Image for Why people are starting to think differently about urban trees

Why people are starting to think differently about urban trees

Dramatic stories of urban tree-felling have made the headlines this year, but new government funding and creative approaches to planting are helping boost city canopies

Dramatic stories of urban tree-felling have made the headlines this year, but new government funding and creative approaches to planting are helping boost city canopies

“I don’t like wishing for a wet summer but I’m actually hoping this intermittent rain keeps up because it’s really good for the trees,” says Liam Faulkner, grounds services manager at North Northamptonshire council. The local authority has planted more than 6,500 trees over the 2022-23 season, 1,550 of them in urban environments, and plentiful rain over the next few months could make all the difference when it comes to their long-term success. 

North Northamptonshire is just one of a long list of local authorities taking advantage of new government funding for urban tree planting that it is hoped will help the UK meet its net zero climate targets and safeguard biodiversity. High-profile stories of urban tree-felling have made headlines this year – in Plymouth, for example, where 110 mature trees were cut down in March to make way for a £12.7m regeneration of the city centre – yet on a national scale, there’s cause for optimism about the direction of travel for urban treescapes. 

Urban trees cover around 196,000 hectares (484,120 acres) in the UK, according to research by the Forestry Commission. That’s around 11 per cent of total urban land area, and some 5 per cent of the total tree canopy cover in this country (for comparison, the majority of that canopy, around 80 per cent, is woodland, with the remaining 15 per cent accounted for by rural trees standing alone or in small groups). 

urban trees

Saplings ready for planting in North Northamptonshire. Image: North Northamptonshire council

Urban trees may account for only a small proportion of the UK’s total canopy but they punch far above their weight in terms of positive impacts, from biodiversity and wellbeing to reducing air and noise pollution, as well as helping to tackle the climate crisis. In a report published in 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was unequivocal, stating urban trees’ potential both for storing carbon, and reducing demand for energy use through cooling in the summer and wind reduction in the winter. A recent report by the Forestry Commission, meanwhile, revealed the total ‘amenity’ value of urban trees in the UK to be £429bn – essentially how much value they bring to economies, society, and health and wellbeing.  

Recognition of that value has brought about a sea change in the levels of funding available for urban trees. “Historically there wasn’t a lot available in this space because the money was given to the creation of forestry,” says Jon Stokes, director of trees, science and research at the Tree Council, a charity that works to create and promote diverse treescapes across the UK. Now, however, funding pots such as the Local Authority Treescapes Fund and the Urban Tree Challenge Fund (which together amount to over £14m in available funding) are enabling local authorities, organisations and private landowners to boost local tree planting, with a focus on areas with historically low canopy cover. 

“This has become a very positive part of that movement towards not only valuing trees for their commercial worth in terms of timber,” Stokes adds, “but also valuing them for social and environmental reasons.”

Faulker has observed a shift in this direction when it comes to attitudes to urban trees among both the public and policymakers in North Northamptonshire, particularly since the pandemic, when “people became reconnected with nature during our one hour’s play a day”. He and his team have sought to build on that engagement in innovative ways, such as by giving hundreds of primary school children each a whip – a very young tree – to grow at home. 

urban trees

Attitudes towards nature shifted during the pandemic. Image: The National Forest

“It’s about getting the support from the community to improve their green spaces,” Faulkner explains. “We’re the custodians for a short period. They’re the ones who are going to take over.”

This is good news but it’s important not to be too rose-tinted about such programmes – North Northamptonshire is one of the local authorities that made headlines earlier this year when it permitted the felling of an avenue of mature lime trees in Wellingborough, to clear the way for a dual carriageway. Some trees were saved when the felling was stopped by campaigners, and the development, including any further felling, is now on hold “to enable wider community engagement”, says a spokesperson for the council (who also points out that leadership of the local authority has changed hands since the planning application was granted). The incident is a sobering reminder of the disconnect between the ambitions of different council departments, with one hand (forestry) giving while the other (planning) takes away.

Notwithstanding such ‘two steps forward, one step back’ situations, long-term planning, combined with a canopy-focused approach is crucial, says Philip Metcalfe, green infrastructure and planning manager at the National Forest Company, which oversees the National Forest, a 200 sq mile swathe of rural and urban forest in the Midlands. “New planting is part of it, but it’s not all of the story. We need to be putting more value on the trees that we already have and looking after them as they’re contributing much more to the canopy within an urban area than new planting will.”

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That means local authorities working closely with planners to protect existing trees from development, but it also means thinking cleverly about succession planting for when mature urban trees naturally reach the end of their lives. In Swadlincote, South Derbyshire, for example, the National Forest Company has worked with the district council to develop a programme to replace lost historic avenues of trees in parks and cemeteries. 

“Where you’ve got landowners like a local authority who can take a long-term view, it’s reviewing their parks and land holdings and trying to think, what’s the treescape going to look like in 50 years?”

Also key, says Metcalfe, is maximising the potential of private green spaces in urban areas. The National Forest Company has for many years worked with local authorities to give trees away to residents for planting at home. “It’s all well and good working in parks and cemeteries but private gardens are a much greater area proportionally,” he explains. Thinking outside the box in this way means being able to add to the tree canopy without the logistical constraints of planting in a shared urban environment. 

It’s going to be many years – a generation perhaps – before we see the impact of this new approach to urban planting in the canopy, and there are still challenges to resolve. Metcalfe would like to see more urban forestry expertise within local authorities, for example, but the outlook is hopeful.

Main image: Aldomurillo

This article was amended on 17 July to include mention of the tree felling that took place in Wellingborough, North Northamptonshire, earlier this year.

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