We should build move green streets like Ravenna Boulevard across Seattle. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Unpave paradise and take down that parking lot.

Trees in Seattle are facing a new threat, not from beetles or the axe, but from legislation. Sponsored by land use committee chair Dan Strauss and announced by Mayor Bruce Harrell, the long anticipated tree legislation promises to protect the tree canopy while not getting in the way of new houses. As Strauss told The Urbanist, “We have the ability to both protect trees and create the housing that the city desperately needs. And that’s what this bill does.”

Alas, that is probably not accurate. The proposed ordinance adds 40-odd pages of text to the city’s already ponderous ordinance, but doesn’t quite get around to the overall point of planting lots more trees. The problems are twofold, one issue is legislative and the other is Seattle’s own backwards way of doing anything.

The legislative issue is that the proposed tree ordinance is simply too complex for its own good. It spends a ton of text dividing trees into four categories, increasing protections as the girth of a tree increases. Permits and replacements are required for removing trees exceeding 6 inches in diameter. Requirements increase at 12 inches and any tree over 24 inches is barred from removal without extensive paperwork. There’s special provisions for trees with multiple trunks, and allowances provided if the site is being developed and removal is part of a site plan. The new rules have been called “all stick and no carrot.”

Dividing the city’s trees into tiers, then putting the screws to homeowners as the trees age insures only one thing: fewer trees are going to age and make it into upper tiers. Whether its by action or neglect, homeowners will remove unwanted trees from their yard. Period. Making those hurdles higher only guarantees the city’s trees will suffer under the provisions of this ordinance.

Transport of timber from Seattle’s forests for the construction of the Mechanics Pavilion at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, Seattle, Washington, ca. 1893. The photo text reads “Timber for Mechanics Pavilion World’s Fair Length 125 ft.” Timber is being loaded on railroad trucks on Western Ave. at the corner of Marion St. W. I. Hammond Hay, Grain, and Storage at right. (Boyd and Braas Photographs of Seattle and Washington State)

There are parts of the bill that make a lot of sense. Permitting design departures to protect trees is a great idea. Full tree assessments by competent arborists during the development process can be useful for some lots. And establishing permanent deed covenants for tree areas may make sense in some developments. But none of this requires a brand new conceptual framework for tree assessment and reams of paperwork to support it.

In many ways, the proposed tree ordinance is a standard issue piece of Seattle legislation. We find something we love, then trap it in a gilded cage. It’s how we’ve turned artists residences into those weird ground floor fishbowls appended to apartment buildings. It’s how we’ve taken granny flats and turned them into multi-million dollar cottages. We wuv it soooo much that we squeeze it and hug it and name it George, killing the beautiful and the unique in the process.

Of course, beautiful is in the eye of the beholder. Tree beholders tend to love convenient lollypops that don’t drop seeds, super precious flowering cherry trees, or big magnolias. None are indigenous to Seattle. Indeed, there’s now some 1,400 species of trees found in the city, a slight increase from the 33 species that dominated the region before colonization. The aging of the first wave of non-native deciduous trees is a leading cause for the city’s tree canopy loss. And indigenous trees don’t often get planted because they’re lawn wrecking crabapples or peeling, spindly madronas.

Text excerpt reads: How do we lose canopy?
Based on the experiences and expertise of urban forestry professionals, the primary
reasons for canopy loss in Seattle include:
Climate change impacts. Our changing climate is making Seattle’s summers hotter and
drier, adding stress to our trees and making it harder for them to survive, especially in
the early phases of establishment. By the 2050s, the average year in the Puget Sound
region is projected to be 4.2°F warmer under a low greenhouse gas scenario and 5.5°F
warmer under a high greenhouse gas scenario.9 Stress from heat and drought make it
harder for trees to survive contact with pests and diseases, which are also changing
and increasing as climate conditions shift. Weakened trees are also more susceptible to
damage during storms. Pests, diseases, and storm events can all create hazardous tree
conditions which can necessitate removal.
Aging deciduous trees. While Seattle’s native forest was predominantly made up of
evergreen species, the composition shifted after the forest was clearcut beginning in
the 1850s and native trees were replaced primarily with deciduous trees and non-native
species. Much of our current urban forest is made up of aging second-growth,
deciduous trees nearing the end of their lifespans, making them more susceptible to
drought and pests as they face climate impacts.
Competing uses for limited space. Trees are also removed to make space for
competing uses; for example, infrastructure projects to improve transportation and
utilities sometimes involve tree removal or impact tree roots during construction that
necessitates removal after construction. As our population grows, so does our need for
additional housing. Although the City employs a suite of tools to preserve trees on
private lands, new development can often result in tree removal. Residents may also
remove trees to make space for other uses like landscaping or views.
2021 City of Seattle Tree Canopy Assessment, page 19 featuring the causes of tree loss in the city.

Which leads to the second issue with the tree ordinance. The trees and the forests being protected are not original. Seattle strip mined its landscape, denuding the entire pair of peninsulas of every significant tree. Only then did we start replanting, but not before we sectioned off the land and laid out a street grid. The city’s current trees and forests are completely at the service of its roads.

