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Urban forests: a connection through time

Young girl touching the truck of an old growth cedar tree and looking upwards
Venerable trees provide a tangible connection through generations.

Urban forests increase our quality of life by promoting mental well-being and encouraging physical activity. They reduce air pollution, cool temperatures in the summer and protect biodiversity. Urban property values increase with more trees, and neighbourhoods benefit from increased shade and beauty.

But urban forests also serve Canadians as a connection through time – linking our past with our future.

Legacies of bygone eras

Forests Ontario’s mission is "to be the voice of Ontario’s forests". They launched the Heritage Trees program in 2009 in partnership with the Ontario Urban Forest Council. Through the program, Forests Ontario collects and tells the stories of unique trees in Ontario, highlighting their social, cultural, historical and ecological value to Canadians. For a tree to qualify as a Heritage Tree, it must be associated with a historic person or event or be growing on historically significant land. One such tree is a 225-year-old sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) in Windsor, Ontario, dating from before the War of 1812. According to Forests Ontario, the tree “is older than the city [of Windsor] itself, making it a symbol of health and prosperity for the region.”

These venerable Heritage Trees across Ontario serve as visual and emotional anchors to our historical roots. Andrea Bake is a Program Standards and Development Officer for the City of Toronto. Bake says she feels most connected with her ancestors when she can visit something that was around while they were – something they may have touched, seen or visited. In a southern Ontario context, she says, “these are the ancient trees that have stood guard through the passing of time.”

Weathering the storms – together

Trees represent a shared cultural history – and also strengthen a community’s identity. John Simmons is a retired urban forester who worked for the Halifax Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia for 34 years. He recalls that in 2003, Hurricane Juan ripped through the city with wind speeds of 160 kilometres an hour. Afterwards, 70% of trees in Halifax’s renowned 75 hectare Point Pleasant Park were gone. “People were emotional,” says Simmons. “They were teary-eyed as they came in.” The park was initially closed for safety reasons, but because the community was so devastated, Simmons and his team opened a path at the bottom of the park and let residents in to see for themselves the damage Juan had done. The municipality wanted citizens to be included and to understand why restoring the urban forest would take time. The team then dedicated themselves to restoring – and improving – Point Pleasant Park. Now, planting of strategically placed evergreen conifers and leafy deciduous trees has made the park more resilient in the face of extreme weather events. And Halifax residents can continue enjoy the beauty of this historic park, as they have for over 150 years.

Cityscape of Montréal, Québec with urban forest displaying fall colours.
Urban forest in Montréal, Québec.

Shaping the urban landscape

Across Canada, community residents are working together to create future urban legacies. One inspiring example of leadership and collaboration in urban forestry can be found in Montréal, Québec. In 2012, the municipality set a goal to increase its urban tree canopy from 20% to 25% by 2025. To help achieve this goal, 40 local and national corporations and community partners banded together to create the Alliance forêt urbaine, which has set its own target of planting 50,000 new trees and plants by 2022. The Alliance forêt urbaine organizes various initiatives around Montréal, tailored to local environments, which encourage and engage residents to participate in re-shaping their neighbourhoods. One such initiative offered urban-friendly trees at a discounted rate to encourage Montréal residents to increase the tree cover on their own properties. Through that campaign alone, more than 9,000 trees have already been planted and are now contributing to a greener future.

Inspiring the next generation of urban forest stewards

Several initiatives across Canada are designed to provide younger generations with the knowledge and passion to promote and protect their urban forests for the future. Dr. Stephen Sheppard works at the University of British Columbia (UBC) – the first university in Canada to offer an undergraduate degree in Urban Forestry. To teach Canadian youth about the importance of a green urban environment, Sheppard designed a video game called Future Delta 2.0. The video game is set in the real-life town of Delta, British Columbia, in 2100. Players must navigate a dystopian Delta ravaged with potential effects of climate change. “Hotspots” (localized heat islands) exist in areas without a healthy tree canopy, where drought and fire are real risks. Free to download, Future Delta 2.0 proved to be so popular that a second game, Our Future Community, is also being developed in collaboration with local high school teachers. Sheppard’s team hopes that the Future Delta 2.0 game will “motivate interest, learning, behaviour change and civic engagement” – much like the Citizen’s Coolkit on Climate Change & Urban Forestry. Also developed by UBC, the Coolkit helps local residents better understand the values of green spaces in the city (such as parks, streets and backyards). The guide also provides “a new way of reading and understanding landscape” in order to translate individual ideas into neighbourhood-wide actions.

Trees in our urban forests are the unbroken link between our past and our future. By preserving, protecting and promoting urban forestry, Canadian urban landscapes will continue to flourish and provide Canadians with benefits for generations to come.

Screenshot of the Future Delta 2.0 computer game showing an aerial map and explanatory text (not visible at this resolution).
Screenshot of the Future Delta 2.0 video game developed by a team at the University of British Columbia.
Photo credits
  • Child connecting with nature. Photo by stockstudioX/iStock by Getty Images.
  • Autumn Colors in Montreal City. Photo by buzbuzzer/iStock by Getty Images.
  • Photo of video game courtesy of Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning at the University of British Columbia.

This article is from The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2019. Download the PDF version from our publications database.

Table of contents — The State of Canada's Forests Report

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