Our urban forest: Life and death of a tree

When my son came across this circa-1928 image in the Toronto archives, I realized how much we take our urban forest for granted. This is a picture of the school across the street, taken from what is now our front lawn. And here is how the same scene looks about 80 years later…

That tiny sapling beside the fire hydrant is today the massive Norway maple (Acer platanoides) that wreaks havoc with my foolish attempt to create an English cottage garden.

We think our street trees have been around forever, and that they will continue to be around for generations. Not so. These giants have a shorter lifespan than trees in forested situations. We should be thinking forward and planning (and planting) to replace them now, before they disappear. An illustration…

At the right of the entrance to the school in the archival shot, you might detect the threadlike trunk of the brother or sister of my maple next door. Here is what happened to that sibling in a wind storm this May.

Such tall trees are continually being pruned to avoid conflicts with hydro lines or homeowners who feel they need a trim. The main branches can become long and top-heavy. Insects such as carpenter ants can move in where damage or a narrow crotch (the V where main branches meet) have left the trunk open to rot.

Wind happens. Lightning strikes. Branches fall.

Naturally, a tree like this once compromised, especially one above a loading zone for kids and parents, must be scrutinized. Once assessed, trees might end up painted with The Dreaded Orange Dot.

That means it’s slated for removal. This one might have been tagged earlier, but I noticed it first in June. It enjoyed its last summer. Then, last week, I saw the stump.

Eighty years isn’t long, but it’s long enough that we stop paying attention. We shouldn’t. Our street trees, and even those in our parks, aren’t mighty redwoods lasting 5,000 years. They have a brief lifecycle that includes old age and death. We, therefore, should have a succession plan.

At the awards show for the East York Blooming Contest, I met Andrea Dawber of GreenHere, who has become a bit of an expert in grassroots community reforestation. I’ll be asking for her guidance in attempting a street-long initiative to interplant the next generation of street trees here. I expect it will be difficult. People like the smaller trees, or flowering trees. They don’t like the shade; I kvetch about it myself.

Yet, in addition to the environmental role our soaring trees play, aesthetically they have a huge impact on the character of our street and on nearby nabes of the same vintage. It would be sad and ugly if all we were to see of our trees was this.


  1. What a great post!

    You clearly make the case of how much our urban forest adds to the beauty of our surroundings and that we must plant responsibly and plan for eventual replacement.

  2. That is a great before and after photo. What a difference trees make to the beauty of our environment. You are right there needs to be plans. I enjoyed your post!

  3. Great post, Helen. Fortunately in Key West it takes an act of Congress to prune a tree. They have a very strict tree commission.
    However, your point strikes home with me…and there is that new, almost naked park on Big Pine Key…Hmmmm.

  4. How interesting to see an archive photo that looks much worse than the present – they are so often used to promote the fact that yesterday was always better…

    We have a lot of the same issues over here. Trees which should have a longer life span are continually damaged by the laying of new cables along their path, and fear of litigation makes councils remove trees when it really isn't necessary (although I don't know what colour spots they use..).

    One of the main reasons this may change though it the need to combat global warming as the presence of enough trees can reduce the temperature in cities by a few degrees which will prove more vital as time goes on.

  5. We always like to think of the pine trees in our valley as the scrubbers of the air, cleaning up the crud that blows through our valley.

    I was sad when I saw the last photo. It was a massive beauty!

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