"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." - Thoreau

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Setting Objectives

Sometimes you CAN bend for something of greater value than your convenience.
The Dallas landscape and tree ordinance seems to be on many minds these days. But I am cautious to not allow myself to be removed from an objective position where I cannot view the entire universe of topics. Some are guided by a single initiative while I must view the Dallas forest infrastructure holistically - inside and outside of ordinance. The list of forestry issues we need to consider beyond a tree ordinance is extensive which makes me very grateful Dallas also has a city forester.  As I've indicated before, a city ordinance only gives you certain rules for certain standards and for certain conditions.  It sets parameters for development, one lot at a time, and then you live up to them or you don't.  The forest community is MUCH more complex than buildings and streets.  Ordinances need to keep the perspective of the urban landscape for future generations, and not just be simplified for the instant gratification of a beautiful landscaped oasis during the ribbon cutting.

Landscaping and tree protection problems are often left as trivial in the scope of all other things related to development.  Landscaping for many projects is the first thing to get squashed in a budget, and land and tree conservation is the last thing contemplated in design of the development.  There are individuals who do see the whole picture (and if we're fortunate, it's the owner), but sometimes the development team may not fully understand the objective of any landscape application, or where it may fall short.  Buildings and infrastructure age but are designed to not physically change in scale or function over the decades.  Trees stymie engineers because they don't follow straight lines and they don't obey boundaries, in the air or underground.  This is why large trees in landscape beds next to buildings is a bad idea.  Trees are alive and need to thrive.

Landscape ordinances are designed primarily with the focus on new construction.  The best of them may address some day to day management of the existing urban forest in general.  But the ordinances are mere tools to establish a direction for development to be completed like a puzzle of a larger system that is in place to meet the purpose, or objectives, laid out for the city.  These ordinance objectives are defined by the citizens, or more directly by their representatives.  The Article X (10) ordinance has a purpose section where all but one of the listed objectives were created with the original landscape ordinance of 1986.  Only one was initiated with the 1994 creation of the Tree Preservation, Removal, and Replacement regulations.  The purposes are listed below.  We can look to these objectives and ask if they meet all of our objectives today.

These objectives (or purpose) do not help us deal with the specifics for pro-active forest management.  They do not set into motion an aggressive effort to locate specific forested areas and trees we desire to preserve from development and place them into preservation, or conservation, areas.  The objectives do not help us regulate extremely poor tree maintenance and cutting practices which should be more regulated for the protection of the workers and the homeowners.  Since there are standards nationally recognized by the professional tree services in how to conduct proper tree care, why would you not require these standards on your property, or on city property? These existing objectives do not help us provide better information on planting trees correctly or provide adequate planting space and soil volume in city streets.  The objectives do not give us a tree inventory or direct us to forge a city-wide forest management plan.  How do we manage trees in alleyways, and around public utilities, or navigate through conflicts with our neighbors over a shared tree?  A tree dies on a vacated lot next to your home.  How is this addressed?  The sidewalk is buckling with the massive mature tree lifting slabs and pushing curbs.  Must you remove the tree?  There are answers to these problems but each situation is different and answers should be consistent.  But they are not found in this ordinance.

The urban forest community has many stories and there needs to be direction for the citizens of how to address them.  An ordinance will not provide all of these answers, but it can help establish parameters, benchmarks, and performance levels that everyone should follow, including - and especially - the City of Dallas.  Should we also pursue a Urban Forest Management Plan for the city?  This is an idea that has moved forward in many cities, including Austin, and will likely be discussed here for some time to come.

The door is open for discussion.  It is a moment to be positive and to seek creative answers to help the city move forward and prosper.  

Dallas Trees Library
The process of development with its alteration of the natural topography, vegetation, and creation of impervious cover can have a negative effect on the ecological balance of an area by causing increases in air temperatures and accelerating the processes of runoff, erosion, and sedimentation.  The economic base of the city can and should be protected through the preservation and enhancement of the unique natural beauty, environment, and vegetative space in this area.  Recognizing that the general objectives of this article are to promote and protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, the city council further declares that this article is adopted for the following specific purposes:

          (1)     To aid in stabilizing the environment's ecological balance by contributing to the processes of air purification, oxygen regeneration, ground-water recharge, and storm water runoff retardation, while at the same time aiding in noise, glare, wind, and heat abatement.

