What Atlanta decides on tree canopy could benefit people as well as urban forest
By Guest Columnist KATHRYN KOLB, a naturalist who serves as director of EcoAddendum and also consults with communities on tree ordinances
As more of Atlanta’s trees fall to new development, the city plans to update its Tree Protection Ordinance. New tree ordinance revisions are being drafted in the next few weeks, so the time is now to embrace the moment and help our city’s leaders take the responsible road forward in protecting more of our irreplaceable trees and superlative urban forest.
We’ve all seen it. Beautiful mature trees are being cut down as larger properties are subdivided and new lots are cleared of trees. Older trees are lost when existing houses are demolished and replaced by larger and even super-sized homes.
Previously, house foundations were built to fit the landscape and trees were saved for shade. But today’s homebuilding, more often than not, means cutting more trees and reshaping the earth to accommodate larger-footprint houses sold at exponentially higher prices. Atlanta’s neighborhoods are changing, rapidly.
Few realize that Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance – ironically – does not effectively protect existing trees, not even our largest, healthiest oaks, when properties are developed or re-developed. Fees for cutting trees and even fines for illegal tree removal have merely become a “cost of doing business” for new construction. Despite the ordinance, trees are coming down faster than ever.
The revision of tree ordinances often happens every 10 years to 15 years. Given the development pressures of the next two decades, how we plan for trees in 2019 may effectively decide the fate of Atlanta’s urban forest forever. Will we build new homes and developments that save our best trees? Or will we continue the current trend of building out almost every possible square inch of ground, with no room left for trees? The choice is ours, and the issue heartbreakingly simple – we cannot save trees unless we save the ground in which they stand.
Atlanta’s tree canopy was a gift provided by accidents of history. It was not planned, as in other cities. Our area was an old growth forest as late as the 1820s, and our city began its development much later than cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah. The Civil War took place barely 30 years after our area was settled by new arrivals and, after the war, the region remained largely rural well into the 20th century.
Atlanta’s hilly landscapes were not suitable for large-scale crop farms, and dairy pastures and woodlots were still common when many neighborhoods were platted from the 1890s to the 1950s. Our area’s mega-build-out did not begin in earnest until in the 1960’s, after air conditioning became widely available, and the population reached the 1 million mark. In contrast, New York contained a million people nearly 100 years earlier.
Our area’s more recent and less dense growth pattern created today’s crazy quilt landscape that ranges from concrete hardscapes to remarkably intact native forest, and everything in between. Steep slopes and narrow stream corridors were not farmed, and not considered buildable until now. It’s in these last undeveloped pockets that we often find surprisingly high value natural places.
Old growth forest remnants can be found within a two-minute walk of commercial thoroughfares – unheard of in other major cities. Old growth trees, sometimes dating back to the 1700s, have been standing quietly for centuries, with their roots in old forest soils, now located in backyards. Previous homes were built “to grade,” and such trees were often spared for shade – or possibly respect? Older forest remnants form the backbone of Atlanta’s canopy, and trees re-growing naturally from old fields and pastures fill out our unusually rich urban forest – a signature feature of Atlanta’s identity.
But today’s ever-growing development pressures put our forest’s future in peril.
Ninetyfive percent of our trees are found on private property, and nearly 80 percent are located in single-family-residential zonings. Even if we buy enough land to double the parks we have today, we would still only protect about 10 percent of the city’s canopy. Consequently, from 80 percent to 90 percent of our urban forest will always fall under the management of the Atlanta tree ordinance – the only thing standing between the chainsaw and the vast majority of our city’s trees.
Of course we can’t save all our trees, but it’s critical we get the balance right. Today, we often see from 50 percent to 90 percent of trees removed on redeveloping properties. This is legal under the current tree ordinance, and weak enforcement. The math is clear; this rate of tree loss cannot support the city’s goal of 50 percent canopy.
It should be noted that many of the new constructions with high rates of tree loss do not actually serve the city in terms of adding density, because larger homes with detached garages, larger driveways etc., still hold the same number, or often, even fewer residents. So the city loses more trees, more natural infrastructure, and gains more stormwater problems without gaining space for any new residents.
