Australia's cities need more trees – but that means cutting some down

Planting more trees in our cities is a no-brainer, isn’t it? The federal government certainly thinks so, having last month unveiled a plan to increase the amount of tree cover in Australia’s cities.

Tall trees with luxuriant canopies provide a wide range of benefits to sweltering urbanites. They reduce the urban heat island effect, take up carbon dioxide from the air, reduce wind, muffle traffic noise, help to retain rainwater, attract wildlife, improve human health, and they look nice.

To take an example, Canberra’s 400,000 trees – all planted in the past century or so – now deliver benefits worth up to A$15 million per year.

But trees are living things and start their urban life as small plants. It may take 50 years or more to reach their mature size and full value. So to get quick benefits, trees are “over-planted”, with many small tree canopies adding together for a significant overall effect.

But this eventually leads to competition between the trees, which reduces their value, and so trees are then periodically thinned out. Such thinning is often not appreciated. The pioneering urban forester Charles Weston, tasked with turning Canberra’s barren landscape into a site fit for the nation’s newly chosen capital, over-planted for quick effect. His successor Lindsay Pryor then thinned out the trees, to help maintain the benefits, for which he was widely criticised:

"Large sums of money are spent in planting trees and large sums in rooting the majority of them out" – Minister for the Interior Harry Foll, 1940

"...wanton destruction... unless the citizens of Canberra rise in their wrath, Canberra will soon look [like a barren and cold plain] as it did" – Letter, Canberra Times, 1946

Then of course, there’s the climate

In the half-century or more needed for urban trees to grow to mature size, things change. Over the past 50 years, for example, climates have changed, generally becoming harsher for trees that are already in relatively inhospitable city environments featuring sealed surfaces. So if we plant trees now, we need choose species that will thrive in the expected conditions of 2050 and beyond.

Infrastructure also changes during the intervening decades. Within the lifespan of some city trees, trams came and went in Sydney, while light rail is poised to bounce back in many cities, Canberra included.

Roads, power lines, telecommunications cables are built, renovated or ripped up. With each change, the land on which the trees grow becomes more or less valuable, and so do the benefits provided by the trees. Even good city planning can lead to problems – land reserved for future development is planted with trees until the development is ready to be built, but then the developers are accused of “wanton destruction”.

Trees are now competing for space and resources in new ways. Fifty years ago, no one dreamed that roof-mounted solar panels would be so important, and that large, shady trees would thus compete with green energy. Now, new suburbs are advertising their green credentials with their mandated solar panels that are not obstructed by tall trees. Shrubs and short trees may adorn these new suburbs, but they don’t replicate the benefits of large trees. Who knows what trees might get in the way of in the future?

Even more challenging is the fact that trees are mortal. True, they can live for many decades or even centuries (although most do not). Even when trees live for over a century in a city, it might not be safe to walk or park your car beneath them. Many mature trees, especially gumtrees, naturally carry dead branches high in their mature crowns.

And it doesn’t take too many half-tonne branches falling from 20m to give trees a bad reputation. Public responses to death or severe injury from falling branches often include demands to remove all trees that cannot be guaranteed as safe, despite this guarantee being impossible.

Urban foresters often rate trees by their useful life expectancy (ULE). Trees reach their maximum ULE when the cost of maintenance and risk of injury exceeds their value. But even using this objective measure, politicians and the public still often protest against cutting down mature trees that they personally don’t consider dangerous.

If lots of trees are planted at the same time, say as part of a government initiative or suburban development, it is likely that they will all reach their maximum ULE together. What’s more, factors such as drought could trigger all trees planted in the same year in a particular area to hit their maximum ULE all at the same time.

Removing lots of trees all at once may be necessary, but will also be expensive, exacerbate the urban heat island effect, and lead to public backlash. Staggering removals and replanting, even before maximum ULE, will encourage a better mix of tree ages, development states and healthy diversity. Regular removal of large trees close to the end of their useful lives could also supply valuable raw material to sustainable cottage industries such as flooring, panelling and furniture from urban wood.

To beat the urban heat island effect we need to ensure that we pay for planning as well as planting. This means proper species selection and future maintenance of tall, mature trees. We need to educate then maintain the political and public knowledge over 50 years of why the trees were planted, why they need to be thinned out, and why they need to be systematically cut down and replaced.The Conversation

Cris Brack is associate professor of forest measurement & management at Australian National University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.