For Edmonton, a sustainable future depends on trees

Edmonton is counting on trees to help it lessen its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and cope with the effects of climate change

By and

Even though a council committee has put off passing a bylaw to protect trees on private property, the Tomorrow Foundation for a Sustainable Future is encouraged to see progress on a file that is vital to the city's ability to lessen and mitigate the effects of climate change.

The foundation and others had rallied support for a private tree bylaw heading into the June 14 urban planning committee meeting, noting that 58% of Edmonton's urban forest consists of trees on residential property. In the end, councillors decided to ask administration to provide another report in early 2023, examining options to help achieve the City Plan's goal of two million new trees by 2050, including but not limited to a private tree bylaw.

That might seem like a setback, but not so, said Elizabeth Cytko, vice-president of the Tomorrow Foundation.

"I'm feeling good," she said after the decision. "I think it makes sense to look into whether or not bylaws are effective. We don't want this to be just a cost-of-doing-business thing ... So I'm glad they decided to look further into it."

Nonetheless, it's crucial that the city take action to protect the mature trees that already grow within its borders, she said.

"We are feeling the effects of climate change," she said. "To reasonably increase density while preserving what we have in terms of the mature canopy — that would be considered a win."

While administration does the homework that councillors have assigned, let's take a close look at the role trees play in Edmonton's plan for the future.

A canopy of green leaves as seen from beneath a tree

Edmonton is counting on trees to help it lessen its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and cope with the effects of climate change. (Mack Male/Flickr)

How and why are trees part of the City Plan?

In 2019, Edmonton declared a climate emergency, leading to the creation of a climate action plan in 2021. Nature-based carbon sequestration through urban forestry is part of the plan.

The City Plan, passed in December 2020, sets the overall strategic direction for the way Edmonton will grow into a sustainable and livable city of two million. It sets out a goal of two million trees on public land, and the number of trees planted is among the metrics to be tracked when determining whether the City Plan is being achieved.

"The urban canopy makes a quantifiable contribution to the long-term livability of our city," says the plan. "Edmonton's forest, city-wide, removed an estimated 531 tonnes of pollutants in 2009 alone, a feat worth more than $3 million."

The Urban Tree Canopy Expansion is the first step towards reaching that two-million-tree goal. By the end of 2022, the city is expecting to have planted 6,000 new trees along boulevards and medians and in parks. It is also planting shrubs and wildflowers along roadways and in open spaces.

When the City Plan was drafted, Edmonton's estimated tree count was 12.8 million, of which 380,000 were publicly owned trees. That means much of the urban forest is on privately owned land, and the most mature trees tend to be in older neighbourhoods, where the City Plan is encouraging infill development. That creates competing interests, says the Tomorrow Foundation in an April 2022 report called Private Urban Forest: Estimating the Value of Trees for Sustainable Housing Densification, as developers tend to brook at more regulation.

This apparent conflict is resolvable, says the report, noting that "thoughtful urban planning could lead to more trees being preserved and planted as well as more infill housing development to support a more sustainable, walkable-bikeable, 15-minute City."

How much are we relying on trees to capture carbon?

Within the Community Energy Transition Strategy, the "carbon capture and nature based solutions" pathway is meant to handle up to 17% of the needed reduction in emissions to achieve the goals of making the City of Edmonton carbon-neutral by 2040 and getting the entire community to net-zero by 2050. This is part of what living within our carbon budget of 135 megatonnes will require.

Planting trees and restoring ecosystems is part of that plan, but the strategy seems to see a bigger economic upside to the more industrial process of carbon capture and storage.

"Nature based solutions help support attractive, healthy urban places and carbon capture technology can grow prosperity in our region," says the strategy document, noting the significant amount of carbon-capture infrastructure in the Edmonton metropolitan region. "This is our competitive advantage and these strengths position the region to attract and grow carbon capture investment and jobs."

How would more trees mitigate the effects of climate change here?

Urban tree canopies protect houses from the elements, and they reduce energy costs, greenhouse gas emissions, and heat-related illnesses. Due to the urban heat island effect, a paved surface can be 27° to 50° C warmer than the air on a hot summer day, and in the evening, a large city can be up to 12° C warmer than the surrounding areas.

University of Alberta researchers found that Edmonton lost 15% of its vegetation between 1999 and 2020 due to development.

"The loss of green space and the corresponding rise in the urban heat island effect is entirely due to human activity and urbanization," Sandeep Agrawal told Taproot in March. "We have seen the heat waves of the last couple of years and the intensity of that is increasing. It is imperative that we think about things that we can manage."

Planting trees is one of those manageable things, but so is protecting the trees that we already have. That's why the Tomorrow Foundation was keen to see some kind of legal protection for trees on private property.

What has been done to protect trees?

In August 2021, city council passed a bylaw protecting trees on public property, which came into effect May 1. Any work to be completed within five metres of a boulevard and open-space tree or within 10 metres of a natural stand requires a permit or preservation plan, with fines of $1,000 for those who don't comply.

A report on preserving trees on private property was presented to urban planning committee on June 14, prompted in part by a change to the Municipal Government Act giving the city the authority to enact a private tree bylaw. The report set out three options:

  • A private tree bylaw requiring a permit for the removal of trees or a preservation plan when developing a site;
  • Regulation through a zoning bylaw, with tree removal tied to development permits;
  • Communication with a focus on incentives to plant and preserve trees.

The Infill Development in Edmonton Association (IDEA) was among those opposing a bylaw, as infill developers feel they already face too many permits when trying to build in mature neighbourhoods.

"The urban tree canopy can be supported through increased planting on public property, continuing to require planting of new trees on private property through Zoning Bylaw requirements for all new developments ... and communicating the benefits of retaining mature trees to the public and development industry," the association said in a letter to the committee.

The Tomorrow Foundation disagrees that zoning is the right tool. "Right now mature trees are being lost to development and often no new trees are planted, even though zoning bylaws require it," the foundation said in a letter to the committee. A study of infill development in Queen Alexandra found that almost 40% of infill sites for homes built between in 2018 and 2021 had no trees, even though they were supposed to.

In the end, the committee decided more study was needed. "(Let's) explore what is feasible, what is not, and develop a workable overall strategy," said Coun. Aaron Paquette of Ward Dene, calling for an approach that is iterative and grounded in research and engagement.

What's next?

Administration is to bring back a report in the first quarter of 2023. That means any funding requirements related to tree preservation won't necessarily be part of the budget deliberations in the fall, which will set council's spending priorities for the next four years.

In the meantime, trees keep being planted. Self-guided tree planting opportunities through Root for Trees have been fully booked for 2022. Since 2012 volunteers have planted more than 280,000 trees and shrubs through that organization.

Of course, you can plant your own trees. Based on its Queen Alexandra study the Tomorrow Foundation put together a list of recommended species based on their tolerance for drought, flood, and pollution.