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Green Infrastructure

September 2021.

A number of recent newspaper articles set me thinking about the importance of green infrastructure/trees in our urban environment. The first was a report that in Sydney all new stand-alone houses must have space for the planting of a garden tree. This is part of the council’s attempt to combat climate change; the trees would not only help decrease carbon dioxide levels but, by transpiration, would also cool the air in summer, far better than a shade canvas.

The second began with a report about the removal of phoenix palms from Tamihana Avenue in Matamata. The trees were removed at the request of the residents, apparently because the spines on their leaves can cause nasty infections, and the trees attract pigeons. Sadly however, when the residents were surveyed by council concerning replacements, a narrow majority of those who replied did not want any trees. Now there is an outcry from other residents who say they were not even consulted and they do want replacements.

We need to embrace urban trees; like the air we breathe, they are a commons. Yes, they can be inconvenient – they drop leaves and nuts, they sometimes obstruct views. However both for the mitigation of the heating affects of climate change, as well as for their ability to help reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution they are vital in our towns and cities. It is time our own council had a firm policy regarding green infrastructure in towns, both in gardens and streets. Meanwhile, most of us can at least plant a garden tree. The tree shown here in Vogel Street, but, sadly, recently removed, would have made a wonderful, cool place for children to play and parents to relax on a hot summer day.

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Cambridge is justifiably proud of being the Town of Trees, and it is an important reason why people want to move here. The benefits of urban trees are not just aesthetic; now known as Green Infrastructure (as opposed to grey infrastructure – roads, buildings, carparks) trees provide ‘services’: environmental (cleaner air , summer cooling, decreased water run-off, biodiversity); economic (energy saving, improved house values); social (encouraging walking, social interaction, human physical and mental well-being). And the greater the total leaf surface area of the tree, the greater its benefits.

But as new developments spring up in all directions, Cambridge is in danger of losing its treed character. People want affordable housing so compact urban design is desirable. But surely there are better ways to achieve this than what we now see unfolding; individual houses crammed so close there is no room for shade trees in gardens; strips between footpath and road too narrow to support a decent-sized tree, while many of those planted in recent years have sulked, been left to grow unsightly or died.

And now Council, to its credit, is set on encouraging commuter walking and cycling, but who will be tempted to walk from their new home through hot streets to work, shop or school and then trudge home again, all hot and sweaty? We need to plan from the outset for adequate space for decent-sized street trees, determine varieties suitable to the situation, plant with care and then maintain them through their early years. We need better design, with narrower streets to slow cars, wider footpaths, separated by wider green strips for decent-sized trees that shade our footpaths and encourage people to use active transport. There is no need for compact housing to be a desert if we plan for decent-sized street trees from the outset.


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Old, gnarly trees

Gnarly, half-rotten, old trees are precious. We need to cherish them,’ writes the philosopher/environmentalist George Monbiot, in a recent ‘Guardian’ article. ‘Big old trees are the keystone structures of forests on which many species depend.’ This brings to mind the wonderful old tawa, rata and rimu to be seen at Maungatautari, and if you walk to the tower in the Southern Enclosure you can get up close and personal with such ecosystems (see picture). You can see the vines, the epiphytes, the mosses, lichens and fungi that flourish on these giant trees. What you don’t often see are the creatures that make their homes there; kaka, morepork, saddlebacks and even tiny rifleman nesting in rotten hollows, bats sheltering in splits in the trunk, lizards lapping at tiny pools of water in branch forks, weta and the many other insects and their larvae that feed on plants and decaying wood, and become in turn food for larger creatures.

All truly healthy ecosystems, seabeds, meandering rivers, forests, depend on ‘old and gnarly places’; in forests, ancient, even rotting, trees that develop over centuries provide the natural architecture for the slow growth of a rich, complex biodiversity. Replacing an old tree with ‘a dozen saplings in plastic rabbit guards is no more meaningful than replacing [a painting by] an old master.’

This got me thinking about what we do in our towns when we talk of the desirability of providing habitat for bats and a diverse range of insects, lizards, and birds. It is not of course a natural forest environment, but to be in any measure successful it surely requires us to pay more attention to the vital importance of retaining wherever possible our big old trees, both native and exotic.

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Some years ago Cambridge Tree Trust was part of an unsuccessful campaign to save a protected tree, the old gingko that stood near the Tivoli Cinema. Developers said they wanted to build a playground there and the fruit of the gingko, which lasts on the ground for 2 or 3 weeks, was too smelly. There is no playground, there was never going to be a playground, the area became a car park. Since then Cambridge has had oak trees removed because of their acorns, titoki removed because of their berries, totara poisoned and removed because they obstructed the view from new buildings, and so it goes on. Trees, like children, are sometimes a nuisance but essential to our survival as a species. COP 26 has finished and once again our leaders have disappointed with little real and meaningful change, but why would we expect them to do more unless we ourselves show the fortitude to change our behaviour on a local level?

Do we want more of this?


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...or of this?

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This year's AGM will be held at the Nursery, 89 Thornton Rd., at 10:30am on Tuesday 14th December.

Morning tea will be provided from 10:30, and the meeting proper will start at 11.00.

Come along and be part of the action around town!

  • Bank account for donations: Kiwibank, 38-9005-0635102-01

The 4-minute video below shows what we can do with your donations. Click the "play" arrow, then the "full screen" box at the bottom right of the  picture and the video will play in high definition.