Despite having been dubbed the Emerald City in 1982, and despite having a reputation for supporting climate action and environmental justice, the City of Seattle currently lacks many of the protections that other big cities around the United States have adopted to protect their trees and urban forests from destruction.
While the city has committed itself several times to embracing strategies to protect trees and increase Seattle’s tree canopy cover — such as in this resolution from 2019 — the city has yet to follow up by enacting an updated tree ordinance that would bring into force sorely needed policies that other metropolitan areas have already employed to combat clearcutting and tree loss within their borders.
Consequently, Seattle is without essential tools for vetting and scrutinizing activities or projects that would result in the unnecessary loss of mature trees, as well as initiatives to plant new trees to improve the health of the city.
At the Northwest Progressive Institute, we believe that conservation and environmental justice should be foundational values that guide city planning.
Trees and forests are a crucial ingredient in creating livable cities. They are a necessity, not a nice-to-have. We also know from experience that good intentions and resolutions are simply not a substitute for policy tools.
Seattle’s trees cannot defend themselves. The only way the Emerald City is going to stay emerald is if the city consciously chooses to protect its urban forests.
Earlier this summer, in the wake of the unprecedented heat wave that killed hundreds of people across the Pacific Northwest, we teamed up with TreePAC to gauge Seattle voters’ interest in updating the city’s tree ordinance and embracing measures to protect and expand Seattle’s tree canopy cover.
From July 12th, 2021, through July 17th, 2021, our pollster Change Research asked Seattleites about a range of sensible ideas for creating tree-friendly policy tools. 617 likely August 2021 voters participated, all online.
Every single idea we tested received not just a favorable response, but an overwhelmingly favorable response.
In fact, the tree protection ideas we asked voters react to collectively received more support than anything else that we asked about in the entire survey.
As you’ll see in a moment, the margins are about as lopsided as they could possibly be, which just goes to show that even during a time of intense polarization, there are still priorities that nearly everyone can agree on.
Seattle may have a reputation as a very progressive, Democratic city, but that doesn’t mean it lacks political fault lines. They’re there; they’re just different from the more frequently discussed national and state fault lines.
But whatever their differences, the vast majority of Seattle voters are in agreement that protecting trees and urban forests is in the city’s best interest.
Questions and responses
Let’s now take a look at each of the questions that we asked and the responses that we received. Our first question concerned the city’s tree protection ordinance, which, as mentioned, is sorely in need of an update and is not being well enforced by city officials. We wanted to know if voters were interested in applying an equity lens to the repeatedly delayed work of rewriting the tree ordinance, and pursuing policies that could help communities confront the impacts of climate damage. Trees are, after all, the best technology we have available to reduce heat deaths.
“Trees are, quite simply, the most effective strategy, technology, we have to guard against heat in cities.”
– Brian Stone Jr., a professor of environmental planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology
So, we asked:
QUESTION: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Seattle’s tree protection ordinance should be strengthened to include increasing tree planting in low income and previously redlined neighborhoods with insufficient tree canopy to reduce heat island impacts and counter climate damage?
- Agree: 82%
- Strongly agree: 57%
- Somewhat agree: 25%
- Disagree: 11%
- Somewhat disagree: 4%
- Strongly disagree: 7%
- Not sure: 7%
Though majorities in every age group were supportive, as the total suggests, young voters offered the most enthusiastic response to this question of any age group in the poll, with 66% of those ages eighteen to thirty-four saying they strongly supported the above statement, and another 24% saying they somewhat supported it. That’s a total of 90%. Only 7% expressed any opposition.
Their enthusiasm was almost matched by voters ages sixty-five and up. 65% of voters in that age group expressed strong support, with another 25% saying they somewhat supported the above statement.
89% of Democratic voters, meanwhile, voiced agreement, along with 64% of independents. And, in a finding that might come as a surprise to some, the Democrats and independents were joined by a plurality of Republicans (42%).
What this tells us is that voters don’t need to be convinced of the value of thinking of trees as “actual infrastructure, rather than an amenity,” in the words of Dr. Stone of the George Institute of Technology. They already get it. And they’re eager for the city to collectively put its money where its resolutions are.
Next, we asked about a set of specific ideas for giving Seattle’s tree ordinance more teeth. Most of these ideas would give the city a chance of translating its lofty rhetoric about protecting trees and tree canopy into everyday actions.
QUESTION: Please indicate your support or opposition for each of the following potential ideas for updating Seattle’s tree protection ordinance.
