Special Report: Urban Forest

Hamilton's Urban Forest: What is it and How is it Doing?

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
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.

Little Effort to Protect Urban Forest

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)
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. 

Economic and Environmental Well-Being

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)
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.

Status of Hamilton's Urban Forest

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.

Low Forest Cover

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
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.

Uneven Distribution of Forest Cover

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.

Urban Forest Strategy Session

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.

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


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By Steve (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 11:39:53

Thank-you for this article, I enjoyed it immensely. I think our 'urban forest' is critical to the live-ability of our city and hope that we continue to invest in its long-term benefit, particularly on city our streets.

We have two ~100 year old trees on our small property (30' x 100'), we view them as an asset to our property and our neighbourhood (even with roots in our sewer pipe). We sit out in under the shade of the trees all summer long and live without air conditioning (easy this summer, not so much others) as the tree's shade help keep our home at least a little cooler.

We love our urban forest and our little oasis, even with the 25 leaf bags we bought this past weekend as preparation for the inevitable fall ritual of raking.

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By Don't forget the Dundas Valley (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 12:57:19

After just a quick observation of the map shown above, isn't the Dundas Valley Conservation Area excluded from the calculations?

They are controlled by the Hamilton Region Conservation Authority, and have an area of 12km2, or 1,200ha. If you add that to the 4325.06 mentioned above, you realize a total forest cover area of 5525ha, or a pretty respectable 24% forest cover based on 23,054ha in the Hamilton area.

While there is always room for improvement, upon initial investigation, it doesn't look like we're doing as poorly as we are being portrayed.

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By Simon Ward 3 (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 13:28:33

Tree canopy is an important part of any city.
I have contributed to Toronto's canopy as part of my job as a landscaper.
There any tree over 12 inches wide at chest height is automatically protected, even in your back yard. Permits to fell trees can be obtained, after inspection, and they will tell you how many trees you must plant (from their approved list). Eg.I had to plant 5 large nursery trees to replace 1 mature tree.
Also any large building work requires Tree Protection Zones to stop the builders damaging existing trees.
And I have had random street trees planted into clients front gardens to help the city reach its canopy targets.
All of these things are good initiatives, none of which Hamilton have.
On my street in ward 3,of the 7 trees 4 are 'weed trees'-non natives that produce 1000's of seeds that start trees as weeds all over the place. Many streets here have few or no trees.
The backyards and lane way only has weed trees with more every year.
You only have to look at the city on google earth to see the direct correlation between tree canopy and the wealthier/ desirable neighborhoods. The reasons for this are less important than the remedy.
We need community lead tree planting schemes and the city needs to maintain them. And not just to butcher them to clear hydro lines.

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By gcasimirri (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 14:15:47 in reply to Comment 104688

Yes, only the portions of the Dundas Valley and HRCA property that are within the urban area of Hamilton (as defined by our Hamilton Urban Official Plan) are included in the above mapping and calculations. The 2009 Urban Forest Cover study, from which our analysis was derived, only assessed forest canopy cover within the 'urban area'. No similar study of forest canopy cover has been conducted in the other parts of Hamilton (i.e. those which fall under the Rural Official Plan). Therefore, there is no data available to assess forest canopy cover in the whole of the City of Hamilton.

The Dundas Valley surely contributes significantly to our City's forest cover and ecological diversity but without a photogrammetric analysis of forest cover within the rural area we don't know how much. HRCA property size (ha) is useful to realize the significance of these areas to Hamilton in general but it cannot be used as a proxy for forest canopy cover data because the HRCA lands are not uniformly forested (although they may still contain important natural features and other habitats). Portions of HRCA lands are within the urban area and were assessed within the 2009 Urban Forest Cover study, so by adding HRCA total hectares to the 2009 estimated total hectares covered by forest cover, we are essentially counting some portion of the HRCA lands twice.

My intention with the article was not to portray a poor picture of Hamilton's record of natural area conservation or an overall bleak picture of our urban forest. However, the analysis (based on the latest and only available data we have) of forest canopy cover in our 'urban' area is what it is...18.79% with most of it contained in Escarpment lands, City parks, golf courses and HRCA lands. I think my point about the need for strategic planning to expand, enhance and build appreciation of our urban forest still rings true even if we were to factor in our extensive HRCA lands outside the urban area. Without a strategic plan in place for our urban forest, we are like a boat without a rudder, we may still float but we haven't got any clue where we will end up!

