On a recent April afternoon of rare blue sky and sunshine, a group of about 100 Seattleites gathered at the historic Town Hall on First Hill to talk about the future of urban tree canopy preservation at the Neighborhood Flyways Symposium.
The light streaming through the stained glass windows of this former church compelled the host of the event, John Brosnan, Seattle Audubon Society’s executive director, to comment on the meeting space as part of his introduction. “I can’t think of a more welcoming, beautiful space to meet,” he said. “This work is about inviting people in, not keeping them out. Today we are thinking broadly about conservation for the next 50 years so it will look different than the previous 50.”
Conservation shifting from remote to nearby
Each of the 6 speakers representing city agencies and private non-profits spoke to the theme of conservation currently shifting from remote wilderness preservation accessible to few, to the spaces where people live--urban areas.
According to recent data collected by the United Nations, over 50 percent of world’s population now live in cities, and managing for growth while preserving quality of life--which includes green space--is at the forefront of resources planning.
Because it is people, specifically the people who inhabit a city, and all that they represent in demographic makeup and interest, who determine the future of public and private tree canopy where they live. How can restoration and conservation happen with such vigorous pressure for development, as laid out by Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which calls for 30,000 new market-rate homes and 20,000 affordable homes over the next 10 years?
These were the questions posed at the Neighborhood Flyways Symposium, made possible by the Horizon’s Foundation. Seattle Audubon is spearheading a coalition effort among city government agencies, conservation advocacy groups, business interests and private citizens in maintaining what tree canopy Seattle retains currently, and attempting to add to it.
“Birds can be great ambassadors for habitats that have tangible public benefits,” says Sean Watts, director of community engagement at the Seattle Parks Foundation (SPF), and one of the event’s speakers. “But there’s tireless outreach [needed] before (restoration and conservation) becomes relevant to people who’ve never thought about it.”
Gathered together under the canopy
Seattle was once more emerald than it is now, at close to 50 percent tree cover in the 1950s. Sadly, the current percent of canopy is less than half that number now, estimated at 23 percent by American Forests and City of Seattle resource managers. The City of Seattle’s goal, determined by its Urban Forest Management Plan in 2007, is to reach 30 percent tree canopy by 2037. How will Seattle accomplish this at its vigorous pace of growth?
“Seattle itself has been called the ‘biggest clear cut in Washington,’” said Mark McPherson, executive director of Urban Forest Carbon Registry (UFCR), an organization working with towns and cities to earn and sell certified carbon credits through tree planting and preservation projects. Along with other organizations like Forterra (which did not participate as a speaker at the symposium), UFCR works directly with municipalities in creative applications of existing programs to further benefit restoration and care of public parks and greenspaces.
UFCR is specifically working to create a carbon offset market for corporations to fund urban forestry work, along the line of converting current corporate spending of $700M purchasing carbon offsets that invest in forests, usually outside the U.S, to instead put that investment into benefitting the urban forest locally.
This was but one example of the public and private partnership, along with citizen involvement, which were the theme of the three hours of presentations by the participating speakers. Along with the SPF and UFCR, there were representatives from Seattle’s Office for Sustainability and Environment, The Trees for Seattle program through Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
What are the priorities to retain and grow Seattle’s urban canopy?
1. Define what the canopy includes
The urban forest is not just greenbelts – it is public street trees, Right Of Way trees, parks, utility land, backyards, pocket parks, larger public parks: all of it together.
2. Protect the existing canopy through ordinances and initiatives
Most trees in Seattle are in the private realm, says Michelle Caulfield, deputy director of Seattle’s office of Sustainability and Environment. City parks account for only 14 percent of the canopy. The current tree ordinance for Seattle dictates a permit for private removal of any tree over 6 inches in diameter, any grove of trees (8 or more trees) and any “exceptional tree” based on age, heritage or density of grove.
Hazard trees must be verified as hazard by a certified arborist prior to removal. All new developments must include replacement of trees cut down and landscaping to mitigate stormwater runoff.
3. Promote tree preservation and reforestation among private citizens through City of Seattle’s Trees for Seattle
Jana Dilley, the program manager for Trees for Seattle, describes the range of programs from those in partnership with other organizations like Green Seattle Partnership and Forterra to remove invasives from public land, to street tree educational materials and planting and maintenance assistance for private landowners adding trees to parking strips. Her department’s goal is to promote a contiguous healthy tree canopy from park to private land and so on, so as to sustain restoration work being done.
4. Focus on inclusion of everyone: Who is not at the table?
Seattle is a more diverse city than ever, with a history of racial and social inequality of neighborhood investment and development. Private citizens must feel there is something in it for them, and have trust in the process. Too often they are over promised and under delivered by outside planners who are not thinking long term. Buy in comes from trust. Stewardship comes from that buy-in.
“Connections and access are explicit,” says Watts of SPF. A sense of ownership and place at a single site will be a starting point for new advocates for an urban canopy; but those advocates must feel welcome.
5. Find new ways to finance urban conservation
As shared by McPherson of UFCR, corporations looking to offset carbon emissions can be a source for local conservation and restoration effort. The City of Seattle could target such companies who want to offset (either voluntarily or by requirement), and channel funds into local projects such as the Duwamish restoration or maintaining underfunded parks.
Other funding sources cited by McPherson include Impact Fees by property developers, the EPA State Revolving Fund, and Microsoft’s carbon credits helping fund the King County Million Tree Campaign.
6. Science must support the effort
The work of Seattle Audubon’s Neighborhood Bird Project (NBP) has already impacted local parks maintenance practices, and can further assist in the City’s tree mapping. Other organizations like TNC are collecting studies to support such further green infrastructure throughout the city.
Chris Hilton, the urban partnerships director for TNC Washington, presented examples of urban nature impacting outcomes from surgery recovery rooms with views of trees to installation of swales in high rise neighborhoods such as South Lake Union to reduce runoff into the nearby lake. Quality of life data such as these will influence the future of retaining and adding to Seattle’s urban canopy.
What happens next?
“We had a lot of support for the wide frame we cast at the Symposium, but our next public step will be to present more specifics on how our local bird populations are faring,” says Brosnan. The feedback collected at the symposium will inform a State of Seattle Birds event, to come.
In the meantime, Seattle Audubon’s next conservation event is Friday, May 5: the signing of the Urban Bird Treaty with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the City of Seattle. Urban Bird Treaty (UBTC) programming is a formal part of the overall Neighborhood Flyways campaign. The signing serves as UBTC’s official public launch and will focus on bird-safe glass policy recommendations to the City, keeping cats indoors programming, and a Lights Out program to have buildings go dark at night to prevent bird/building collisions.
Keep reading this space for ongoing updates about Neighborhood Flyways!
Videos of the presentations from the symposium are available on Seattle Audubon's YouTube Channel! If you prefer audio-only, you can also access the presentations on SoundCloud.