a city or region's urban infrastructure and require investment, planning and management - just like roads, sidewalks or park facilities.
Many municipalities are realizing that investment in our urban forest, as TD Bank's Chief Economist recently described it, is "an investment in the economic and environmental well-being of the city".
While a city's urban forest benefits accrue to all its citizens, our urban forest spans various types of property uses and most urban forest is contained in private ownership. This means that urban forest protection, stewardship and management requires collaboration among various municipal departments and also citizen engagement and education.
Urban forest stewardship also requires a long-term visionary approach because trees planted today won't form part of the urban forest canopy for many years and pressures and demands on urban forests are numerous.
Finally, urban forest management should be strategic and goals should be achievable and priorities clear because resources are limited, and implementation requires both political and community by in and support.
Most municipalities have responded to these challenges by developing long-term urban forest management plans with a series of strategic goals, implementation targets and supporting education, planting and protection policies and programs.
The HNC recently collaborated with GIS staff at the City of Hamilton to better understand Hamilton's urban forest distribution across different land uses. While much more data sharing and analysis is required to develop the best approach for urban forest management, the analysis produced some interesting insights about the status of Hamilton's urban forest.
In 2009 the urban forest canopy cover was assessed across the whole urban area (designated within the City's Urban Official Plan) at 18.76 percent - an estimated 811,036 trees or 4325.06 hectares.
The recent GIS analysis we conducted filtered contiguous patches that are 0.5 acres (0.2 ha) or greater from this urban forest canopy cover data and also identified their land uses.
A 0.5 acre or greater urban canopy cover patch size was selected because it corresponds to the smallest size of woodland which can be regulated under the Municipal Act, and to which the recently adopted 'City of Hamilton Urban Woodland Conservation Bylaw' applies.
However, it is important to note that the map presents areas of contiguous canopy cover as they were extracted from aerial photography and much of this canopy cover would not meet the definition of a 'woodland' used in the Municipal Act and Hamilton's various tree and protection bylaws.
While it is difficult to compare Hamilton's urban forest cover to other jurisdictions because there are different geographies, boundaries, and methodologies, it is safe to conclude that 18.76 percent is low.
Recent urban forest canopy cover assessments in several neighbouring municipalities are higher: 23 percent in Burlington, 28 percent in Toronto and 29 percent in Oakville.
Hamilton's urban forest cover is also far off of the City's 2008 - 2011 Corporate Strategic Plan target of increasing the cumulative amount of tree cover in the City towards 30 percent. Environment Canada first recommended in 1998 that a minimum of 30 percent forest cover was required in a region or watershed to support basic levels of biodiversity.
Urban forest canopy cover in Hamilton
The map identifies Hamilton's urban forest canopy cover in patches 0.5 acres or greater in royal blue. The parcel of land that these patches are contained within is also shown and colour-coded to distinguish different land uses.
For example, areas in dark green identify parks, golf courses, and HRCA lands, while light green includes vacant lands such as stormwater retention ponds and other vacant lands, e.g. industrial, residential or commercial lands which may be under development now.
The analysis demonstrates that most of our urban forest canopy cover in patches 0.5 acres or greater is unevenly distributed across different land uses within the urban area.
Approximately, 40 percent of our urban forest cover patches 0.5 acres or greater are contained in our City parks, golf courses, and HRCA and Escarpment lands.
To be sure, it is a good thing that we have these important forest patches and they have some protection under current institutions and policies. However, our uneven distribution of urban forest canopy cover demonstrates that we are almost completely dependent on only a few areas to continue to provide all the urban forest benefits and values that make Hamilton a great place to live.
The likelihood of reaching our urban forest goals without expanding and protecting urban forests beyond these areas is highly questionable.
Clearly, we need to encourage continued protection and stewardship of these areas but also strategic planting or natural land acquisition, so that our urban forest canopy cover is enhanced in other suitable areas.
The analysis also revealed that 27 percent of our urban forest canopy cover in patches 0.5 acres or greater is in a residential land designation. It is significant that roughly one-third of the current 18.76 percent urban forest cover is privately-owned.
Urban forest stewardship thus requires both well-designed regulations that balance public urban forest values and private landowner interests and also education, awareness and financial support to encourage private tree-planting and stewardship.
Research has demonstrated that the collective environmental benefits and cost savings of tree planting on private and public lands far outweigh the costs of tree planting and stewardship investments. There is a clear gap in Hamilton related to programs aimed at supporting private landowners to enhance and protect our urban forest.
This brief picture of Hamilton's urban forest highlights the need for increased collaboration, inventory, and strategic planning. To this end, the HNC and Trees for Hamilton are hosting an urban forest strategy session with municipal planning staff, forestry department staff, HRCA staff, and other community groups engaged in tree planting and stewardship, at the end of this month.
We hope that an outcome of this meeting will be a review of current knowledge and data related to Hamilton's urban forest status, and a renewed commitment to reaching a strategic canopy cover target and an implementation plan to get there.
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