Urban forests are at the roots of reform

It takes a major disaster threatening the UK's green character to bring the role of trees, whether in town or countryside, into sharp focus.

Ash trees: 30% of UK tree cover
Ash trees: 30% of UK tree cover

The news last month of the discovery that deadly ash dieback disease has invaded eastern England seems to have surprised no-one in the forestry industry, since it has already wiped out 90 per cent of Danish ash trees. Government, however, was a different matter.

Even after months of warning signs, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs appeared taken off guard, having failed to stop ash sapling imports when that might have made a difference. The country's 80 million ash trees make up around 30 per cent of our tree cover, so destruction on an even greater scale than the Dutch elm disease invasion of 40 years ago is in prospect. Then, 25 million mature elm trees died - many more ash losses seem likely this time.

All the more reason, then, to take tree management seriously, not just in rural woodland but also in urban environments. In June, the not-for-profit Trees and Design Action Group (TDAG) produced a guide that made a compelling case for trees in the built environment. In Trees in the Townscape, a Guide for Decision Makers, the group identifies 12 principles to guide policy, concentrating on how best to nurture the individual trees that make up the "urban forest" in the well-founded belief that trees in and around built-up areas are a key part of the infrastructure that makes places work, look and feel better.

The group argues that, as well as playing their part in climate-proofing neighbourhoods and supporting human health and environmental well-being, trees can also help to create conditions for economic success. And they can do so more cost-effectively than some traditional forms of infrastructure. Trees contribute to such services as stormwater management, urban cooling and air quality control, and provide the "visual amenity of seasonal colourful displays" to a far greater extent than previously thought.

These are not trivial matters and the report cites case studies from the UK and abroad with some assessments of the economic value of the effects achieved. The Birmingham Tree Bond scheme is predicted to produce a revenue stream worth £500,000 a year in perpetuity. Torbay's tree stock removes pollutants and sequesters carbon, a service with an estimated value of more than £6 million a year, a result that has raised the profile of trees within the council and led to the tree budget being maintained while other services are cut. Calculations are even more dramatic in the case of some US cities.

Put simply, urban places cannot afford to neglect their treescape, even if it is only to ensure that tree detritus such as branches is made use of, such as by selling for firewood. Integrating the value of the local tree resource into decision-making is crucial to environmental and financial planning by both public and private sectors. By offering an analysis based on planning, designing, maintaining and managing the tree assets of urban areas, TDAG has pointed the way for the rational deployment of a vital resource.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues and TCPA trustee.

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