Back in September, our team at the Northwest Progressive Institute joined forces with TreePAC to unveil polling showing that voters across the ideological spectrum are in enthusiastic agreement that Seattle should be doing more to protect its tree canopy and favor a number of ideas for updating Seattle’s tree ordinance.
Today, we’re delighted to be able to share an additional set of findings that affirms voters’ strong and deep enthusiasm for keeping the Emerald City emerald.
These findings come from our October 2021 general election poll of the Seattle electorate, conducted for NPI by Change Research from October 12th-15th.
Readers may recall that the electoral segment of our October survey found Bruce Harrell ahead for Mayor, Ann Davison ahead of City Attorney, and Teresa Mosqueda and Sara Nelson ahead for Seattle City Council. All of them went on to win their respective races, demonstrating that our polling had successfully charted the city’s electoral landscape as voting was beginning across the metropolis.
As is our usual practice, we followed up our electoral questions with issue-based ones. From having studied and analyzed the results of our July 2021 Top Two survey of the Seattle electorate, conducted before the August qualifying election, we knew that tree protection was among the causes that most resonated with Seattleites, regardless of their political affiliation, age, income, or ethnicity.
We wanted to see if the larger universe of general election voters would respond the same way, so we asked respondents about an additional set of ideas for updating Seattle’s tree ordinance and safeguarding urban forests.
Like in July, we got an overwhelmingly positive response. It is abundantly clear that Seattleites value trees and urban forests and want their elected representatives to adopt policies that will strengthen the city’s tree canopy.
What we found particularly interesting was that big majorities of both Bruce Harrell’s supporters and Lorena González’s supporters backed pretty much every idea that we asked them to respond to. It was striking: This truly is an issue that Seattleites on both sides of the city’s marquee race are in agreement on.
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 asked if Seattle should follow in Portland’s footsteps and require developers to provide a comprehensive Tree Survey and Tree Plan at the beginning of the building development process.
This system, which you can learn more about on the Rose City’s website, ensures that Portland’s elected representatives and city planners have sound, regularly refreshed data they can use to guide development decisions.
QUESTION: Portland, Oregon requires developers to provide a comprehensive Tree Survey and Tree Plan at the beginning of the building development process. Developers enter the Tree Survey information into a spreadsheet, which facilitates data collection on tree loss and replacement. Supporters say Seattle could follow suit to ensure the city maintains a healthy tree canopy, while opponents say it would be yet another regulation that would slow down development. Do you support or oppose requiring developers in the City of Seattle to complete a Tree Survey and Tree Plan prior to construction permits being approved?
- Support: 74%
- Strongly support: 50%
- Somewhat support: 24%
- Oppose: 18%
- Somewhat oppose: 9%
- Strongly oppose: 9%
- Not sure: 8%
About three quarters of respondents said they said supported bringing a Portland-like system to Seattle, with half in strong support. (Many other large cities also require developers to provide a comprehensive Tree Survey and Tree Plan before greenlighting construction.) Fewer than one in five voters said they were opposed.
Voters in all age groups were supportive by more than three-to-one margins, but voters sixty-five and older, who overwhelmingly backed Bruce Harrell for mayor in our survey, were particularly excited about this tree survey and tree plan idea. A whopping 84% of that age group expressed support, with a mere 8% opposed.
Voters in Seattle’s southernmost zip codes, where the tree canopy is less robust, were also quite enthusiastic. 79% of voters in zip codes that for the most part correspond with the 1st District indicated support, while 72% of voters in zip codes mostly corresponding with the 2nd District expressed support. 73% of voters in zip codes mostly corresponding with the 3rd District expressed support.
Only one district north of the Ship Canal was enthusiastic as the likely southern council districts: the likely 4th, where support was 77%.
Our second question asked Seattleites if they’d like to see environmental policies and tree management brought under the jurisdiction of a new city department:
QUESTION: Oversight of trees in Seattle is currently overseen by nine city departments. Do you support or oppose creating a new Seattle Department of Environment and Climate that would include a consolidated urban forestry division?
- Support: 72%
- Strongly support: 44%
- Somewhat oppose: 28%
- Oppose: 18%
- Somewhat oppose: 6%
- Strongly oppose: 12%
- Not sure: 10%
More than seven in ten voters backed this idea overall.
