Toronto Star column – published February 1, 2014
A Food Bank for Trees
We have food banks in this city, the purpose of which is to feed the hungry with donated food at no cost to the recipient. The idea is to provide sustenance to a population that does not have access to adequate food and/or nutrition.
Food – as we normally think of it – feeds the body. It gives us strength, endurance, and satisfies our most basic need.
Food for the soul provides sustenance for another basic need. All of us need to breathe freely, think clearly, and sleep soundly. Soul food does that.
This is especially important to remember while the damaged and dying trees from the December Ice Storm are still in our consciousness [and maybe still in our view!]
Ever since the venerable not-for-profit organisation Trees Ontario published the results of an extensive study in 2012 titled ‘A Healthy Dose of Green’ [reported in this column at the time], we know that trees and green space provide measurable benefits to our health, social well being, economy, and, of course, our environment. This was the most extensive compilation of research ever undertaken in this country and it is well worth anyone’s while to read it [http://www.treesontario.ca/files/Healthy_Dose_of_Green_Publication.pdf].
Rock Your World
All of this is to preface a suggestion that is going to rock your world. If not, it will at the very least require you to open your mind to an idea that is radical.
Whenever we want to solve complex problems requiring that we reach outside of the box and stretch our mind, we are wise to connect with the people in our society who are best at doing just that. Our youth.
Enter the Sustainable Design Awards. This is a competition between students from 18 universities across Ontario with a mandate to “inspire fellow students to think critically about their projects through the lens of sustainability.” The idea is to encourage students to think beyond ‘prescribed lessons’ and involve themselves in the question, “What is sustainability?”
Free Tree City
The results of this year’s competition are intriguing. While not all of the winners created concepts that connect us with our green, living world, there was one that stood out and became a first prize winner in their category: Free Tree City.
The thesis begins on the premise that trees are to urban life what food is to human survival. Food feeds our bodies, trees and green spaces feed our souls.
Let’s agree that the Trees Ontario study has informed us on a deep level where previously we only understood the benefits of trees and green spaces anecdotally. The question then is, as the author Tyler Brandt of FreeTreeCity states, “How can we make trees accessible to people who cannot afford them?” He points out that the high income areas of Toronto are well-treed, for the most part, while the low income and ‘high risk’ areas are poorly treed.
The answer provided by FreeTreeCity is this: to propagate, plant, and sell trees in the hydro corridors within the city limits.
There would be seven different functions in FreeTreeCity: Propagation, U-pick, Special Order, Research, Electricity Storage, Ecological and Education/Demonstration.
The U-pick corridor is the core idea where trees are grown in a commercially tested and proven ‘pot-in-pot’ system. Citizens would come to the corridor, learn about the trees that are best suited to their environment and conditions [through the ‘education/demonstration’ function] and pick the tree that is right for their space.
A Blunt Challenge
While the nursery makes better use of the marginally productive land under hydro right of ways, the trees growing there would provide the benefits that are unique to all trees: nature’s air cleaners working without complaint and a nominal amount of care. [While you might argue this since the Dec. ice storm we are talking about young trees here, not the ones that were devastated by the storm.]
Tyler states with enthusiasm, “I think the greatest benefit of this idea is its radical scale and blunt challenge to existing norms. It raises issues often not thought about, like the idea of access to trees being important for residents of a city. It also puts forward the idea of returning the forest and wilderness to our cities in some capacity.”
His ideas in this proposal certainly shake my tree. As a long-time stakeholder in the horticultural trade, I wonder what established tree nursery growers would think. Should competitive [and one assumes ‘subsidized’] nurseries spring up in urban hydro corridors? But then, why not invite established tree growers to make their own proposals for the land? The benefit of their experience coupled with the vision of a new generation of landscape architects like Tyler could go a long way to solving many of the social, economic, and health issues in Toronto.
As exciting as FreeTreeCity is in principle, I found the issue of funding rather weak. Call me a sceptic, but the word ‘free’ never means much to me. As my Dad used to say, “Nothing in life is free. Nothing.” And time has taught me that is true.
As a past ‘tree nurseryman’ I know something about the math involved in growing trees and I can tell you that it can’t be done for free. The profit margin in growing trees is thin, at best. And the prospect of growing them is a long-term commitment, where a minimum of 5 years is required to bring a young sapling to market. Sometimes the investment is more like 8 to 10 years. So, some work needs to be done on the funding model.
That said, this is a concept that is worthy of exploration. Imagine, for instance, if the native trees grown for this purpose where used to naturalize the wide open spaces that stretch for miles under the active hydro lines that criss-cross our city. What if, instead of cutting the grass that grows there we grew trees and shrubs that attract wild birds and butterflies and other pollinators? Perhaps even hydro authorities might want to chip in [pardoning the pun] – after all, they will no longer have to cut the grass under the hydro wires.
We can define the wealth of our city by something greater than economics. If we look past the money, we see our access to fresh air, clean green spaces, urban gardens complete with productive fruiting trees, and a substantial increase in gainful employment outdoors growing trees and teaching about them. We see what feeds the soul, not what fills our wallets. What then, is the real value of this idea?
I am intrigued and energized by Tyler’s out-of-the-box thinking.
The judges clearly agree.
Go to http://sustainabledesignawards.ca/for more information about the Sustainable Design Awards and FreeTreeCity