IDEAS & ANSWERS:
Increasing protections for significant and exceptional (large) trees
Support: 78% Oppose: 13% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 9% 52% 25% 6% 7% ———
Adding replacement requirements for significant and exceptional tree removal
Support: 76% Oppose: 13% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 11% 47% 29% 6% 7% ———
Creating a city tree planting and preservation fund
Support: 77% Oppose: 14% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 8% 47% 30% 7% 8% ———
Requiring tree care providers (arborists) to meet minimum certification and training and register with the city
Support: 75% Oppose: 14% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 11% 41% 34% 7% 6% ———
Creating a permitting process for removal of significant trees (trees greater than six inches in diameter at four and a half feet high)
Support: 57% Oppose: 28% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 15% 31% 26% 14% 14% ———
Support for these ideas ranged from 78% in favor of increasing protections for significant and exceptional (large) trees to 57% for creating a permitting process for removal of significant trees (trees greater than six inches in diameter at four and a half feet high). Even that last idea, which was the least popular of all the ones we tested, still got more than twice as much support as opposition.
As with our initial question, we saw high levels of support from younger and older voters. Voters in our two middle age brackets were also supportive, just not quite to the degree that voters ages eighteen to thirty-four or sixty-five and up were.
Lastly, we asked:
QUESTION: Cities like Austin, Texas require developers to maximize the retention of existing trees throughout the planning, development, and construction process, while Seattle allows building lots to be cleared of trees during development. Do you support or oppose requiring Seattle developers to maximize the retention of existing trees throughout the planning, development, and construction process?
- Support: 81%
- Strongly support: 58%
- Somewhat support: 23%
- Oppose: 11%
- Somewhat oppose: 7%
- Strongly oppose: 6%
- Not sure: 6%
As with our other questions, we saw plenty of enthusiasm across the board.
By a margin of about eight to one, voters endorsed requiring developers to maximize the retention of existing trees throughout the planning, development, and construction process. By setting a new default for projects that’s friendlier to mature trees, Seattle can join other cities in making future redevelopment projects more sustainable and neighborhood-considerate.
Because mature trees take a lifetime to grow, merely requiring developers to plant x number of trees for any they cut down is not an approach that will create livable neighborhoods. We need stronger protections like the policy proposed above.
Trees need to be considered as assets worthy of preservation, not impediments. If it helps to think of trees as a form of infrastructure, like Dr. Stone has suggested, then let’s frame shift so that we can flip our defaults and stop needlessly losing trees when parcels are redeveloped. Our trees are worth saving.
- Change Research, a Public Benefit Corporation based in California, surveyed 617 likely August 2021 Top Two election voters in Seattle from Monday, July 12th to Thursday, July 15th on behalf of the Northwest Progressive Institute. All respondents participated online.
- Change used targeted advertisements on Facebook, targeted advertisements on Instagram, and text messages sent via the echo19 and/or Scale To Win platforms to cell phone numbers listed on the voter file for individuals who qualified for the survey’s sample universe, based on their voter file data.
- Regardless of which of these sources a respondent came from, they were directed to a survey hosted on SurveyMonkey’s website. Ads placed on social media targeted all adults living in Seattle. Those who indicated that they were not registered to vote were terminated.
- As the survey fielded, Change used dynamic online sampling: adjusting ad budgets, lowering budgets for ads targeting groups that were overrepresented and raising budgets for ads targeting groups that were underrepresented, so that the final sample was roughly representative of the population across different groups.
- The survey was conducted in English, and has a modeled margin of error of 4.3% at the 95% confidence interval.
Concluding thoughts: Time to unite for a greener Seattle
The Emerald City can only be the beacon for environmental justice and climate leadership that it aspires to be (and that it should be!) if it walks its talk. The city must enact a strong tree ordinance within the next few months to ensure that it truly values its natural capital. Trees and urban forests provide incalculable, immense benefits to our built environment, from reducing noise pollution and providing shade to fostering habitat and capturing carbon dioxide.
We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from speaking up for our trees and acting to protect them. Our team at NPI believes that protecting trees is and should be part of every urbanist’s ethos. There is nothing incompatible about protecting trees and building attainable housing, or protecting trees and preventing sprawl. These are priorities we should be pursuing in tandem. Imaginative, responsible, tree-friendly development is what we should want for Seattle.
Pioneering urbanists have long recognized how important trees are to the health of cities large and small. Suburban Nation, a turn of the century classic championing urbanism, contains an early passage emphasizing the importance of trees in the built environment, contrasting the welcoming, tree-lined streets of Alexandria with the treeless traffic sewers of Virginia Beach:
On Alexandria’s streets, car drive and park while people walk, enter buildings, meet, converse under trees, and even dine at sidewalk cafes. In Virginia Beach, only one thing happens on the street: cars moving. There is no parallel parking, no pedestrians, and certainly no trees. Like many state departments of transportation, Virginia’s discourages its state roads from being lined with trees, which are considered dangerous. In fact, they are not called trees at all but FHOs: Fixed and Hazardous Objects.
The authors of Suburban Nation were right to call out and shake their heads at this characterization of trees twenty-one years ago.
Now, it’s time for Seattle to do the same by updating its policies. Voters are ready and eager for action. The next Mayor of Seattle and Seattle City Council must make tree protection a top priority for the coming legislative year.