In most suburbs across Australia’s cities, when a tree falls it is heard - and felt, and often blamed. It is then chopped up, removed, mulched and forgotten forever.
Yet sometimes the poor old tree isn’t to blame. It is usually the end game in a long story often involving a plethora of actions, faults and events that date back to the minute the tree was planted in the ground.
It’s so easy to get emotive over trees when storms create havoc like they have across Australia in the last year. Climate change aside, the storms that ravaged Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane left a mark on society, whether it be physical, health or emotional damage.
Unfortunately, the hysterical response is to call the tree lopper, close the parks, and get the trees out of our yard, out of our street, away from our parks and anywhere else there might be people…and that is usually after the event.
Emergency works are essential and so is safety: preventing injury and death to people. The removal of dangerous limbs and trees is not the focus here – there is no argument with this premise.
However, we need to remember trees are living things. They filter our air, making it breathable; they need water, good soil and room to move, and they need a reasonable and stable climate to survive. I think we tend to forget some basic premises about trees and why they are critical to our world, both in their normal places (forests, coasts, deserts, rainforests) and their adapted homes (our backyards, streets, highways, parks and public spaces).
Like most assets, street and park trees are often tagged, located, georeferenced, inspected, identified and reside in spreadsheets and risk registers and part of maintenance registers.
Trees are, however, also risky things. Like humans, they are affected by changes in climate and removal of support systems; they get sick when neglected or deprived of their basic needs. This results in limb drop, leaf drop, falling over from destabilisation, and death.
As living things, trees are subject to the same forces as other living things. In a week-long heatwave, imagine how you would feel if you stood outside in the sun, didn’t drink water for a few days, then got battered by 120 kilometre per hour winds, horizontal rain and hail. You might shed some bark, cry or want to have a good sit down.
While this comparison may seem unreasonable, we need to remind ourselves of the suburban benefit of trees, acknowledging the risks and promoting good tree management practices. In our parks, streets, public spaces and private gardens, we need to consider better and more informed design, which includes species selection and placement of trees.
Think about it this way: imagine your favourite local park, street, or major regional park, and then remove all the trees – what would it look like? How would it perform? What would it mean?
Trees provide many things in our society. They provide shade, animal habitat and urban biodiversity; they reduce the heat impact of development in urban areas (such as hot bitumen roads and roofs.) Trees also help maintain and improve land values in residential streets, provide visual benefits (improving mental health), and create pleasant streets to walk in. In addition, they mitigate changes in our climate in the long term.
Occasionally, trees do create chaos, and as with humans, there are always many reasons why a tree might “fail.” When a falling limb or tree does cause our power to “fail,” it cops the blame. The onus is on society to reconnect the power, but there is less focus on the poor old tree being reconnected and cared for.
It is too easy to focus on the risks – which we do mostly to protect and insure ourselves. However, most councils and public authorities have the task of mitigating tree risks, which is usually done via excellent reporting and management practices. Picture your suburb, then add the number of streets, then the number of trees in streets and parks – now you can see the scale of the challenge of assessing and maintaining the “risk” of trees in public spaces.
Trees are also a signpost to the past: past planting decisions, past maintenance practices, past establishment practices and past species selection.
A common pattern across all our cities is the reduction in remnant ecosystems, meaning that most of the trees in our cities have been planted by humans. This is a cultural construct, and the circumstances around their planting is human made, not ecological.
Instead of reactionary and risk averse tree removal and planting strategies, there should be a renewed effort on improving the management and performance of our trees. For example, funding more under-grounding of power lines, investing more in keeping our trees healthy via sound horticultural practices, improving services for more informed tree species selection, improving establishment practices and fostering better community ownership of our trees.
There is developing research and field work on increasing a tree’s survival rate and establishment through capturing street stormwater, which also prevents street surface pollution from entering our creeks and rivers. However, more field testing and funding is needed in this area.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, more collaborative work involving landscape architects, arborists, engineers, horticulturalists, the nursery industry, infrastructure providers, service authorities, risk managers and key authorities is needed to ensure that our future streets, parks and public spaces are more effectively designed to cater for the needs of trees.
Imagine our suburbs, parks and streets without trees. A city would be a sad and soulless place without these amazing, diverse, adaptable, beautiful and important living species.