          (2)     To provide visual buffering between land uses of differing character to alleviate the harshness of urban life.

          (3)     To enhance the beautification of the city.

          (4)     To safeguard and enhance property values and to protect public and private investment.

          (5)     To conserve energy.

          (6)     To provide habitat for wildlife.

          (7)     To encourage the preservation of large trees which, once removed, can be replaced only after generations.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Spring Of Our Discontent

Dallas urban forest canopy
You may have heard a rumor that the Dallas landscape and tree ordinance is about to come under review.  Of course, this rumor has been going for a good five years, but I think I can safely say the task is now finally in pre-production and getting ready to gear up for community discussion.  For many, it could not happen soon enough and has been needed for years. But I think, perhaps, the time in which we have waited will have been to a good service.  I believe time allows for opportunities for people to learn of new ideas, allows for people to put ideas together, and allows for unexpected alliances.

Before we open up into a conversation on this blog about the Article X (ten) ordinances, I think it may be wise to look beyond the scope of city regulation to help us identify our strengths and weaknesses, and to look into the book of players.  More importantly, I think we owe it to ourselves to define our objectives.  But to do this, we must understand our assets and our liabilities. What goals will we set and what exactly are we talking about when we talk about our trees, or our forests, or our land?  What is Dallas beyond the human equation and what really does matter?  What has value?  Should we define what value is?  You may not really be surprised how this word 'value' can be interpreted by different people.

People have been frustrated (I'm trying to be diplomatic) by the current tree ordinance for some time now and different people have different reasons.  I find each and every argument has a basis of merit, whether the complainant is a developer or private citizen, politician or small business owner, environmentalist or capitalist. We have to listen to each other in the coming months and find ways to connect.  Several people from different areas of interest have discussed this ordinance backwards and forwards for years now to seek understanding and consensus.  We have learned there are some places where there can be connections of understanding, but there will always be division elsewhere. We are individuals with different mindsets, and different cultural and moral perceptions. The challenge for a democracy is to find the balance and compromise that serves the entire community. But beyond looking at the negatives of an existing ordinance, we need to look at some of the positives that have helped us move forward in growth of our community for the past 20 years of this ordinance.  

For now, however, I want to begin to look at our forest infrastructure.  In the coming year, new research will be taken by others that will help us understand our urban forest (our community) in ways we haven't seen before.  We have a sprawling urban forest that originated in time with the expansion of human settlement across the Dallas territories as individual land owners - homeowners (namely, you) - planted the trees that help define and characterize your neighborhoods.  For us, the urban forest begins with your home and the trees on your land.  We will look at the other public lands, including the Great Trinity Forest which has been transformed over the past century as our agricultural uses settled down.  It is now a compromised sanctuary for wildlife, becoming revisited by our economic expansion.  How do we manage this? We need to understand more about the science beyond the beauty that surrounds us in our trees and the interrelationships between ourselves, the trees, the wildlife, and the air and water which nourishes us.  We need to comprehend the realities of how our urban forest is a vital living infrastructure which helps us to tolerate our existence (and others) in this city environment.  Trees help relieve crime and provide significant value to homes and neighborhoods.  How do we manage this forest for the long term while addressing our immediate needs?

As we start down the road with this new course for Dallas Trees, I want to help us identify our forest and to introduce ideas and science that can give us guidance.  We will discuss forest management for you as a land owner and for the community as a whole.  How do we become proactive in establishing a healthy forest instead of being reactive to its dangers? There are many things we can do in our communities today to improve our forest that do not require a tree ordinance.  Our success with our urban forest does not begin or end with regulation.  It is merely a tool to help us achieve objectives we must define.  We cannot define it without understanding it.  In the coming months, I want to help us learn more about our forest community, and in doing so, learn more about our places within it.  In understanding, we can grow a land ethic which can lead us to correct actions and not ruinous ones.  We will look at how to maintain a single tree through best management practices established by industry leaders, and help us in knowing how to project our tree forest cover for generations to come.

Our discontent is a symptom, in part, of something we do not yet fully understand.  Let's understand our forest, and our goals for that forest, before we regulate how to get to that end.