Urban trees please

The fate of trees in urban areas will be before select committee this week when hearings start on National’s Resource Management Act Reform Bill 2012. (The Bill is the second stage of Government’s efforts to weaken the RMA. The third phase changes are set out in the RMA discussion document out for public comment at present).

The Bill seeks to remove blanket tree protection rules from Auckland and other city and district plans. This has attracted many submissions. The Government thought it had done this with the 2009 changes to the RMA but fortunately the Environment Court decided otherwise.

Pohutakawa in flower.
Image: Rodney_F (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Auckland Council sought a declaration from the Environment Court to test what the law change meant. In a comprehensive decision released in May 2011, the Environment Court ruled that trees in managed natural areas within the city’s urban limits such as Titirangi in the Waitakere Ranges were “a group of trees” and were therefore protected under the plan rules.

So National, egged on by ACT, is trying again with the 2012 RMA Bill which appears intended to override the Environment Court decision.  If the Bill becomes law it would mean that there would be no planning controls on people felling urban trees unless each individual tree was specifically identified in a schedule in the relevant council plan.

Under the Bill it would no longer be enough for councils to identify trees of a particular species in a defined area; or trees with defined characteristics such as being over 5 metres high or for a resource consent to be needed to fell or damage then.

This permissive approach is incredibly short sighted. Urban trees are the lungs of our cities and towns. Trees provide oxygen, and filter and absorb pollution. They increase our wellbeing in so many ways – where better to escape the sun on a hot day than in the shade of a large, leafy tree; or as a child to stretch, move and test oneself?

Urban trees help regulate temperature and reduce the heat island effect created by large buildings and expanses of concrete and asphalt. They add movement and green to the streetscape and make walking more pleasant. Urban trees provide a sense of place and permanence in a neighbourhood, they were here before us and may outlive us.  Their presence is a tribute to the foresight and care of previous inhabitants.   They help create a liveable city for us and for tui, blackbirds and a host of plants and wildlife.

Trees protect the land, hold together banks and cliffs and reduce soil erosion. Think of the strong, twisted roots of pohutakawa which seem to defy gravity while their branches frame sea views. They soak up rain and reduce stormwater runoff.

In forward thinking cities such as Melbourne, the Council is developing an Urban Forest Strategy to increase tree cover in the city. That’s light years ahead of National and ACT’s narrow world view which puts individual property rights ahead of community wellbeing. I look forward to hearing submissions challenging that view from those who value our urban trees.

18 Comments Posted

  1. Trees are awesome. Everyone likes trees. But to really enjoy the natural world you have get a bigger tree-to-concrete/house ratio. Low-density green sprawl.

  2. I’m not sure what the rules are in Wellington – I’m only taking the article at face value.

    If it’s not the case in Auckland then it’s an issue of enforcement rather than anything else.

  3. In Wellington? Doesn’t appear to be the case around here. I wonder if council regulation over-rides it somehow.

  4. Sure. But change isn’t being imposed is it? It’s the status quo (in Auckland at least).

    Pre-2009 the RMA had robust protections for trees. In 2009, amendments were made to remove such protections. This was successfully challenged in the Environment Court in 2011, so the govt is seeking a new law change to circumvent the EC’s decision.

    In other words, we can already assume that the law is already protecting trees over 5m high (based on the EC’s position) without the wholesale destruction of 4.99m trees you envisage.

  5. I’m saying if this was imposed on any given locality:

    “or trees with defined characteristics such as being over 5 metres high”

    The result would be a lot less trees, not more, for reasons outlined. I’m sure that isn’t the aim, but that would be the result.

  6. Arana – I’m still struggling to see your point.

    Aside from your happiness to comply with the current legal framework, are you suggesting that things would be better in the urban environment if anyone could cut down a tree on their property without consent? (leaving aside your proposition that temporary ownership of trees be rebated against rates).

  7. Without judging the theme of this post one way or another, I think it’s relevant to point out that the referenced “City of Melbourne” is not the sprawling flat city of 4.2 million people. It’s the specific municipality of the “City of Melbourne” in the centre, with a population of 100,000 (but an estimated transient population of 800,000/day). A lot of people who live in “Melbourne” don’t have significant front or back yards, and I’d guess the council has direct control of a high proportion of land with trees on it.

    The City/Shire councils of the 31 or so metropolitan areas of Melbourne each have their own rules and ways of doing things. I haven’t checked where they all stand on trees or what flexibility they have via State and Federal rules to require consents on changes people want to make to their properties.

