On 20 March, environmental charity Trees for Cities planted its millionth urban tree, on the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. But what has been its impact in the 26 years since it was set up in the capital? And given the many acknowledged benefits of urban trees, is this work that local authorities ought to be doing?
"Our work is really in support of councils," Trees for Cities chief executive David Elliott tells Horticulture Week at the planting. "We're not trying to take responsibility away from them, but rather bring in additional support and resources where they are struggling. We're growing as an organisation and I'm sure that’s partly because we're seeing strain on local authority resources. Our support is often warmly welcomed."
Having engaged more than 80,000 volunteers, Trees for Cities’ work has always had a social as well as environmental impetus, he explains. "We do projects that councils wouldn't look at in more deprived parts of boroughs. We want our work to be as impactful as possible. A lot of what we do is community engagement. Councils have not got the resources to do as much as they would like here and we can have deep engagement with the community in the process of planting and maintenance. So we're working alongside local authorities rather than in competition."
Relations have not always been cordial, however. Trees for Cities severed ties with Sheffield City Council in March 2017 over the local authority's controversial street tree replacement programme, though it has since welcomed the city’s recent change in approach. The consequences of the episode have not been entirely negative, says Elliott. "Sheffield has been a game changer. It's raised the profile of urban trees so much."
Having begun as Trees for London in 1993, the charity expanded its remit in 2003 with a change in name to Trees for Cities. It is now active not only nationally but internationally, with projects in cities in Peru, Bolivia, Kenya and Ethiopia. "Overseas we're doing a few projects but it's harder to find funding and organisational capacity," Elliott admits.
The millionth tree was a Dutch elm disease-resistant elm from Barcham Trees. "We take biosecurity very seriously and source from suppliers who have gone through appropriate accreditation," he says. Hillier and Palmstead also supply standards, though the bulk of trees it plants are whips.
"We don't have a nursery of our own so we make sure our partners source trees from the right places," says Elliott. "With native trees the risks are so significant. We plant a mix of natives and non-natives."
Species selection is now informed by A Guide to Tree Species Selection for Green Infrastructure, recently launched by the Trees & Design Action Group, and is further informed by soil testing and local conditions. "We also choose species that have climate resistance," adds Elliot.
"We now avoid ash, and there is a big question mark over oak, but we plant in woodlands. With OPM [oak processionary moth] we probably shouldn't be planting next to schools or people's gardens — we'd swap for non-native options. But everything depends on the site."
Trees mean "stability and dependability" - Palin
The honour of planting Trees for Cities’ millionth tree fell to Sir Michael Palin, comedian, writer and broadcaster, and one of several household names who have helped to raise the charity’s profile.
"You read all the time about council cutbacks, so I'm really glad that Trees for Cities are making sure people are aware of the benefits of trees combating pollution, making areas more pleasant to live, cutting down on noise, all the good things," he tells Horticulture Week. "You need a charity as strong as this to really make the case."
As a Sheffield native, he believes the controversy around the city’s trees "has probably changed attitudes", he says. "People felt so strongly they got up early in the morning to tie themselves to trees to make sure they couldn't be taken out, and that kind of passion takes a lot of people by surprise and has been very good for the idea of city trees."
He adds: "Trees are not just good for the atmosphere and easy on the eye, but are associated with stability and dependability, something we want our country to be. But some trees are more beautiful than others. I wouldn't lay down my life for a Leylandii."
How the million trees add up
Having begun as Trees for London, the capital accounts for 28% of the Trees for Cities charity’s planting to date. The rest of the UK amounts to 42%, while those planted overseas make up the remaining 30%. The trees have overwhelmingly been whips — 97% compared with 3% standard trees.