Apr 5, 2023 - News

Seattle's vanishing tree canopy

The Space Needle in Seattle framed by tree leaves

Photo: View Pictures/Hufton+Crow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Seattle pledged to improve its tree canopy in 2007 but has actually been losing ground, leading one official to put forth an ordinance that would make it harder to remove trees.

Why it matters: Trees are increasingly understood as one of the key tools in urban areas for mitigating climate change as well as addressing inequity in tree coverage across neighborhoods.

Catch up quick: The 2021 Tree Canopy Assessment, released by Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment earlier this year, acknowledged the loss of 255 acres of tree canopy since 2016.

  • Some of that loss came from trees that had reached the end of their lifespan, Patti Bakker, urban forestry adviser at the Office of Sustainability and Environment, told Axios.
  • But some was due to hotter, drier summers that stress old and new trees, making them more susceptible to pests and diseases, she said.
  • In an effort to reach the goal of increasing the canopy to 30% by 2037, the city has already implemented a number of tree-saving measures, including a two-for-one tree replacement policy and programs to increase plantings in forested areas, streets, developed parks and private property, Bakker said.

What they're saying: "What this tells us is the investments we've been making are not enough," Bakker said.

Driving the news: A partial solution to the city's vanishing canopy is sought with a proposed ordinance that would lower the diameter threshold for "significant" or "exceptional" trees, making them harder to raze.

  • The proposal, backed by City Councilmember Dan Strauss, would add protections to trees while also clarifying when a tree can be cut down.
  • It also would add flexibility for builders who, for example, may find allowances in setback and hardscape requirements where a tree is to be saved.
  • Strauss said it would buffer the extremes between those who want every tree protected and those who argue any additional regulation is burdensome and adds to the cost of housing.

Yes, but: Ray Larson, curator of UW Botanic Gardens, told Axios he appreciates what the proposal is trying to do but believes it's "too one-size-fits-all" and lacks incentives.

  • He'd like to see something that motivates developers to plant diverse and varied types of trees instead of the limited palette usually chosen.

What's next: The proposal is expected to be voted out of the land use committee that Strauss chairs at the end of April.


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