NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

Seattle voters overwhelmingly favor policies to protect and expand the city’s tree canopy

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?

ANSWERS:

  • 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.

We asked:

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:
Strong­lySome­whatSome­whatStrong­ly9%
52%25%6%7%———

Adding replace­ment require­ments for sig­nif­i­cant and excep­tion­al tree removal

Sup­port: 76%Oppose: 13%Not sure:
Strong­lySome­whatSome­whatStrong­ly11%
47%29%6%7%———

Cre­at­ing a city tree plant­i­ng and preser­va­tion fund

Sup­port: 77%Oppose: 14%Not sure:
Strong­lySome­whatSome­whatStrong­ly8%
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:
Strong­lySome­whatSome­whatStrong­ly11%
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:
Strong­lySome­whatSome­whatStrong­ly15%
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?

ANSWERS:

  • 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.

Survey methodology

  • 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.

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