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Guest Editorial: Making Guelph a Better Place

After a seven-year gestation, the City of Guelph has finally given birth to the Urban Forest Management Plan. Guelph Urban Forest Friends is celebrating this long-awaited arrival. It was conceived in 2005 when the city’s favoured response to the aged and under-maintained trees of Royal City Park was to cut them down and plant anew. Guelph Urban Forest Friends was formed that day and has been one of the groups encouraging and supporting the city’s development of this plan. The threatened loss of that cathedral canopy in a beloved park has resulted in a visionary plan that has the potential to protect and maintain our current forest, and to increase the green infrastructure for the benefit of our city and the health of its citizens.
Who hasn’t chosen the sidewalk on the shady side of the street; read a summertime mystery under a favourite backyard tree; sought that shaded parking spot; jumped into a pile of freshly fallen leaves before raking the “soil food” into the garden; scanned the branches of a tree to find the tiny feathered source of a sweet song in the spring; or ducked out of the winter wind behind a row of green conifers?
We need trees. Besides the obvious benefits of shade, beauty and creature habitat, trees provide incalculable benefits as part of the city’s green infrastructure. They help prevent floods, cleanse water, provide cooling, filter pollution from the air, sequester carbon, prevent skin cancer, and increase property value. This is real dollar value.
But trees need us, especially now. They are threatened by development; the spread of diseases and pests; increasing unpredictability of climate change; and the poor prognosis of survival for newly planted trees. The imminent coming of the emerald ash borer needs the co-ordinated response of this forest management plan. All of these issues mean citizens must get behind the plan if we are to have a beautiful, canopied green city.
The 2011 study of Guelph’s tree canopy, the green tree coverage as seen from a bird’s-eye view, was a wake up call.  The canopy was assessed at 19.5 per cent. It’s a far cry from the 30% most believed it to be and a huge giant step from the 40% goal set by mayor and council and recommended by the American Forest Group. Oakville has 29% canopy and Washington, D.C. has 37%. Such a goal is attainable, but so far we are losing rather than increasing canopy. We don’t want to challenge Brampton with its 11% canopy.  Such ambitious goals cannot be attained by just planting more trees and barely replacing the ones we cut down. The celebratory tree planted on the birth of a child only reaches maturity when that child is an old, declining adult. The master plan calls for planning, maintenance, monitoring and education that would both conserve the current urban forest and grow and replenish its progeny.
Like all newly-birthed children, the joy of the new arrival is tempered by the realization of the investments that are required over its lifetime if it is to be viable and healthy.  The forest plan has a 20-year lifespan and consequent costs. We need to allocate the funding for human resources; a senior urban forester and support staff are required.  We must also ensure the operational and capital resources are there so that the forest plan can be implemented. A plan is only as good as its funding; wishing and wanting do not substitute for action and resources.
Council makes its budget decisions soon. Contact your councillor and the mayor to indicate support for the fledgling Urban Forest Master Plan. Make it a budget priority. Ensure Guelph becomes a better canopied, greener place.
Susan Rietschin is a member of the steering committee of  Guelph Urban Forest Friends

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