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Think ahead! A Century of Urban Forestry Gone Awry

posted Apr 30, 2014, 5:35 AM by James Steenberg   [ updated Apr 30, 2014, 5:37 AM ]
James Steenberg & Peter Duinker     
Written for the Ontario Urban Forest Council     
Original posting: http://www.oufc.org/2014/04/25/think-ahead/     

The Town of Powell River, British Columbia, is a great example of how not to do urban forestry.

If you’ve heard of this quiet and rural coastal community, you will certainly be perplexed by our choice of topic and example. After all, it’s in BC and we’re in Ontario and Nova Scotia. But the Town provides such a potent and visually striking microcosm of a century of unplanned urban forestry that this had to be written.


Powell River is a divided and small town dotting BC’s rugged Sunshine Coast. The north end of the town is called Townsite. Townsite is a planned community, built a hundred years ago for the workers of the paper mill, and it’s a National Historic Site of Canada. The architecture is quite stunning, with some stately manors boasting mighty copper beech trees in the yard – testimony of the Victorian influence on our early days of urban forestry.

This small mill town, surrounded in the countryside by mighty red cedars, Douglas firs, sitka spruces, and other coastal rainforest giants, would certainly seem to be free of the urban forestry challenges that face Canada’s metropolises. And yet, even without the harsh environments of major cities, urban forestry can still go wrong without shrewd foresight.

Two of the main residential streets in Townsite are Oak Street and Poplar Street; streets in the community were obviously named after the species that were initially planted when the town was built a century ago. Today, Oak Street is fully shaded by majestic and long-lived red oaks over a metre in diameter; it’s a street any lover of the urban forest would be happy to call home.

In contrast, Poplar Street, whose namesake is a much shorter-lived tree species, is barren and lined only by parked cars. The experience of walking down each of these adjacent streets is strikingly different. However, in a matter of some decades, Oak Street will look just like Poplar Street, since all those lovely oaks are of the same age and longevity.


Thus, it behooves us to think long past initial street-tree establishment to the conditions of the urban canopy at least a half-century – perhaps more – forward. We must not let the present beauty lead to complacency. In other words, after planting the trees, we must not take them for granted. Trees of some species live a long time, and of others they do not. A diversity of tree species and ages – planted and tended consistently over the years – will ensure a robust urban forest and constancy in the benefits we derive from trees in towns and cities.

Unless you want to experience the dizzying highs and lows of urban forest splendour evident on Oak and Poplar Streets in Powell River, think one hundred years ahead, and think diversity.