Checking In on Our Urban Forest
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Checking In on Our Urban Forest

Planting community gardens in partnership with the TTC.

For Torontonians who were not able to escape the city for the long weekend, there is always the comfort of green spaces like High Park, the Don Valley, or Leslie Street Spit. In total, our city has a substantial urban forest of 10.2 million trees. Not only do the trees provide an aesthetic benefit, but great environmental benefits too.
Trees help to clean the air, retain storm water to protect our waterways, and keep temperatures down through shade and evapotranspiration (the evaporation of moisture from plants), notes Matthew Higginson, of LEAF, a not-for-profit organization working to improve the urban forest of Toronto. A recent report called “Every Tree Counts” [PDF] gauged that Toronto’s trees provide $10 million in energy cost savings to buildings and the equivalent of $60 million in ecological services. In addition to being an “organic air conditioner,” as he puts it, trees can act as a noise barrier—useful for walks near the Don Valley during rush hour.
Toronto has a good urban forest, says Higginson, but it could be better.

The city has a tree cover of around 18 to 20%, he says, while cities like New York are far ahead with 24%. Recently, environmentally friendly Portland made a goal to increase its tree cover from 26% to 33%. LEAF works with homeowners to plant trees and shrubs, since the majority (60%) of Toronto’s urban forest is on private property. Since 1996, when LEAF was founded, the organization has planted 16,000 native trees and shrubs.

Volunteers plant trees in Toronto.

Some of the problems Higginson foresees are the aging population of Toronto’s trees and the dangers of pests like the emerald ash borer, which endangers the estimated 30,000 ash trees in the city. The key is to plant the right mix of trees and to ensure good survival rates, he says.
Getting Torontonians involved is also important, he notes. In addition to planting trees, LEAF has a tree tour program to help residents identify the trees in their neighbourhood and learn about the issues that exist. Higginson himself came to LEAF through a tree tour in St. James Town and says it helped him see the neighbourhood in a different way. “Once you know the problems that are there, the next step is to get empowered and take ownership of your community,” he says. “I felt more connected with the space.”
In its 15th year, LEAF has had many successes. Started in South Riverdale by founder Janet McKay, the organization has expanded across Toronto and into York Region, Kitchener, Cambridge, Waterloo, and Guelph. This year, it teamed up with the TTC to provide community gardens. Higginson hopes LEAF will continue and expand, increasing the momentum of environmental work: “People are starting to recognize the benefit, need, and value of a strong urban forest.”
LEAF is holding a celebration and fundraiser June 2. Night of the Forest will feature performances by Gentleman Reg, Poplar Pines, and Music In The Barns. Steam Whistle Brewery (255 Bremner Boulevard), 7 p.m.–12 a.m.; $35 in advance, $40 at the door.
Photos courtesy of LEAF.