Feature image: Baltic Wharf seen from the Harbourside
The benefits of trees in protecting the world from overheating are well known, but their importance in the urban environment is often under-appreciated. Urban trees clean our air, reduce flooding, improve mental health and reduce noise levels.
Crucially, the ‘heat island’ effect, which can raise city-centre temperatures by 12C, is reduced by an average of 5.6C in areas with tree canopy. With deadly heat waves predicted to occur every other year by 2050, trees will be increasingly vital for the health and wellbeing of city-centre communities.
Joe Dunckley, in his recent piece in the Cable, rightly recognises the value of trees – including their benefits to the urban environment. However, he goes on to claim that the efforts of some campaigners protecting our city’s trees are misguided, or even counterproductive – and does so by distorting and misrepresenting the facts.
The author states that tree campaigners are damaging potentially ‘green’ city centre developments, but the claim is not supported by any evidence. The case which forms the principal basis for this criticism, the Baltic Wharf caravan park development, proposes felling 74 mature and healthy trees.
The site is described as “brownfield”, degrading its value in readers’ minds. According to most definitions, a brownfield site is one with previous development, occupied by a permanent structure with potential contamination. Though the caravan park location is not untouched, this definition hardly applies to the site, and indeed it does not currently feature on the council’s own register of brownfield sites.
With around 100 trees and a tree canopy cover of over 30%, the site is both the largest single collection of trees and has the highest tree density on the harbourside. It is one of the last remaining tree-covered open spaces in a neighbourhood with under half the average tree cover for Bristol. If this is “brownfield”, then what of Castle Park or Brandon Hill?
The high-density six-storey blocks of flats proposed for the Baltic Wharf site are neither “attractive” nor in keeping with the area, dwarfing surrounding buildings. The proposal appears contrary to policies of Bristol’s Core Strategy and Central Area Plan and does not apply the principles of the National Planning Policy Framework or the Council’s recently published Ecological Emergency Action Plan.
Dunckley’s article describes the threatened trees as a “couple of dozen unremarkable trees”. In reality, this site alone will see a loss of 74 healthy mature trees, ‘remarkable’ for being one of the last areas of space with tree cover on the Harbourside.
This development is, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg. Others in the pipeline in Bristol, such as Bonnington Walk in Lockleaze and Hengrove Park, threaten the loss of some 3,000 mature trees. To meet the aspiration of carbon neutrality by 2030, these trees would need to be replaced by approximately 250,000 saplings, a planting rate at least ten times the current rate of tree planting across the city.
Furthermore, Dunckley’s article characterises local residents with genuine concerns regarding inappropriate developments as “NIMBYs”, thereby depreciating any legitimate concerns that they may have. Local residents are entitled to be concerned about degradation to their environment, and it is no surprise that 80 have objected to the damaging Baltic Wharf development, along with local community and conservation groups. There were also 139 objections from outside the Harbourside area, and even 33 from outside Bristol.
The piece also alludes to opposition to cycle path development in Easton, presumably referring to the upgrade to the Bristol and Bath Railway Path. There is not, nor has there ever been, any tree campaign associated with this or any other transport project in Bristol – indeed, the Bristol Tree Forum has productive engagement with Sustrans on this and many other projects.
Bizarrely, Dunckley’s article argues that the greenest option for Bristol city centre is to have fewer trees and green spaces. This, the article suggests, allows additional development for more people to live in “efficient, compact walkable neighbourhoods”.
This argument is applied here to one tree-covered green space currently in the sights of developers, but the logic is clear and could be applied to all city-centre green spaces.
This is a dangerous experiment with the future of our city, leaving it vulnerable to climate change – specifically to the heat island effect. Without the protective cooling effect of trees, our city centre could become unliveable.
This concept of compact city centre living has been espoused by the mayor of Bristol, and Dunckley’s article was also approvingly shared on Twitter by the cabinet member for climate, ecology, waste and energy, who has responsibility for the Ecological Emergency Action Plan, which promises to “embed nature into all decisions”.
We need a new vision for our city that does not pit houses against trees. They have coexisted for centuries, so it is not impossible now. With the repurposing of retail and office space abandoned as more people shop online and work from home, we could be addressing the housing crisis while adding to our green spaces.
Furthermore, housing provision could be focused on social housing for citizens of Bristol, rather than housing which may simply attract ever greater numbers of wealthy commuters migrating from London, annually around 1,900 (net).
If we are to have a mature debate about the long-term sustainability of our beautiful city, it is important we guard against misinformation and unhelpful misrepresentation being used to undermine environmental campaigns.