With parks, ravines, rivers, and other open spaces, the Parks, Recreation and Forestry division of Toronto likes to call Toronto a “City Within a Park.” However, to make sure this remains true for many years to come, Toronto needs to start recognizing the value of its trees, both when they are standing and when they fall down.

During the week of Christmas 2013, 300,000 customers in Toronto lost power because trees and branches, weighed down by a thick casing of ice, broke and fell on power lines. An outage of this scale is hard to plan for, and Toronto Hydro employees worked tirelessly to bring power back during the frigid weather, but the city and citizens with large trees on their properties would have been prudent to take better care of their trees.

Fallen Tree in Toronto after the December 2013 Ice Storm. Image by Mark Zaremba.

Trees are important for any city – from the beauty of the streetscape and resulting increased property values to the climate benefits and environmental sustainability. Dave Starkey, an arborist and the park supervisor for North York, a region in Toronto, estimates the esthetic value alone of the trees lost across the city from the ice storm is $1.6 billion. Consistent pruning and maintenance could have prevented much of this loss, Starkey says.

Fortunately, Toronto has earmarked $50 million CAD to repair the city’s tree canopy, but replacing these trees and restoring their previous value will be difficult. Whereas trees that existed before roads and nearby structures were built were able to grow tall, it is difficult for younger trees to develop the root beds they need to thrive in the now-limited underground space.

For example, thirty pine trees in Yorkville, a historic Toronto neighbourhood, were removed in the fall. The trees sit atop an underground parking lot, making it difficult to achieve adequate soil conditions for growth. These trees and the soil bed will be replaced in the coming spring, but they will still have limited space for their root systems.

With hundreds of trees down, city staff and politicians are thinking about how to clean up the branches as quickly as possible. Toronto’s Solid Waste division has allocated $24.4 million CAD to essentially turn it into mulch. Ironically, even though lumber is a main export in Canada, they have not thought about the wood as a valuable resource rather than simply waste. 

Branches weighed down by ice after the Dec 2013 Ice Storm in Toronto. Image by Mark Zaremba.

When a silver maple tree blew over in the summer, Robert McMonagle, who works in Toronto’s Economic Development division, found ways to save the wood including shelving in libraries and gavels for City Council. Unfortunately, such innovation and reuse of the wood was not applied on this larger scale.

Toronto has faltered in not only pruning their trees but also replanting fallen trees, and creating an environment conducive for the root system to allow the trees to flourish. For Toronto to commit to its motto of a “City Within a Park,” then it must start thinking about the trees.

What solutions might help Toronto retain its current trees and grow new ones?

Credits: Images by Mark Zaremba. Data linked to sources.