González voters were especially enthusiastic, with 54% of them expressing strong support and another 25% somewhat supportive, for a total of 79%.
38% of Harrell voters offered strong support while another 25% said they were somewhat supportive, for a total of 67% supportive.
As with the tree survey and tree plan question, Harrell’s older voters were even more enthusiastic. 49% of those ages sixty-five and up expressed strong support. Another 25% were somewhat supportive, for a total of 74% supportive.
Our third and final question asked about five ideas for updating Seattle’s tree protection ordinance, which has been awaiting a makeover for twelve years.
QUESTION: Please indicate your support or opposition for each of the following ideas for updating Seattle’s tree protection ordinance.
IDEAS & ANSWERS:
Give priority to planting native and climate resilient trees
Support: 89% Oppose: 6% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 5% 66% 23% 3% 3% ———
Charge developers replacement fees for trees that they remove and don’t replant, with the amount of the fee corresponding to the size of the removed tree to make up for lost canopy
Support: 77% Oppose: 15% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 8% 56% 22% 7% 8% ———
Increase building setbacks to allow larger, street-facing trees to be planted
Support: 67% Oppose: 20% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 14% 38% 29% 10% 10% ———
Reduce the number of significant, non-exceptional trees that can be removed by private property owners from three (3) per year to two (2) in three years
Support: 55% Oppose: 28% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 17% 29% 26% 14% 14% ———
Lower the upper limit for exceptional tree protection from thirty (30) inches in tree diameter to twenty-four (24) inches in diameter
Support: 50% Oppose: 25% Not sure: Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly 25% 29% 21% 12% 13% ———
Support for these ideas ranged from 89% in favor of giving priority to planting native and climate resilient trees to 50% for lowering the upper limit for exceptional tree protection from thirty inches in tree diameter to twenty-four inches. Even the least popular idea found a two-to-one margin of support.
Charging developers replacement fees for trees they remove and don’t replant is, aside from prioritizing native and climate resilient trees, the most popular of the ideas we tested. Every age group really liked it. It’s also another idea that is extremely popular in Seattle’s western and southern neighborhoods, with 87% of voters in likely council district #1 supportive, 81% of voters in likely council district #2 supportive, and 85% of voters in likely council district #3 supportive.
85% of González voters also favor charging developers replacement fees. They are just as keen about moving forward with this idea as the older voters ages sixty-five and up (84% supportive) who told us they mostly favor Harrell.
Increasing setbacks got a thumbs up from two-thirds of respondents.
Making adjustments to the rules for removal of significant, non-exceptional trees, and broadening the definition of what an exceptional tree didn’t get sky-high levels of support, but were nevertheless backed by solid majorities of our poll respondents. No idea we tested had more opposition than support.
- Change Research, a Public Benefit Corporation based in California, surveyed 617 likely November general election voters in Seattle from Tuesday, October 12th to Friday, October 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 4.1% at the 95% confidence interval.
Voters agree, now it’s time for City Hall to agree
Whether they told us they were voting for Bruce Harrell or M. Lorena González for mayor — or for any other set of candidates, for that matter — voters in Seattle are in agreement that the city could use a stronger tree ordinance that gives the Emerald City a better shot at ensuring it lives up to its name as it grows.
The takeaway is clear: the Seattle City Council and incoming Mayor Bruce Harrell must prioritize the work of updating the city’s tree ordinance. This is imperative to implementing a true equity-focused environmental and social justice agenda.
In addition to taking steps to protect existing canopy, the city needs to accelerate its efforts to grow the canopy by planting more native and climate resilient trees.
The needed work can’t keep getting relegated to the back burner as it did under Mayors Durkan and Murray. Proposed updates to the city’s tree ordinance have been in bureaucratic purgatory for twelve years and counting.
Meanwhile, the climate crisis is getting worse.
We know that neighborhoods without sufficient tree canopy are faring worse in heatwaves and exhibiting more extreme heat island effects than their leafier counterparts. It’s no coincidence that the neighborhoods with the fewest trees have higher concentrations of Black and Brown and low income inhabitants.
Mayor-elect Harrell and the Council should resolve to complete the process of updating the city’s tree ordinance with strong new provisions by July of 2022 so that the city’s policies can be better aligned with its values as soon as possible.