Trees in Greenwich Park

London councils remove almost 50,000 trees in five years: ‘Our canopy is vanishing’

Image credit: Dreamstime

As London’s felling upsurge is revealed, one entrepreneur calls for vigilance and says technology can help map London’s green giants amid hopes that smartphones will help urbanites better appreciate nature.

Trees are being chopped down at an alarming rate in Britain‘s green and pleasant capital city, with over 10,000 specimens removed by council chainsaw crews last year alone.

Figures obtained by E&T suggest there has been a spike in tree felling in London in recent years, with at least 20 per cent more trees cut down by the city’s 33 councils in the last five years compared with the period 2003-2007.

49,000 trees were officially recorded as being removed by council workers in the five years to the start of 2017, although as not all town halls hold a complete data set for such removals the true figure is likely to be higher still.

The apparent rise may be due partly to the St Jude’s Day storm, which in 2013 led to around 4,050 damaged trees having to be uprooted. Nonetheless, it is likely to concern campaigners who have warned of tree maintenance budgets being hacked back in some areas.

Subsidence-related insurance claims have been cited as a possible reason why councils may in some cases be keen to denude the canopy. Some local authorities in London pay as much as £50 per tree for annual maintenance. 

The Woodland Trust has warned that in England as a whole more trees may now be being cut down than planted for the first time in around four decades.

Across the country, the leafy giants are now said to be being felled at a rate of nearly 60 a day.

The latest figures come ahead of a week of events on aboricultural themes including use of new data tools to map the “urban forest” and measure how much carbon dioxide is being absorbed by cities’ green lungs.

London’s City Hall recently launched a colour-coded map which pools data from local authorities to show where every tree in London is located. It allows users to search by tree species.

Paul Wood, who has written a book on street trees and will be taking part in an event called ‘Trees and Technology’ as part of London Tree Week, said councils were carrying out planting schemes to replace those now being lost.

“These trees are probably being replaced,” Wood told E&T. “I think it is highly likely that they are. But the issue that is probably of interest is what might be termed ‘canopy cover’, because mature trees provide greater canopy cover than young trees.”

In Sheffield in northern England, protests have been raging over the felling of more than 4,000 trees over a five-year period.

Wood called for people to be “vigilant”, citing mounting costs of inspecting trees for damage by invasive pests.

“In future, there could be more situations like the one in Sheffield,” he added.

He also said hyper-connected urbanites should be inspired to use their smartphones to connect with nature.

“One of the things that technology can offer is a way to engage people,” Wood said. “I think that, through initial engagement through a smart phone, people may become interested in the real thing.

“The virtual information can lead to real appreciation. That’s my way of thinking about it. The natural world has to compete for people’s attention with many other things and people are used to using devices to engage with all sorts of things, so why not the natural world in its broadest sense?”

As part of a scheme branded a gimmick by some, trees in the city of Melbourne, Australia, were assigned their own individual email addresses two years ago so admirers could communicate with the plants.

The importance of cultivating verdant surroundings in cities was one of the key elements of architect Sir Terry Farrell’s government-commissioned review of engineering and the built environment.

Sir Terry wrote the foreword to an ‘i-Tree’ report, presented to the Greater London Authority two years ago, which concluded there were nearly eight and a half million trees in London removing in total thousands of tons of pollutants each year.

This was calculated as amounting to £126m-worth of ‘ecosystem services’ rendered to the city’s people.

According to the report, an estimated 2,367,000 tonnes (approximately 15t/ha) of carbon is stored in London’s trees, with an estimated value of £147 million.

Soaking up stormwater runoff is seen as being just one of the benefits furnished by the city’s alders, birches, plane trees and elms.

Of the councils that responded to E&T’s request for information, made under the Freedom of Information Act, Redbridge was by far and away the biggest tree cutter, managing to fell an incredible 5,790 trees over five years.

Barnet felled the next highest number (4,076), while City of London, which covers the historic Square Mile and is geographically the smallest of all the capital’s councils, felled the fewest – just 220 in total.

Joseph Coles from the Woodland Trust said: “Trees in urban areas face unprecedented threats. Be it climate change, tree disease, development or council budgets. However, they bring a huge array of benefits to people and with 80 per cent of the UK’s people living in urban settlements, street trees are their main daily contact with nature.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan became embroiled in a controversy last year after appearing to promise to plant two million trees in the capital, before later backtracking on this vow.

The online map of London’s street trees is available now.

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