New tree ordinance revisions must do a better job to ensure that building does not destroy too many of our trees. The four guiding elements that can achieve this are:
- Planning for trees at the beginning of the permitting process (today, tree review comes at the end of the permitting process when it is no longer practical to build around trees);
- Saving our best trees(today, high value long-lived trees are not valued any more than common, small or shorter-lived species);
- Reducing grading; saving enough ground for trees to stand (tree roots need ample soil areas for tree health; older rich soils are healthiest for trees and urban forest)
- Effective enforcement (today, code violations are rampant, and consequences are minor; fines are not a deterrent to cutting even large venerable oaks.)
Without an improved tree ordinance, Atlanta is poised to lose a significant part of its character, and the many benefits our trees and urban forest provide.
Every day, scientists learn new ways forests benefit people. Recent studies show that living near trees and greenspace provides health benefits equivalent to a $20,000 boost in annual income, and residents living within a half mile of a greenspace experience, “less death and disease,” according to a National Geographic report, even if they never visit the greenspace. Trees have been shown to reduce crime and even change brain chemistry, enhancing compassion and empathy while reducing fear and anxiety. Airborne particles emitted by trees have been shown to increase human immune system functions that fight cancer. And trees, of course, make our neighborhoods beautiful, improve our outlook and quality of life – how can we measure that just in dollars?
While builders, developers and their investors may reap larger profits by mass grading soils and destroying trees, the city and its residents pick up the tab for collateral damage. Loss of trees and established soils causes excessive stormwater runoff, which overwhelms sewer systems with toxic overflows, erodes waterways and undermines pipe systems in stream corridors. Rebuilding and repairing infrastructure, and creating new stormwater mitigation systems is extremely costly to cities. Increasing stormwater means extra costs to residents who face new flooding problems. It’s all a direct result of tree loss and larger amounts of the landscape transformed to impervious surface.
Loss of trees and greenspace can also cause and exacerbate human health problems, which create more costs for individuals and taxpayers. And homes with the largest amounts of impervious lot coverage are also the most expensive, so in addition to other costs associated with tree loss, property taxes also increase for neighbors living near new homes, All of these costs, as well as higher taxes, are a disproportionate financial burden on those with modest incomes.
A better tree ordinance, with associated planning mechanisms, can be an important part of an urban planning equation that softens “gentrification.” The tree ordinance can build equity in all communities, by encouraging diverse-priced housing and home ownership rather than renting.
In several major cities, there are new initiatives to plant trees and build parks in economically depressed areas, and in bleak landscapes where nature was devastated long ago. And that is great improvement for those places – but not even big investments of work and dollars will ever grow back the kind of forest that Atlanta still enjoys today.
We still have greenfield landscapes. We still have a real, functioning native forest, a living ecosystem that connects neighborhoods and watersheds in all but the most dense urban core. We still have remnants of the old growth forest, and we have an astounding diversity of native wildlife, migratory songbirds and other species so uncommon to find in other urban places. Our superlative urban forest is found in our parks, greenspaces and in many thousands of backyards.
We are indeed the City in the Forest, and unlike other cities, we still have the opportunity to hold onto our great trees and urban forest, even as our city grows. But that opportunity is fleeting – the majority of Atlanta’s renowned canopy is threatened, and we watch a little more of it disappear everyday.
We are at a serious crossroads in how human communities interface with nature. Atlanta is known internationally for its legacy in leading the world in civil and human rights. And now it has the opportunity to lead on the right side of history for the environment, setting a global model, right here at home.
Note to readers: Kathryn Kolb is a lifelong naturalist, fine art photographer and is the executive director of EcoAddendum, a non-profit profit organization dedicated to educating about natural landscapes in Atlanta, Georgia and the Southeast. She also serves as a consultant on tree ordinances, and works with CityintheForest.org, a non-profit coalition of metro Atlanta residents building support for better tree protections through education, awareness and efforts to improve tree ordinances and building practices.