January 2023 tree protection poll findings
NPI's January 2023 Seattle polling finds that voters are worried about tree canopy loss as the city grows and becomes denser (NPI graphic)

Two out of three Seat­tle vot­ers say they are very or some­what con­cerned about tree and canopy loss as hous­ing den­si­ty increas­es, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s lat­est city­wide poll of Seat­tle has found.

68% of 651 like­ly Feb­ru­ary 2023 spe­cial elec­tion vot­ers inter­viewed from Jan­u­ary 26th-30th for NPI by Change Research said they were con­cerned about tree and canopy loss, while 31% said they were not. Only 1% were not sure.

Of the total sur­veyed, 40% said they were very con­cerned, while 29% said they were some­what con­cerned. 18% were not too con­cerned and 12% were not con­cerned at all. That’s a mar­gin of greater than 2:1 over­all. When com­par­ing very con­cerned vot­ers to vot­ers not con­cerned at all, the mar­gin is almost 4:1.

Our past research has estab­lished that Seat­tleites believe that the city needs to both build more hous­ing and do a bet­ter job of pro­tect­ing its trees. Those goals are not incom­pat­i­ble. Thought­ful devel­op­ers have demon­strat­ed it’s pos­si­ble to rede­vel­op a lot with­out clear­ing away all of the flo­ra on the property.

But if the city does­n’t require thought­ful devel­op­ment, it won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly hap­pen of its own accord, because a con­ser­va­tion and tree pro­tec­tion eth­ic sim­ply isn’t the default for many devel­op­ers. Devel­op­ment revolves to a huge extent around reg­u­la­tions, as evi­denced by well over a cen­tu­ry of town plan­ning in this coun­try. Cities and towns that val­ue plazas, parks, trees, and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty ameni­ties have to insist on those pub­lic goods as part of their plan­ning and munic­i­pal codes.

This is an area in which Seat­tle lags behind many of its peers around the coun­try. Oth­er big cities are act­ing to address canopy loss. Seat­tle has­n’t done very much. No won­der, then, that two-thirds vot­ers in the Emer­ald City are con­cerned about trees dis­ap­pear­ing as hous­ing den­si­ty increas­es to meet pop­u­la­tion growth.

Here’s the ques­tion respon­dents saw and the answers again:

QUESTION: How con­cerned are you about tree and canopy loss in your neigh­bor­hood and the city as hous­ing den­si­ty increas­es to meet Seattle’s grow­ing population?


  • Total con­cerned: 68% 
    • Very con­cerned: 40%
    • Some­what con­cerned: 29%
  • Total not con­cerned: 31% 
    • Not too con­cerned: 18%
    • Not con­cerned at all: 12%
  • Not sure: 1%

Our sur­vey of 651 like­ly Feb­ru­ary 2023 spe­cial elec­tion vot­ers in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton was in the field from Thurs­day, Jan­u­ary 26th, through Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 30th, 2023. All respon­dents par­tic­i­pat­ed online. The poll was con­duct­ed for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute by Change Research and has a mod­eled mar­gin of error of 4.2% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

We pre­vi­ous­ly found big majori­ties of Seat­tle vot­ers sup­port­ive of ideas for pro­tect­ing trees — in the sum­mer of 2021 and again in the autumn of that same year. This lat­est find­ing demon­strates that canopy loss is some­thing that peo­ple across the Emer­ald City are wor­ried about, and think­ing about.

City lead­ers are think­ing about it, too.

The Urban Forestry Com­mis­sion and our friends at TreeP­AC have been work­ing for years to lay the ground­work for an updat­ed tree pro­tec­tion ordinance.

Now, their cause has been tak­en up by Seat­tle May­or Bruce Har­rell and Office of Sus­tain­abil­i­ty & Envi­ron­ment Direc­tor Jessyn Far­rell. The city recent­ly released its 2021 tree canopy assess­ment, show­ing a slow decline in canopy cov­er between 2016 and 2021, which empha­sized that canopy loss is not hap­pen­ing equitably.

“Crit­i­cal for ensur­ing Seat­tle’s stand­ing as a tru­ly emer­ald and ever­green city, trees pro­vide essen­tial ben­e­fits to our com­mu­ni­ties from heat mit­i­ga­tion to air qual­i­ty improve­ment and over­all well­be­ing. This decline in canopy cov­er means we need to do more to plant, pre­serve, and pro­tect trees to meet our goals for Seattle’s canopy, cli­mate, and com­mu­ni­ties,” said Seat­tle May­or Bruce Harrell.

