I’m thrilled to announce, on Valentine’s Day, that my new book ‘London is a Forest’ will be published on 2nd May!
It’s a book about Urban Nature, and, I hope, a new way to look at London.
There’s lots of great nature books out there, but this one’s a little different, it’s about the plants and animals that live in the city, especially the trees.
Rather than taking myself off to some remote rural idyll, I tramped the pavements, paths and byways of the capital in order to examine the non-human life that calls London home as well as our relationship with it.
My deep interest in the city’s plants; be they native, non-native or alien species, guided me to locations throughout London to discover the fascinating nature living on my doorstep. I hope this book tells a revealing story about the urban ecosystem and our role in shaping the surprising and diverse habitats to be found among the glass, steel and concrete.
This is the post I’ve been thinking about for months. Yep, the one about how they’re cutting down all the street trees in Sheffield.
Until now I didn’t feel I could quite do it justice, but a few days ago I went to Sheffield to meet the campaigners and to see for myself what was going on. I was impressed and appalled in equal measure; impressed by the beautiful canopy that does still grace the city, impressed by the determination and positivity of the protestors and their very worthy cause, and appalled by the reckless actions of the city council and their contractor, Amey.
Sheffield is one of the greenest cities in the UK, it is home to 4.5 million trees, a fact provided by the city council (retrieved 01/10/2018), whose veracity on arboreal matters may, at times, appear wanting. This huge figure has been deployed in the propaganda war around the street trees, of which, we are told there are 36,000, and so to lose some of these is not unreasonable, surely? And again, according to the council the losses will amount to just 0.3% of the total tree canopy – a mere trifle. But 0.3% of 4.5 million is 13,500. That’s more than a third of the city’s street trees! And if that’s not bad enough, campaigners eventually managed to get the contract between the council and Amey into the public domain in which it stated 17,500 trees would be cut down.
Our group of sixty street tree admirers – something of a record for me, even in the urban arboretum of Hackney I’ve only had 25 – walked the streets of Nether Edge on a route that I was doing ‘blind’. I wasn’t disappointed: the street tree canopy here is soaring, verdant and in fine fettle. It’s easy to understand why Sheffield residents feel so strongly. Nether Edge was laid out as broad avenues of large stone villas lined predominantly, but by no means exclusively, with common limes or lindens (Tilia x europaea). Many trees must date from the area’s original development, so most are well over a century old. These vigorous hybrid trees do well in Sheffield and are in their prime, with many decades, or even centuries of service left in them. The splendid boulevards of Nether Edge have survived world wars, industrial pollution and post-industrial decline, but among their number, arbitrarily, individual trees are now destined for the chainsaw. The protestors have attached yellow ribbons to the trees earmarked for felling and wandering down one of these streets it is shocking to see how many, and how randomly they have been selected. It’s not just limes, other trees have been condemned including London planes, horse chestnuts, sycamores, oaks and, most cruelly, a towering elm on Chelsea Road. The elm, a Huntingdon (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’), is enormous and may well be the only one of its kind left in Sheffield having somehow managed to survive the ravages of Dutch elm disease. Not only is this individual tree worthy of veneration and preservation – who knows, it could be an important source of disease resistant genes – it also hosts rare white-letter hairstreak butterflies, a species that feeds only on elms.
So why are the trees being cut down? This frequently asked question does not appear on the council’s website or indeed on that of its ‘infrastructure support service provider’, Amey plc, the recipient of the multi-billion pound Streets Ahead contract to ‘upgrade’ the city’s streets.
The council argue that the the city’s street tree stock is mature or over mature – code for ‘too old’ – and therefore needs replacing. This very tenuous assertion simply doesn’t stack up. Yes, many trees are mature, but they are also in rude health, so why cut them down and replace them with ten-year-old saplings?
Maybe the motivations for felling trees are more depressing than that. In the murky world of cash strapped local authorities and opaque PFI contracts it’s easy to imagine the types of discussions being had. Picture the boardroom at Amey’s discrete Oxford head office and a question being posed along the lines of, “how do we increase our margins on the Sheffield street tree management contract?” It doesn’t take a very creative bean counter to deduce that a reduction in the number of mature and over mature assets will reduce exposure to costs associated with managing those very same large and tall assets. Kiss my face! (With apologies to Alan Partridge).
But however it was arrived at, a policy amounting to civic vandalism is being wrought by the city council and Amey plc. Thousands of perfectly healthy street trees across the city have been felled, and thousands more are on death row as part of what appears to be a supremely short-termist cost saving exercise. Sure, trees are going to be replanted, but that’s not the point – how can you replace the history, grandeur and joy that towering, consistent avenues of mature trees bring? And, of course, you don’t need me to bang on about the ecosystem services, mental and physical wellbeing, and traffic calming benefits they bring too…
If you’re interested in reading more about the Sheffield situation, the Sheffield Tree Action Groups website is a good place to start. But there’s lots more too. Perhaps because the protests are so righteous, the council and contractors (not to mention South Yorkshire Police) have been so belligerent and the whole David and Goliath story is so quintessentially English, reams of media articles have been written about it:
If you’ve got this far, here’s something to restore your faith in humankind:
The Heartwood Community Choir’s first public streetside performance of ‘Heartwood’, written especially for the Sheffield tree protectors by writer and academic Robert Macfarlane. Performed under the canopy of the condemned Chelsea Road Elm.
