Bristol takes strategic approach to urban tree management

Bristol's strategic approach is setting the standard for urban tree management, Gavin McEwan reports.

Victoria Park: 250 trees have been planted by the community   Image: HW
Victoria Park: 250 trees have been planted by the community Image: HW

Trees are unlikely to be high on many local authority agendas in the age of austerity. But Bristol has actively sought to improve the number and status of its trees.

The council has achieved this by establishing a single body, TreeBristol, to oversee the city's trees, whether they are in parks, at the roadside, or, as far as possible, on private land. While it has ambitious targets for tree planting, including plans to extend the city's tree canopy to 30 per cent, the body's trees are not being planted willy-nilly, but rather where they can do the most good for the lowest cost.

This "value for money" approach was acknowledged in September when the city was awarded this year's inaugural Barcham Trees Award for Excellence in Urban Forestry Management. Myerscough College course leader and research fellow Dr Mark Johnston chaired the judging panel for the award. "Bristol showed good all-round performance and scored well across all the categories," he said in his comments. He added that the criteria were in part derived from his own Trees in Towns II report, which was published in 2008 and is effectively a manifesto for more systematic urban tree care.

"It's what every local authority should be doing, and it's by no means unattainable," he said. "Bristol's approach is very proactive and dynamic, and if other local authorities could look at and emulate that, it would raise the bar considerably."

Since the creation of TreeBristol in 2005, the council has planted over 2,500 trees - a figure it aims to increase to 10,000 by 2015. Two years ago a steering group, the Bristol Tree Forum, was set up to ensure that decisions have as much support as possible. It is now made up of around 30 representatives of council departments, community and conservation groups.

Bristol's senior arboricultural officer Russell Horsey, who collected the Barcham Trees award, says: "It's good for us to gain recognition, and will help maintain high standards. And it is a model that other cities could adopt.

"The right tree in the right place is less expensive to manage, and you won't have to thin them out in 20 years' time," he adds. "It means you can manage more trees overall for a given amount of money."

His colleague, natural environment manager Richard Ennion agrees: "We try to strip out unnecessary costs. It was silly to just maintain it all piecemeal. For us, centralised management has meant better management. The individual components aren't ground-breaking, but the whole package gives us more direction."

Ennion adds that the council's "aspirational target" of a 30 per cent tree canopy is partly driven by its desire to "climate-proof" the city against anticipated rises in temperature. But he admits the planning stage to achieve this has been extensive. "It is immensely challenging, and needs a lot of detail," he says. Using aerial infra-red photo graphy to show where tree planting is low, the department has created a map and database of potential tree planting locations, across 14 "partnership areas" covering a quarter of the city. This revealed more than 7,000 potential sites, on counciland privately-owned land, which suggests that more than 36,000 trees could be planted whose benefit would outweigh their cost - boosting the city's tree canopy from the current 13 per cent to 18.6 per cent.

"We are not just planting blindly, it's all mapped out," says Ennion. "Every part of the city can help - though there may greater health benefits to planting in particular areas. Our preference is for large trees, but a cost-benefit analysis will show that some locations simply aren't suitable. If you look at the cost of planting one tree on a street, next to services, you might find you could put the same tree in for much less on the edge of an adjacent park. That's one of the advantages of putting all the tree management together."

Horsey adds: "Wherever there's capital funding, we will use it to plant." This includes on private development sites. "We say to developers, you dig the pit and we will plant the tree - and take the risk."

The council also promotes "celebration trees", where friends and family fund the planting of specimen trees in public spaces in memory of loved ones.

Local communities are encouraged to get behind planting proposals and the organisation promotes the benefits of additional tree planting to "help win people round", says Horsey. He adds that collaboration with local partnerships and schools gives the organisation access to extra funding sources.

Community engagement is at the heart of TreeBristol's strategy. "We will offer people a choice of, say, three types of tree," Horsey explains. "It's then easier to get people to water them, and there's less vandalism." Involving local people in the planting itself also helps, he adds. "Community planting events gives great profile. We wanted to make a statement about it - local people improving their communities."

However Ennion acknowledges that not all of the benefits that planting trees brings will be immediately apparent. "It's an investment in the city. It's fun to plant woodlands and coppices, but trees in the streets and parks are what people will remember and take pleasure from. And the benefits, such as improved health, will belong not only to the people in whose street the trees are planted - though how you measure that value is a question for the future," he says.

Victoria Park, south of the city centre, has seen around 250 trees planted over four years of community planting, both filling in existing avenues and planting wholly new ones. "Five hundred people turned up on the first day," says Horsey. "A very diverse range of people come out to events - people who may not even have known about the park beforehand. Anyone can find an aspect of tree planting that they like. And with larger trees, they get instant satisfaction."

Planting semi-mature standard trees at final spacing can be more expensive, but he says it's worth it. "It costs more upfront, but they make more impact, and are less likely to be damaged. We anticipate losses of three to four per cent, but we have doubled up on watering this year. If you're putting in 50cm to 60cm-girth oaks, you have to protect that investment."

At Victoria Park, a double-cage-and-stick format has been used to protect the trees. "Vandals will attack the cage rather than the tree," Horsey explains.

Ennion sees this involvement as vital for the long-term success of the strategy. "It's not just the council saying, 'let us plant more trees'," he says. "It can't be top-down, the people have to want it."


One outcome of Bristol City Council's "chase-every-dime" approach to funding tree planting has been the spread of hundreds of trees along the city's bus routes.

"We have secured £550,000 to increase tree planting along the routes, which has led to a two-year planting programme," says Russell Horsey.

The funding forms part of the £70 million Greater Bristol Bus Network scheme that aims to make bus travel in the area safer, more efficient and more pleasant, and is 60 per cent funded by central government.

One of TreeBristol's first tasks was to convince local operator First Bus that trees are an asset, not a hindrance, to their services, Horsey explains.

"We are about right tree, right place. There are more fastigiated species to choose from, for example, that would work in this sort of situation. We can come up with more solutions to problems like overhanging branches than traditional planting would give you. There will always be consequences to having trees in cities, but many of those you can build out."

And Richard Ennion argues that such planting has a wider significance. "We can deliver improvements to infrastructure that also benefit the environment," he says. "You make the link between things like transport and quality of life - whether it's one tree or a thousand".

Competition criteria:

  •   A fully-implemented tree strategy.
  •   Computerised tree management.
  •   Community involvement.
  •   Applying tree preservation orders in relation to development.
  •   Sustainable working practices.


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