“The infor­ma­tion in this report is inform­ing our upcom­ing efforts to dri­ve improve­ments — includ­ing new strate­gies to plant more trees and main­tain our exist­ing canopy, all while pri­or­i­tiz­ing equi­ty in neigh­bor­hoods who face the worst impacts of cli­mate change,” the may­or’s state­ment went on to say.

On March 7th, the may­or’s office and Coun­cilmem­ber Dan Strauss announced a new ini­tia­tive to increase the city’s tree canopy and plant and pre­serve thou­sands of trees. The effort con­sists of an exec­u­tive order signed by Har­rell and a pro­posed update to the city’s tree pro­tec­tion ordi­nance spon­sored by Strauss.

“We must act now to get back on track toward meet­ing our tree canopy goals and build the cli­mate-for­ward future we want to see,” said May­or Har­rell. “Fol­low­ing the data and lead­ing with equi­ty, this leg­is­la­tion and Exec­u­tive Order takes a One Seat­tle approach to plant­i­ng trees where they are most need­ed, address­ing canopy and afford­abil­i­ty issues in tan­dem, and mit­i­gat­ing the impacts of cli­mate change for front­line com­mu­ni­ties and res­i­dents in neigh­bor­hoods across the city.”

“I am incred­i­bly excit­ed to final­ly have the tree pro­tec­tion ordi­nance because this bill has been worked on for twen­ty years for some, thir­teen years for oth­ers, and five years for me. This bill pro­tects trees and cre­ates the mech­a­nism to plant, plan, and stew­ard the cli­mate resilient canopy Seattle’s future needs,” said Coun­cilmem­ber Dan Strauss in the joint statement.

When it comes to pub­lic pol­i­cy, the details real­ly matter.

The Har­rell-Strauss plan has sev­er­al good ele­ments, but could be strength­ened con­sid­er­ably, with more teeth added to ensure the city’s poli­cies allow imple­men­ta­tion to actu­al­ly match inten­tions. The ini­tial plan out­lined on March 7th empha­sizes pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships, replant­i­ng require­ments, and added report­ing, along with a “One Seat­tle Tree Fund,” which could be col­lect­ed from fee-in-lieu pay­ments from devel­op­ers and pri­vate prop­er­ty owners.

But it removes pro­tec­tions for sig­nif­i­cant trees that are six to twelve inch­es in diam­e­ter at breast height (DBH), a com­mon met­ric for mea­sur­ing tree size.

On unde­vel­oped lots, a greater num­ber of “Tier 3” trees in a span of three years could be removed in neigh­bor­hood res­i­den­tial, lowrise, midrise, com­mer­cial, and mized zones. (The draft ordi­nance clas­si­fies trees by tiers — 1, 2, 3, and 4, with Tier 1 con­sti­tut­ing the most sig­nif­i­cant trees in terms of their size.)

The draft also does not require that tree inven­to­ry and land­scape plans be done pri­or to the issuance of build­ing per­mits, like Port­land, Ore­gon already requires.

And it still only requires one or more trees for tree removal replace­ment that at matu­ri­ty equals canopy lost, which is problematic.

The ordi­nance would ben­e­fit from hav­ing a sep­a­rate tree plant­i­ng and preser­va­tion fund admin­is­tered by a city forester, like Port­land does, rather than hav­ing the Seat­tle Depart­ment of Con­struc­tion and I col­lect­ing the funds.

The may­or and Coun­cilmem­ber Strauss are to be com­mend­ed for putting a plan on a table. But it needs strength­en­ing. Canopy loss is going to con­tin­ue unless the city gets seri­ous about pro­tect­ing its exist­ing trees… not just col­lect­ing mon­ey when a devel­op­er or landown­er wants to chop trees down, and not just plant­i­ng new trees that will take decades to reach matu­ri­ty. A robust tree pro­tec­tion ordi­nance is a pre­req­ui­site for revers­ing the cur­rent trend and get­ting the Emer­ald City on a tra­jec­to­ry to become a place where trees are tru­ly val­ued and thrive.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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