Since the launch of my book, London’s Street Trees, earlier this week, I have been asked about associated walks, talks and other events I’m doing. So I created a Facebook events page – something I never thought I would hear myself say. It seems like the easiest way to keep everything in one place. Do please follow and share, and of course, come to the events too!
Our route took us around London Bridge and Bermondsey where we found a Tree of Heaven under which was a commemorative plaque to Alfred and his remarkable wife, Ada Salter, whose ashes had been interred nearby. We went on to inspect the Strawberry Trees on Melior Street I last blogged about in 2011. I can report they have grown considerably, some have gone missing in the last six years, but the remaining trees are thriving.
And on Friday, it was Trees and Technology with the Woodland Trust, the Greater London Authority, TiCL and Curio. A fascinating helicopter view of some of the ways in which innovative technologists are working with trees. More about this in a future post no doubt!
From Hibiscus in Shoreditch, Golden Rain Trees in Osterley, and Bottlebrush trees in Pimlico, London has unexpected and fascinating street trees. Our urban forest, often under appreciated, is extremely varied and, what grows where differs around the city. So, which are the most interesting boroughs for a discerning London street tree admirer to visit, and why? Read on to find out about 5 London boroughs that, in no particular order, stand out…
Until about 20 years ago, Hackney was one of the less forested boroughs but around the turn of the millennium, it started catching up, and boy, did it catch up. Hackney now is a veritable arboretum: you can find streets lined with Kentucky Coffee Trees (Gymnocladus dioicus) in Clapton, Hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.) in Shoreditch, Wild Service Trees (Sorbus torminalis) in Stoke Newington and Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris) in Dalston. The urban forest is relatively young here but what it lacks in maturity, it makes up for in diversity. There is something of interest at virtually every turn, and it will be exciting to see this part of town mature in the coming years.
Southwark is a big borough (by inner London standards), stretching from the southbank at London Bridge all the way east to Canada Water and south to Dulwich and Nunhead. Street tree planting is varied, and, like Hackney, you don’t have to go far to find something of interest. There’s a street of spectacular Yoshino cherries (Prunus x yedoensis) in Herne Hill, some of the biggest Tree of Heaven(Ailanthus altissima) specimens in London can be seen in Bermondsey and Magnolias (Magnolia spp.) are planted outside Borough Church. Southwark has pioneered some unlikely species too, including Persian Silk Trees (Albizia julibrissin) and, one of my favourites, the Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo).
That long ribbon of a borough, Hounslow, has been planting great trees for years. It’s got everything, from stately Planes (Platanus x hispanica), classic Lime tree (Tilia x europaea) boulevards and landmark Cherry (Prunus spp.) avenues to being perhaps the best place to see mature Golden Rain Trees (Koelreuteria paniculata) in London. Of these elder statesmen, a tree right outside Osterley Tube station is an arboreal landmark, displaying beautiful coral pink new leaves in spring, yellow flowers in high summer, glorious autumn foliage and seed lanterns in the winter. There’s at least one tree in this borough playing host to Mistletoe too.
My home borough, so I might be a little biased, Islington is the part of town I know best. It’s the best borough for Caucasian Wingnuts (Pterocarya fraxinifolia), a fabulous spreading tree easily identified by tell-tale dangling clusters of little winged nuts, and is home to some other intriguing species. Islington was, of course, the first borough to plant Olive trees (Olea europaea) on the street – to reflect its Greek and Turkish communities perhaps? It is also home to some great Elm trees of various types including the Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia), the largest tree of this species in the country can be seen planted outside the Whittington Hospital. But perhaps what Islington is most noted for is ornamental fruit trees; dotted about the borough, the street tree aficionado can find rare pears (Pyrus spp.), notable Crab apples including plenty of Chonosukis (Malus tschonoskii), and unusual Yunnan Apples (M. yunnanensis). There’s also a good stock of flowering cherries including examples of the now rather out of fashion Bird Cherry (Prunus padus).
Westminster plays host to the ‘Government Estate’, so has the job of keeping some of the most visited, filmed and photographed parts of the city looking green and pleasant. There are a lot of mature Plane trees in Westminster, as you might expect, adding to the grandeur of Whitehall and parts of the West End. But scratch the surface and you will find more interest around many corners. Westminster has pioneered the planting of Gingkos (Gingko biloba), a species well adapted to life in the busiest parts of town, and even in this most urban borough, English Oaks (Quercus robur) can be found outside Charing Cross and Pimlico stations. Perhaps the finest Mimosa (Acacia dealbata) to be found on the frontline can be seen in Pimlico and there’s even a street lined with Australian Bottlebrush trees (Callistemon citrinus)!
Trees and technology are not, on the face of it, natural bedfellows. But I believe new technology can provide the trigger for people, especially young people, to become interested in what is around them.
