On July 31st, 2012, Peter Stroud ( Sydenham District Association[SDA] and Chair of its Tree Committee) and Ariel Salzmann (Department of History, Queen’s University, Director, Annandale Condominium, founder firstname.lastname@example.org) met with Mayor Mark Gerretsen and Director of Public Works Damon Wells at 2:30 in City Hall. The mayor was slightly delayed because of an interview with CBC, but graciously spoke with us for about 40 minutes.
Stroud and Salzmann came to the meeting hoping to have three questions answered by the mayor and Director Wells.
- First, given the city’s claim to be “the most sustainable city in Canada” and its 2011 “urban forest” plan, where did the city’s trees fit into the big picture?
- Second, given the unprecedented drought, what was the city’s policy on drought generally.
- And third, what was the city’s current plan to address the dire needs of the city’s trees for water, both young and old, which were dying off in great numbers.
Salzmann put the first question to the mayor. The mayor responded by saying that there was a misunderstanding in the meaning of “sustainability”: sustainability did not mean the environment alone. It referred to a mix of economics (business), culture (entertainment), and social infrastructure. Environment was only one of the four pillars. As such trees, which he suggested counted only in the environmental category, were not as central as one might otherwise suppose to sustainability. The major noted that, by contrast, the major of Vancouver boasted that his city was Canada’s “greenest” city. [Of course, visitors to the City of Kingston website might be forgiven for not having Mayor Gerretsen’s definition in mind when they interpret the city’s motto].
Stroud would return to the subject of the value of trees later in our conversation, pointing out the economic value of trees in terms of real estate. Even the mayor admitted that he lived in house on an old, treed plot.
When in a follow up question, Salzmann asked why the city did not consider it its responsibility to undertake programs similar to those of other Ontario cities, such as London, Toronto, and Oakville in prioritizing trees in times of water scarcity and in taking the lead to educate the public about how to water them, he replied that even suggesting that trees were a priority was political decision. It required approval of council and a majority of councillors. His hands were tied. He would be happy to have us meet with councillors to set up a special meeting, but he could not do anything himself from his office.
But surely, we pressed, even if the by-laws dictated water restrictions and alternate day use of sprinklers and hoses, that did not prevent the mayor or the Director of Public Works from advising the public about need to water trees within their normal watering days and allotment; nor should it prevent the city from informing the public how to water trees in the proper fashion. Again, he told us to speak to councillors and have them take it up at council. It was out of his hands.
Director Wells stated they were doing what they could with the personnel, equipment, water and the budget at their disposal. Water costs money and water drawn from the lake requires permits, he insisted. Both Stroud and Salzmann suggested a redeployment of the summer workforce which was no longer needed for the usual tasks of mowing and maintaining lawns. They also questioned the need for the “chainsaw massacre” of old-growth trees near University Avenue to make way for the sewer.
It became apparent that the city leadership actually knew very little about the state of trees around the city. Stroud showed the mayor and the director of public works photos of dying and dead, young and old trees, around the city, including one right in front of the court house, that he had taken that the morning, on a laptop. He also informed them that many of the trees that families and friends had purchased as memorials for their loved ones were currently in terrible shape and that many had either died or were dying. To this, there was only silence.
Stroud finally asked question number 2: “What is the city’s drought policy?” Damon Wells confessed: “the city has no drought policy.”
Stroud and Salzmann had hoped to leave the meeting with the mayor promising some action, if only to know that the city had a plan in place for an environmental crisis. Although the mayor promised to arrange a meeting with potentially interested councilors and perhaps summoning an emergency meeting of council, he refused to consider using his office to take the lead on the question.
Stroud and Salzmann immediately followed the mayor’s instructions and contacted Kingston’s councillors. Several councillors have indicated their support for new measures. However, in a CKWS interview last week [“ Tree trouble”], the mayor seemed to backtrack on his earlier promise to work with council to find a solution: although he acknowledged his discussion with Salzmann and Stroud, he stated that he did not foresee any means of implementing a program for the city’s trees this summer even if council came to some agreement. Again, he did not acknowledge the importance of trees for the city’s quality of life, image, or real estate values; nor did he seem to consider the potential public safety consequences of the city’s failure to act in a timely fashion, given the possibility of dead limbs, or even entire trees, falling onto streets, sidewalks and homes.
As of today [August 9, 2012] more than a week after meeting with the mayor, the city’s website continues to give residents the wrong impression about the water restrictions with respect to trees.City by-laws do not prevent residents from prioritizing tree watering during a drought. They do not prohibit city managers – the mayor and the director of public works – from taking elementary actions to blunt the worst impact of a natural disaster on the city’s vital “green infrastructure”, including shifting normal summer upkeep of public parks from lawns to trees and providing information to the public on how to properly water trees.*
* Trees should be watered around the roots, some 1-3 feet away from the trunk at four equidistant points using a garden hose or, if possible, using a soaker hose. Large trees require approximately 10 gallons of water a week; smaller ones, 5 gallons.