Street trees are the one place where there is some opportunity for the legislation to expand the tree canopy, but those new rules only maintain the current, upside-down relationship between cars and trees. Street tree species are selected to prevent dropped fruit on cars. They’re selected to live in the “harsh urban landscape” that’s created by soot spewing engines. The size is determined to fit under power lines or not drive roots into pipes. And trees are regularly removed to make way for parking, as the cherry blossoms were on Pike Street this spring.

Even though the new legislation spends a few pages talking about street trees, it does little to actually turn this dynamic in any appreciable way. Frankly, like most of the legislation, it kicks most of the city’s responsibilities for greening the right of ways to folks building new houses. The goal of expanding the tree canopy only comes as one item among protecting utilities, accessing the street, and matching trees to the available space in the planting strip. Literally, the ordinance misses the forest for the street.

Boom of logs in Ballard Locks, circa 1929. (Seattle Public Library)

A real change would rewrite the relationship between Seattle’s streets and tree canopy. But that would mean breaking the gilded cage mentality. You see, cages work both ways. Not only do they hold up something lovely for adoration, they’re also tightly controlling to avoid messes on the couch. Trees are living things that are messy, picky, and expensive, particularly when they are shoehorned into narrow planting strips. The new tree ordinance doesn’t expand the tree canopy. It invites more tiny, lonely islands of sickly trees to wilt along highways.

The biggest barriers to continuous tree canopy are the city’s streets, and Seattle’s city council has complete control over those. If a tree is important enough to alter development of a house, it’s important enough to alter the parking space in front of that house. The council can use the new ordinance to show its leadership.

Figure 11 describes relative and absolute tree canopy change between 2016 and 2021
by management unit, and the contribution of gains and losses to the absolute change in
each MU. A table with this data is available in Appendix A: Canopy Losses and Gains by
Management Unit.
As shown in Table 1, Neighborhood Residential contributes more to the city’s canopy
than any other MU, with 47% of Seattle’s tree canopy. It also makes up the largest land
area in the city (39%) and has relatively high canopy coverage (34%). For this reason,
gains and losses in this area play an outsized role on the city’s overall canopy. The net
loss of 87 acres (1.2% relative loss) made up over a third of the city’s overall canopy
loss during the assessment period.
The Right of Way also comprises a large portion of the city’s canopy (23%) and 27% of
the city’s land area. Canopy coverage for this MU—which includes the city’s roads,
sidewalks, planting strips, and medians—is 24%. As shown in Figure 11, canopy gains and losses roughly balanced out, with a net loss of 10 acres (0.3% relative loss) in this
The Parks Natural Areas MU makes up a small portion of the city’s land (5%), but due to
its high canopy coverage (82%), it is a major contributor to the city’s canopy (14%).
Losses during the assessment period outpaced gains, which were lower in this MU than
in other MUs and are discussed in more detail in the following section. Overall, this MU
had a net loss of 111 acres (5.1% relative loss)—nearly half of the city’s overall canopy
While the Multifamily MU is a smaller area of the city than its residential counterpart, it
had a net loss of 18 acres (1.9% relative loss). Neighborhood Residential and
Multifamily MUs together had a net loss of 105 acres since 2016, representing 41% of
the citywide loss.
The remaining non-residential, privately owned MUs comprise a smaller area of the city
(only 18%) and together had a net loss of 22 acres, representing 9% of citywide loss.
Some of these areas (e.g., Manufacturing/Industrial, Downtown) are anticipated to have
lower canopy than other areas, due to their dominant land uses involving large areas of
impervious surface, but to meet Seattle’s canopy goals we strive for canopy gains in all
Parks and natural lands accounted for 111 acres of net canopy loss. Note only a fraction of neighborhood residential canopy loss (17 acres) was the result of new development. (Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment)

Instead of relying on postage stamp yards preserving trees here and there, the city can truly expand the tree canopy by connecting parks and neighborhoods with redesigned parkways. Take the city’s immense arterials and replace parking and travel lanes to create broad boulevards of real, continuous green coverage. Less asphalt, more foliage. The Olmstead Brothers proposed it a century ago. We do it on a couple select streets already, like the 14th Avenue Gemenskap Park in Ballard, Ravenna Boulevard, and 17th Avenue north of UW. A real tree ordnance would be the blueprint for more, distributed equitably through the city. Otherwise, the new tree legislation is just shifting the onus to homeowners or sticking a few more lollipop plastic trees in a cloud of exhaust.

Councilmember Strauss is correct, there does not need to be antagonism between abundant housing and abundant trees. We can have both a grand green canopy and affordable homes for all, unless we relegate housing and trees to fight over narrow, un-automobiled strips of land. We don’t need four tiers of expensive tree concepts or incentives for squeezing in a single new tree well. If the city wants its citizens to care about trees, the city can start by showing what it means to really prioritize trees.

Article Author

Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.