So, I’m very pleased to be part of a ‘Trees and Technology’ seminar during London Tree Week where I am sure this will be one of the hot topics. Other topics to be discussed are the Mayor’s street tree map, the data behind it, which is now in the public domain, surveying urban canopy cover from space, creating digital tree trails and how Internet of Things (IoT) technology can help monitor tree populations.
This event is part of the London Tree Week Lecture Series organised by the Mayor of London and the Woodland Trust. It takes place on Friday 2nd June, 2.30pm – 4.30pm at Convocation Hall, Church House, Westminster, London SW1P 3NZ
I have an announcement to make: my book, ‘London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest’ will be published by Safe Haven Books at the end of May 2017.
This book documents my own journey of discovery, not just of the great variety of London’s street trees, but also their fascinating stories. I’m extremely pleased to include a Foreword from London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who will face the challenge of improving our air quality during his term in office, I’m sure that planting many more trees in the city will be part of the solution.
Londoners need only walk a few minutes from their front doors to encounter a hugely diverse and endlessly fascinating urban forest. My book is a celebration of the forest, its diversity and its beauty. It is a guide to the many unexpected, even improbable, species to be found around the capital, from Anerley to Walthamstow, and an attempt to shed light on things many of us never knew about the trees on our streets.
Most people will be aware of London’s own eponymous street tree, the London Plane – in itself unique among cities – and no doubt many could recognise one, but according to the London i-tree eco project report, Plane trees account for less than 3% of London’s street trees. I hope this book will go some way to helping you identify the other 97%.
Here’s a few spreads from the book to whet your appetite:
You may want to read more, if so, you’ll have to wait until the end of May, but you can pre-order on these sites:
Some months ago I heard rumours about a London Street Tree map being prepared by the GLA at City Hall. Excitingly, that map is now live and has been for a couple of months. For those who haven’t yet poured over the fascinating insights into what trees can be found on London’s streets would be well advised to stop reading this and get over to the map now!
Underlying the map interface there exists a vast database of information, no doubt hard won, wrestled from individual boroughs. Each borough is responsible for the trees on their patch and each has a team dedicated to their management. Perhaps not surprisingly then, each borough holds their own records for their part of the urban forest, and each borough uses different ways to gather and store this data, not to mention what data it actually harvests and holds. Therefore the feat of wrangling data from these various sources into a single dataset providing consistent information should not be underestimated – makes my brain hurt just thinking about it.
There are some black holes – for instance, Hackney and Haringey are two of seven boroughs that have yet to provide their data, but 25 of the 32 boroughs, plus the City of London and TfL have done and even with gaps, the potential of this map is becoming clear. Knowing what is planted on our streets is not only of interest to those who manage the tree inventory, this information can start to inform planning decisions, provide environmental insights and help shape policy to improve air quality. If there’s a correlation between levels of pollution and mature Plane Trees for instance, then this map could be a tool in that investigation right across the city. For me though, the most exciting possibility is the potential for public engagement.
The street tree data including location and species information is in the public domain and is released under an Open Government licence. It can therefore be used by third parties to exploit both commercially and non-commercially. And this is where the opportunities lie: imagine an app that can tell you what the tree is outside your front door, or the tree you walk past on your way to work? All possible with the data. Imagine walking up to a tree and discovering through your smart phone that it is a 150 year old Plane tree, it’s 33m tall and it’s one of 253,751 Plane trees in London, one of the most frequent trees in the city. This Plane tree stores CO2, soaks up pollution, moderates temperatures and has a financial value too. Imagine another app, this one educational, telling kids about all the minibeasts that make their home in an Oak tree outside their school or a Rowan tree on their street. It could tell them that an ancient pollarded Black Poplar tree in the local park was there long before the park and that it is a rare native tree that needs protecting. Another app could guide users on tree trails around Hampstead, Putney or wherever, it could allow the users to add comments about the trees on the trail, even add their own trail or check in at the Wembley Elm on Facebook.
And then of course there are more practical or nerdy applications, want to check out where all the Kentucky Coffee Trees are in London? Want to let your Local Authority know about the broken branch on a tree in your street? Want to see where the empty tree pits are? Want to get involved in community street tree maintenance?
So, what do other cities do about mapping street trees? New York appears to be leading the way with their recently launched map. It is worth noting that New York is in a very different position to London in that one city-wide body manages the street trees ensuring the data wrangling issues faced in London just don’t exist, so they have the luxury of focusing on visualistaion and functionality. New York’s data is real time, users can register and once logged in, favourite individual trees and get involved with community street tree activities like planting and maintenance.
Melbourne’s map, like New York’s, allows users to zoom in almost to street level, but it only covers a relatively small area of the city centre. As reported in media around the world, users can email trees in Melbourne which while possibly a bit odd has clearly caught the imagination of many.
The London Street Tree map and especially the data underpinning it are tools that could help us understand, appreciate and value the trees in London which in turn could make our lives richer and healthier. I can’t wait to see it show all the street tree data, and with more detail too – exact species info would be great to see.