The Urban Forest: When Cutting Trees Hurts People…

Rally to prevent extensive tree cut in Ottawa park

At noon March 30, Algonquin elders of the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition held a picnic in Queen Juliana Park. The event was dedicated to preventing cutting down a forest of 750 trees located at Carling / Preston / Prince of Wales—essentially amounting to turning a beautiful, healing area into a parking lot.

Tree cutting permits have been issued and the cutting started in full force March 29 with at least five companies participating in the deforestation. The Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition issued a request to abstain from the tree cutting last February. This is what they wrote:

On February 14th, 2022 the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition respectfully requested that the City of Ottawa reconsider the decision to support the cutting of up to 750 trees for the new Ottawa Hospital. On March 7th, 2022 we met with representatives of the Ottawa Hospital to ask them to reconsider their decision.

The OAC is requesting that this piece of land instead be used as a Reconciliation Space for Indigenous people in the City of Ottawa and remain an open public space for all citizens of Ottawa. It can be a symbol of the City’s ongoing commitment to the urban Indigenous people who make Ottawa their home and to true reconciliation with Indigenous people.

We do not believe that a hospital that is intended to restore health should be part of a process that would destroy something else that restores health. The trees and the land are an essential public space that needs to be maintained to support the health and well-being of our community and the planet.

Trees are significant to the health and wellbeing of all people and for Indigenous people, trees are referred to as the standing people, and are acknowledged as our relations. They are our teachers and healers, givers and providers. The protection of the trees would meet many City commitments around reconciliation from the tree canopy obligations to climate change and to protect the overall health and well-being of all its citizens…Please contact the Ottawa Hospital, the City of Ottawa Mayor and Councillors, and the National Capital Commission to support our call for a moratorium on cutting any trees until we can look at options that reflect the needs of urban Indigenous people in Ottawa and all Ottawa citizens.

“Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships.” (Senator Murray Sinclair) These relationships must be built between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, but also between people and the natural world.

Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition

View of Queen Juliana Park woods from Carling Avenue, Ottawa (photo Google Maps)

On March 28, 2022, The Ottawa Citizen reported that, “There remains stubborn opposition to the project from groups upset about the 50-acre location, the loss of an estimated 700 trees and the associated green space just off the shores of picturesque Dow’s Lake.”

The Ottawa Hospital executive vice-president Joanne Read said planners and arborists are doing their best to minimize the number of trees that will come down. The first phase will remove about 159 trees, the hospital said, including six dead ones and 100 it described as from “invasive species.” About seven “notable” trees are to be moved. Read stressed that five trees will be planted for every one removed. Eventually, this section of the large site will have about 850 new plantings.

“Following construction of the garage, more than 850 new trees and large woody shrubs, both native and adapted species, will be planted on this portion of the site as part of the overall landscaping plan,” the release said. “The area will feature thickets of trees and gardens in the park on top of the parking structure, and larger trees will be planted along the scalloped edges at ground level.”

Dow’s Lake, looking north to the pavilion, and showing extensively manicured shoreline, Ottawa

What strikes me in all this is that the project—involving a large natural area within an urban city—is being engineered, by engineers and planners. Yes, an arborist is involved; but I see no ecologists being consulted (the consultants hired for the EIS and EEA are engineers with art degrees). Did their reports consider and discuss the ecosystem role of these woodlands? Did they consider the role of associated understory and natural (ungroomed) vegetation and undisturbed soils (with associated communities) in land stabilization, erosion protection, flood control, water quality, and air quality—not to mention wildlife habitat, general aesthetics and wellness benefits for Ottawa citizens, and overall connectivity?

No organism or system operates in isolation.

“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees,” argues Suzanne Simard, forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia. We should not confuse ‘trees’ with ‘habitat’. Trees are NOT a forest. Trees only provide major ecosystem services through community and ‘habitat’ as a forest. Intact functioning forests include so much more than trees, such as mosses, fungi, soil and litter, decaying organic matter, undergrowth, insects and other life that together contribute and maintain a functional ecosystem. The complex processes and interactions of this community reach way beyond the forest. These include water and nutrient cycles, and climate.

Crown of sugar maple tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Engineers and planners like to see the natural world through a lens of fixed components and checklists: replace one tree with five trees and everything’s fine. Simple. Not so simple. Nature is complex and always in flux; you can’t solve problems with simple math (ask DFO about how well their compensation programs are doing; their simple equations to address complex natural scenarios have had an abysmal track record).

You can’t replace a functioning natural ecosystem with trees in a landscaped lawn parkland. You can only replace an ecosystem with an ecosystem. Who is doing that? Not the engineer. Not the planner. Not even the arborist. Certainly not the politician or hospital board member.
Where are the ecologists?

Ecology recognizes the interconnectivity of all things and their coherence. Coherence brings relational aspects into consideration to provide meaning (to that checklist). Not providing an understanding of coherence is like having a recipe with an ingredient list but no instructions. What, for instance, is the cost to the city’s green infrastructure and connectivity incurred through permanent removal of this significant natural woodlot? What is the larger scope of impact posed by this development project? On the remaining natural area by the lake? On the city’s nearby community? On the city itself?

Overly manicured shoreline with little remaining wetland of Dow’s Lake, Ottawa (Google Maps)

In 2013, the Economist Intelligence Unit (sponsored by Siemens) ranked Canadian cities in a Green City Index based on 9 evaluation criteria (CO2, land use, energy, buildings, air, transport, water, waste, and environmental governance). Ottawa ranked a green score of #12 due to its land use, good public transit system and low CO2 emissions. The capital however lags way behind Vancouver (at #2); Ottawa does not have enough LEED certified buildings and needs to improve its environmental governance (green action plans and management, funding, etc.). Considering its stature as Canada’s capital city, I would think that the city should be striving to lead the country in green infrastructure and climate change response, not follow

Crown of a black walnut tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Trees are significant to the health and wellbeing of all people and for Indigenous people, trees are referred to as the standing people, and are acknowledged as our relations. They are our teachers and healers, givers and providers.

Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition

Definitions of An Urban Forest

Most definitions of urban forest adopt a corrupt version of “forest” to encompass the entire urban environment. This ranges from a single street tree to a woodlot of an urban or peri-urban area. I find this definition faulty and over-simplified, given that it does not clearly recognize the term “forest” as a functioning complex ecosystem that relies on connectivity and relationship. Most definitions regard a forest simply as a collection of trees:

“A collection of trees that grow within a city.”—Para Space Landscaping

A forest or collection of trees that grow within a city, town or a suburb. As opposed to a forest park, whose ecosystems are also inherited from wilderness leftovers, urban forests often lack amenities like public bathrooms, paved paths, or clear borders—Wikipedia.

“The trees and shrubs in an urban area, including trees in yards, along streets and utility corridors, in protected areas, and in watersheds. This includes individual trees, street trees, green spaces with trees, and even the associated vegetation and the soil beneath the trees.”—Cities4Forests

“Woodland, parks, gardens, street and square trees, and other green areas within urban agglomerations (here collectively identified as urban greenspace)”—Konijnendijk et al, 2006 

“Trees, forests, greenspace and related abiotic, biotic and cultural components in areas extending from the urban core to the urban-rural fringe.”—Canadian Urban Forest Strategy (CUFS), 2019-2024

Unfortunately, such loose definitions, which exclude ecosystem functionality in describing an “urban forest,” only help to promote mismanagement through lack of understanding. Forests must be viewed by managers as complex functioning ecosystems, not just a collection of trees.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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