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 14:42:16 in reply to Comment 104690

well said. Here is some further info from last year with links to urban heat island and tree canopy comparisons:


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By ddaearegydd (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 09:58:42

Great article, but doesn't mention the toll the Ash Borer is taking on our urban canopy. Things might get worse before they get better.

There are many studies showing positive links between access to "green space" and self-rated happiness. And that doesn't even touch on factors such as air pollution reduction. The more native urban trees we can get, the merrier!

It also offers a totally different approach to wildlife conservation - instead of setting up remote wildlife reserves, we can naturalize our cities and bring the wildlife to us.

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By Hamilton tree (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 11:56:05

This is not a new issue and it is politics that are killing our trees.

For years our cover has been undersized and unprotected.

Our tree maintenance is behind by years and has really just become a chainsaw care program where trees are cut when ill or inconvenient.

An attempt was made over 4 years to create a tree protection bylaw citywide but it was crushed by councilors at the bidding of developers led by the president of the Home Builders Association. I know I was there pity I and another were the only ones there speaking for the trees. I even came to criticize it but defended it because everyone else wanted it gone.

There is some protection in the amalgamated areas as they had pre-existing bylaws but not for Hamilton proper.

Additionally it is because trees have no net worth unless cut. This must change. People are too quick along with developers to cut trees and at best simply say they will "replace" them with others elsewhere.

It doesn't work that way. It takes years of growth to make a tree and minutes to kill one.

They are far more valuable alive but Hamilton does not yet see them this way. Again and again trees are "replaced" with young stunted little things that often do not survive.

Yet they make the air we breath provide shade and a multitude of other benefits for those who are only self-interested. But policy has to reflect this or people will never see the true value of a tree.

The ash borer is relatively new and the knee-jerk response to hack and slash our canopy just because they might possibly at some point hit an area is not helping. But it is having an undeniable effect, we just cannot blame a lot of the situation on this latest insect incursion.

Is we were to truly count the full extent of the local green spaces then we would need to up the minimum as conservation areas etc do not make up for absent trees elsewhere. Further because we have the escarpment and all those trees which make up so much of our canopy yet cannot supply the needed benefits in other treeless areas. We should have a higher canopy than is needed due to this richness but we are failing miserably.

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By Ariel Gordon (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 13:01:38

Thanks so much for this...

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 15:39:55

Hamilton is covered with trees and green space. Nothing to see here. Just another environment sociologist (whatever that is) making a story out of nothing to support an agenda.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 23, 2014 at 15:52:08 in reply to Comment 104769

Some parts are, some parts aren't. Even if you think the author is overstating it, I think it's worth noting the lack of greenery in the east end.

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By Crumudgeon (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 16:26:54

Not to be too much of a curmudgeon but this opinion piece is from the NYT of Sunday. nytimes.com/2014/09/20/opinion/to-save-the-planet-dont-plant-trees.html?_r=0

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By Chris Angel (registered) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 16:31:43 in reply to Comment 104769

Not so much, especially in areas of recent development. If there were enough trees and green space we would have less flooding and improved air quality. I think the only agenda I have seen in this article and it's responses is a selfless one which seeks to improve the city as a whole. Don't be afraid no one is proposing we bring in boatloads of mature trees and spare no expense to plant them. A well planned planting and maintenance program would make this city far more attractive and healthier. If a few dusty, treeless, brown grass soccer pitches do it for you well then enjoy the view. But watch how it becomes a lake when it rains then post how all is right and there is "nothing to see here"

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By Jmons (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2014 at 16:44:56 in reply to Comment 104696

Just for clarity, Conservation Halton's acronym is HRCA, Hamilton's is HCA. It can get a little confusing considering both conservation authorities have jurisdiction over Hamilton harbour.

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By gcasimirri (registered) | Posted September 24, 2014 at 11:56:50 in reply to Comment 104772

More on the NYTimes op-ed by N. Unger here: http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/09/2...

Comment edited by gcasimirri on 2014-09-24 11:57:48

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By anon (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 06:25:01

Great article. My concern is that the 'free' tree planting program offered by the city has many if not most non-indigenous trees on it.
Any comments?

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By alamanes (registered) - website | Posted September 29, 2014 at 15:28:27

Hi everyone - thanks for this article. I just wanted to point readers to the Urban Woodland By-law on the City of Hamilton website for further information: http://www.hamilton.ca/NR/rdonlyres/DE3B...

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