Getting Ahead of Canopy Loss in the City in the Forest
By Christina Gibson, Trees Atlanta
Many Atlantans are alarmed by the rapid loss of trees in town these days. Buzzwords like ‘good urbanism,’ ‘high density,’ and ‘sustainability’ pepper many conversations and marketing materials about new development in Atlanta, but our urban forest—and our corresponding civic identity as the ‘City in the Forest’—suffers from rampant tree loss. This current reality begs the old adage: are we literally missing the forest for the trees?
The question is simple: how is Atlanta going to grow WITH its trees? We have the chance to write that narrative now, while we have remnant greenspace to work with from the side effects of urban sprawl. Solutions must be sought through more innovative design and holistic development on the site scale, as well as progressive environmental policies and land use planning at the regional scale. Trees Atlanta will continue planting trees everywhere we can, but we simply cannot keep pace to mitigate our dwindling tree canopy without working together to actively protect our existing forest, too. We simply must do both.
Attending NPU (neighborhood planning unit) and civic association meetings can be a good place to start to learn about new projects coming up in your part of town. At this level of planning, developers often present conceptual plans to the neighborhood, especially when seeking a zoning change or variance; this can be an effective stage for citizens to get involved, educate each other, and speak for the trees.
But let’s also consider some bold ideas to get ahead of this canopy loss pattern.
One possibility would be tree conservation overlay districts, especially for our residential neighborhoods where 77% of the city’s trees are located. This may sound familiar if you have attended any of the Atlanta City Design public presentations by Ryan Gravel. A major pattern emerging from that visioning process is the stark distinction between our leafy-green, characteristic in-town neighborhoods, versus the major thoroughfares, where density, new development and transit options make sense. As an example, Washington, D.C. has Tree and Slope Overlays that safeguard trees and soils in three heavily forested, hilly neighborhoods in Northwest D.C. They have also adopted a zoning regulation called the Green Area Ratio that lessens the environmental impact of intensive urban development. Any new construction that requires a certificate of occupancy must meet certain ecological design standards, measured by a scoring system that reflects a variety of green elements, including trees, vegetated roofs, and bio-retention of stormwater. Seattle, Washington uses a similar scoring system in their code, called the Green Factor, which requires increased quantity and quality of urban landscaping in certain parts of the city. The score worksheet awards points for elements like native plants, vegetated walls, soil depth, food cultivation, and—for the highest score factor of them all—preservation of existing mature trees.
What if the cost of tree removal more accurately reflected the services it provides for our communities and savings on public infrastructure? Currently, the cost of removing a healthy tree in the City of Atlanta is $100 per tree, plus $30 per inch diameter at breast height (DBH), or replanting inch for inch (which is often not possible). For builders, this is simply the cost of doing business. What sorts of incentives might we place on tree preservation instead of imposing minor fees and penalties for their destruction? Let’s acknowledge the public health benefits provided by healthy trees and soils, and assign more appropriate values accordingly.
Maybe there are some cases where a tree simply should not be removed – period. Other southern cities provide restrictions on certain, significant trees: Charleston recognizes “Grand Trees and colonnades;” Savannah acknowledges “exceptional trees;” Nashville designates “historic and specimen trees.” Nashville also draws an interesting comparison to Atlanta: of its 247 square miles, they average 47% urban tree canopy, a close running to Atlanta’s 48% average canopy across 133 square miles. As both southeastern cities grow rapidly, which will remain a true City in the Forest?
When does it make sense to build taller buildings (rather than low and wide) to save greenspace? When discussing design alternatives with builders and developers in your neighborhood, look out for opportunities to achieve density vertically rather than horizontally if it affords for existing trees and quality greenspace to be incorporated into the plans.
What if we restricted the sale and planting of English ivy, or Chinese wisteria? The evidence is all around us; these vines are slowly suffocating our trees, or in some cases present enough of an imminent threat that trees may be easily written off as ‘dead, dying, or hazardous’ (DDH) according to the tree ordinance, and removed. Should we prohibit certain species’ ornamental use when they can easily become destructive?
What if the City had more dedicated funding to purchase and protect large, forested parcels of land? Imagine a network or a ring of publicly accessible, protected community forests, cherished by all Atlantans in the same way we love our city parks.
Development and conservation need not be mutually exclusive, and in fact, we cannot afford to take that polarizing approach any longer. Until our policies can be updated, let’s collaborate across stakeholder levels to maintain 48% tree canopy coverage in the City in the Forest. We don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel, since we can look to other cities for guidance and inspiration. What changes would you like to see in the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance? Which developers can we look to who are actively trying to do this better – even if they don’t have to? Let us know. Contact [email protected] with your ideas, and explore these questions with your community. For a focused discussion about trees in your neighborhood, contact [email protected] to coordinate a Canopy Conversation at a neighborhood meeting.