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.