Treasuring Edinburgh’s trees

Edinburgh is a city of trees. How do we make sure that legacy is protected, asks City Centre’s Green councillor Claire Miller

But those trees! Those trees! Those Truffula Trees!
All my life I’d been searching for trees such as these.
The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk.
And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.
I felt a great leaping of joy in my heart.
I knew just what I’d do! I unloaded my cart.
In no time at all, I had built a small shop.
Then I chopped down a Truffula Tree with one chop.

These words, from the children’s fable, The Lorax, have been read by millions of children over the last fifty years. The Lorax imagines a world without trees and the responsibility we all have to avoid the apocalyptic consequences.

Edinburgh is not the city of the The Lorax. Trees outnumber people. It’s estimated that there are 638,000 trees in the city: of many varieties, colours and sizes. And locations too. We have woodland areas, like Corstorphine Hill, Hermitage of Braid, Craiglockhart Hill or along the Water of Leith. We have more systematically planted trees in avenues in parks: Harrison Park, Inverleith Park, the Meadows and many others. Then there are street trees, planted along footways which give character to and soften many streetscapes. And finally, trees in private gardens.

Trees are wonderful for the city. They provide habitats for other plants and animals, shelter from wind, soakaways for rainwater. They are the city’s lungs. That is why every tree is precious, not just those in conservation areas or under individual tree protection orders, which have special status. It is why the council’s “Trees in the City” document is so important and sets out ambitions for Edinburgh. The test, as always, is ensuring big ambitions are reflected in day to day decisions.

It is also why Green councillors set such store by what the city does to its trees. We first proposed a “Tree for Every Child” plan back in 2013, despite some snide remarks by other councillors. In our 2018 budget we backed officer recommendations for £140,000 a year for 5 years for a street trees planting scheme. In landmark planning decisions, from the Wheatley Elms at Meadowbank to the woodlands at Craighouse, tree loss has been a key part of our objections.

At the same time, all of the city’s trees are urban trees. Even the most wild-looking woodland within Edinburgh has been, at some point, purposefully planted. In some cases trees have been planted, particularly in private gardens or on streets, without too much anticipation, sadly, of whether the full-grown scale is appropriate for the setting (a defining feature of trees is that they generally outlive the planter). So urban trees also need managed: sometimes for disease or dangerous condition, sometimes as part of a strategy to rebalance native versus non-native species. And sometimes – most controversially – to make way for something else.

So what should the city do about that? In my view, the starting point should be that trees stay. If intervention is needed it should be the minimum necessary – cutting back rather than chopping down, for example. If removal is needed, the minimum number necessary. And always accompanied by at least one to one replacement, either on site, varying scale or species, or, if not appropriate, elsewhere in the area.

Which brings me to Princes Street Gardens and the cutting down of around 50 trees in mid-October 2018 linked to the development of the National Galleries at the foot of the Mound. Princes Street Gardens is the jewel in the city’s crown. That jaw-dropping skyline from the Castle down through Ramsay Gardens is only there because the south side of Princes Street is protected from development. So, quite understandably, there has been widespread public anger and dismay on seeing so many trees in the East Gardens reduced to stumps.

I share that anger.

What went on here? In the Lorax, the Once-ler chops down the trees to make “Thneeds”, a “Fine-Something-that-all-people-need”. Outside of fables, reality is more tangled. The original application from the National Galleries was back in 2016 and included removal of trees to create a disabled access. This was approved. A revised application came to Planning Committee’s Development Management Sub Committee in June 2018. Although refusal at this stage is always an option, with regard to tree removal it would simply have meant reverting to the original consent, which also had tree removal. Hence the application went through, although there was a lengthy discussion about scale and about replacement, with a recommendation that there be equivalent replanting across all Princes Street gardens. I’ll be fully focusing on making sure that recommendation is delivered.

So what does this tell us? Edinburgh has some wonderful tree environments, more so than many cities. The council has ambitious policy on trees. I know that the city officers charged with tree protection are genuinely passionate and knowledgeable about their job. Yet, too often residents hear only the whirr of the chainsaw and the sight of severed stumps. At a time when Edinburgh needs to be protecting and increasing its tree numbers, especially street trees, these are real own goals. As a council, and as part of real 2050 vision for the city, Edinburgh needs to do better.