  8. What’s this bit?

    “Under the Bill it would no longer be enough for councils to identify trees of a particular species in a defined area; or trees with defined characteristics such as being over 5 metres high or for a resource consent to be needed to fell or damage then.”

  9. You’re positioning a ‘what if’, Arana.

    If the status quo protects your trees and you are happy to comply with that, I’m not sure what your arguement actually is.

  10. I do that CURRENTLY, Gregor.

    However, if you force me to evaluate each tree against council planning costs each time I go to trim each tree, x10, then the result is the community loses 10 of the 12 trees.

    It’s not that I don’t like the trees, I simply dislike council involvement, increased cost, and loss of control more.

    So, which path results in more trees?

  11. On the other hand, if the community valued them, the community could cut my rates bill based on the number of trees I have over five meters.

    Alternatively Arana, you might elect to be a community spirited citizen and beautify your neighbourhood for it’s own aesthetic merits rather than expecting a handout?

  12. I like trees. I have 12 trees over five meters.

    But let’s say the council sought to impose control over all trees over five meters. I’d have to weigh each tree against the hassle and cost of involving the council every time I want to trim it.

    A couple of my trees are certainly worth that ridiculous imposition. The rest are not. If such a policy were enacted, I’d replace those ten trees with shrubbery. Many owners would.

    On the other hand, if the community valued them, the community could cut my rates bill based on the number of trees I have over five meters.

    Which path results in more trees?

  13. If you leave the cost of trees to the owner, but remove control, then the inevitable result will be fewer trees.

    Do you want more trees, or fewer trees?

    There will be little incentive to plant anything that will grow over five meters tall as your costs ramp up significantly after that point, as you have to go through council process.

    If you want to incentivise more trees, then make it in the owners interest to keep them, and plant more.

    All stick (heh) no carrot is not going to work. You’ll achieve the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do.

  14. This policy and the whole way National is approaching government is as if it is their god-given right to do what they like. This is disguised as championing individual rights but its economic and environmental policies undermine our right to a healthy infrastructure, unless you are a foreigner with money and become one of those who buys rural. 9% of property sales have been to people not living in NZ.
    The sad thing being they are either running away from the damage to their own societies or they are taking advantage of this type of policy, and our capital gain impunity to reduce our quality of life.

    The fact that local policies are walked over is a sad indictment on their view of democracy. Anne Salmond wrote an excellent piece in the Herald the other day urging people to get involved and documenting the present disregard.

    Britain introduced legislation a while back that enhanced the local councils rights to self determination, already understood from Magna Carta principles.

    All this sort of thing based on a fabrication the RMA is not working when the vast majority of cases are dealt with efficiently. It seems to me that the cases that are not going to plan are the big projects that can’t really be justified in a sustaiable way, and are probably the cases that ramp up costs for all.

  15. This is obviiously another attempt from National led govt to get rid of roadblocks and pave the way for future many large scaled property developments…such dark days for beautiful New Zealand environment…

  16. For every reason you mention, people NEED trees! Chief Sealth wrote “If man removed the beasts, man would know a great loneliness of spirit..” The same applies to TREES, doesn’t it! St Barbe Baker, world-renowned silviculturist, taught that we must keep at least one-third of the earth covered in trees, or lose the water-table. (compare drought/desert conditions! Driving down from Arthur’s Pass some years ago, it was raining steadily; the moment we left the forested area, there was NO RAIN. The cycle of trees, transpiring of moisture into the atmosphere, returning as rain, is proven.)
    Urban areas espec. need the refreshment, relaxing, living, life-giving atmosphere of plentiful trees.. (Apologies: I enlarged the font for ease of reading; now it won’t accept changing back..)

  17. If you want to guarantee fewer urban trees in future, then leave the law as is. Property owners will plant fewer trees and cut them down before the reach 5 meters lest they lose control of their own private property.

    If you think the trees are important for the community, that’s fine. Specify them in the plan and the community can pay owners for their upkeep. Don’t just transfer all the costs to the owners but all the control to the community.

  18. Trees

    I think that I shall never see

    A poem lovely as a tree

    A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

    Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast

    A tree that looks at God all day

    And lifts her leafy arms to pray

    A tree that may in summer wear

    A nest of robins in her hair

    Upon whose bosom snow has lain

    Who intimately lives with rain

    Poems are made by fools like me

    But only God can make a tree

    Joyce Kilmer. 1886–1918

    PS The Platters had a hit with a song version of the poem

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