If you walk down Northumberland Avenue in central London on a hot summer’s day, you’ll be basking in the shade of London plane trees (Platanus hispanica) planted in 1876. As well as improving the appearance of this historical street, these trees help with storm water attenuation, store carbon, improve air quality, provide shade for humans and offer habitats for wildlife.
The Victorians who planted these beautiful specimens did so very well, with plenty of space for their developing root systems not to be compacted. They did not expect to benefit from them personally, instead thinking ahead to what they’d bring to the street in centuries to come. As well as planting trees, the Victorians are responsible for many of our biggest London parks, providing essential green lungs to a city they were fast developing.
But when it comes to tree planting, we are giving them a run for their money. Today, countless organisations and institutions have tree-planting targets: from the Queen’s “Green Canopy” initiative to mark her jubilee, to local authorities, schools, fashion brands and search engines. However, due to limited stock levels, space and skilled workers within the sector, there is a shortfall between what we’d like to do and what is possible.
The Victorians planted the right trees, and planted them with enough foresight so that we might enjoy them. But if what we plant is going to survive for future generations, we need to factor in climate change. Experts say only five or six of our native species are suited to our warming weather, and they need to be resilient enough to withstand increasingly regular, intense storms.
Diversity is an issue too. “Most landscape architects work off about 10 trees,” says Keith Sacre, arboriculture and urban forestry director at Barcham Trees, a nursery. “Pyrus chanticleer — the ornamental pear — remains the most popular tree [for landscape architects]. It is a really good tree, it’s resilient, it flowers well, it has autumn colour — but every Pyrus chanticleer is genetically identical.” If a disease or pest took a liking to it, every single one could be wiped out.
Barcham, as well as supplying trees to 31 of the 32 London boroughs, has developed a carbon calculator with a social enterprise called Treeconomics, set up by Sacre and co-founder Kenton Rogers to help local authorities choose trees more wisely. Individuals can also use it to measure their carbon footprint and calculate what trees to plant to offset it.
The main software, i-Tree, has been used in the US for more than a decade. It measures 10 services that trees provide to a local area, including their effect on wellness and property values. Half of the measurements have some monetary aspect.
“The reason we’re valuing these things is if we don’t they’ll be given a nominal value [by the market],” says Rogers. “The bean counters, decision makers and asset managers didn’t have any guidelines before, so it was leaving a shortfall in funding for our public spaces,” he adds. “It helps those defending their budgets to highlight their value.” Rogers gives an example of a tree officer in Islington who recently received £100,000 of trees to address the borough’s low tree stock after working with Treeconomics.
“We’re not valuing the tree itself, we’re valuing the ecosystem services,” Rogers continues. “Services are the things the trees provide. Amenities; carbon sink, storm water attenuation. We still haven’t valued the actual tree. That value is something intrinsic that is best left to artists and poets.”
When I personally see trees, I see beauty and wisdom. I find them deeply reassuring. These are things we can’t put numbers on. We think of them as being sturdy and strong — symbols of longevity. When Storm Eunice hit the UK last month, my social media feeds were filled with pictures of uprooted trees; and with sadness that these beautiful fixtures in our daily lives, that had stood for decades or more, were now gone.
To reach any significant height or canopy width these much-loved trees needed space, time and care to develop, things that are often sidelined in our ambitious tree-planting targets.
“In all these policies, no one ever thought to consult the nurseries to accommodate the increase in supply,” says Sacre. The mature side of the scale is especially difficult; because a whip (worth roughly 30p) can be produced from seed in a few years, but the most popular 3.5-metre trees (worth roughly £150) need a lead time of five to seven years. “That’s one of the difficulties,” Sacre says, “and I don’t see that going away.”
On a larger scale, the UK’s commercial forestry industry is also booming. Mike Tustin is the founder and director of Tustins, a group of chartered forestry surveyors, valuers and agents. He only sees the demand for UK-grown timber increasing.
“If timber markets crash you are not forced to sell, you can just wait,” he says. “Even if the price of sawn timber goes down by 50 per cent tomorrow, you can almost guarantee it will come back again. Until then you can just shut your gates. By the time it comes back you’ll also have more to sell.”
Of all Tustin’s inquiries, about 90 per cent are now from organisations and individuals looking for ways to offset carbon. “There’s a big rush for people to establish woodland. Also, the value of timber has been rising every year, and the government has finally woken up to the value of planting woodland.”
Historically, commercial and conservation needs have been deemed incompatible. But this is changing. You now have to plant a mixed species forest if you’re planting anything over three hectares, to prevent the much maligned monoculture spruce forests of the past. Even the Forestry Commission, set up after the first world war to address timber shortages, is now run by individuals who are far more conservation-minded, says Tustin.
But there’s still that underlying need for forward planning and direction. “Forestry as a business has been a bit like shipbuilding in that it has been run down,” says Tustin. “And now they want to plant thousands of hectares of trees, but there’s no one to grow them, no one to plant them, and not enough space.”
“There is a real need for strategy across all areas of the industry, from amenities to commercial to conservation, and to consider the whole tree population rather than just the segment of land you’re working on at the time.”
From large-scale commercial crops to individual gardens, considering the wider ecosystem when we’re planting is something we can all do. For instance, if there is a good, unusual tree growing locally you could look to improve the seed bank by planting the same species, or if you look around and only have deciduous trees on your street you could add evergreens to help provide habitats and food for animals in winter. If you planted lots of trees with similar lifespans 10 years ago but nothing since, think about adding more now so your trees don’t all reach the end of their lives simultaneously.
“It’s about thinking: ‘How does what you’re planting complement the wider landscape and the population of trees?’” says Sacre. “It would be wonderful if everything was strategised, so we weren’t just planting numbers to achieve greater canopy cover — if we had a clear understanding of what we were working to achieve.”
Victorian tree planting was an art form. We can learn much from our predecessors, and with science and technology on our side, do even better. But only if we plant trees with their true value — longevity — in mind.
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