Making Space for Trees on the Urban Landscape

by Micah Meskel, Activist Program Manager

While greenspace creation and protection has been at the forefront of Bird Alliance of Oregon’s urban conservation agenda over the decades, it has been paired with an equal effort to create habitat on the built landscape, in the spaces between parks and natural areas. In a city full of buildings and pavement, trees are an ideal natural feature to provide habitat for birds, insects, and other wildlife while connecting this habitat with the greenspaces around them. And a well-treed urban landscape is not only beneficial for wildlife, it also provides a diverse set of co-benefits (see infographic below) that are important for the human communities to thrive in an urban environment. For these reasons, trees have served as a pillar of Bird Alliance of Oregon’s urban conservation policy advocacy.

Duplex with ample space for natives trees and limited paved area.
Duplex with ample space for natives trees and limited paved area. Photo by Michael Andersen for Sightline Institute.

Some of this effort has focused on crafting policies that protect existing trees. We also take the long and intersectional view and work to ensure that land-use plans and policies regarding transportation and housing that will shape the region’s future development include space for trees to thrive. These efforts often require years of continued staff advocacy, and involve policies where there is not always a clear nexus for trees or other natural resource protections in their initial charge. But it is our position that on the urban landscape we must relentlessly advocate for and make space for trees and other green infrastructure wherever possible to ensure our urban communities stay environmentally healthy and resilient.

This spring, several of these land-use policy processes that Bird Alliance of Oregon had closely participated in came to a conclusion. After more than a year of advocacy along with a diverse set of advocates, these plans will now help “un-pave the way” to ensure that large, healthy trees will line our region’s urban streets, take the place of unnecessary parking, and tower over densifying residential neighborhoods.

City of Milwaukie’s Middle Housing and Tree Code

When the City of Milwaukie set out to craft a policy for how to make room for smart densification of its residential neighborhoods, the Mayor, City Council, and staff aptly considered how this might impact other important goals like climate resiliency, increased tree canopy, and transformation of its transportation system. After a year plus of community process and significant advocacy from a diverse set of advocates, the end product became a blueprint for how small jurisdictions could municipal code to smartly welcome more neighbors, repurpose unnecessary paved driveways and parking spaces, and grow the urban tree canopy to improve environmental and livability conditions.

The new tree code is grounded in an ambitious 40% citywide tree canopy goal, which sets the stage for strong protections for existing native trees, and significant requirements for planting native trees in new developments. And more so than most of the region’s tree codes, Milwaukie’s policy adopted a preservation-first framework to prioritize retention of existing native trees whenever possible, recognizing the significant benefits that larger mature trees provide for the community and environment. The policy also puts in place mechanisms and procedures that incentivize residents and developers to collaborate with the City’s natural resources team early in the development process to help prioritize retention of existing trees whenever possible. When healthy trees must be removed, the code includes strong mitigation standards to ensure the significant benefits that trees provide will be replaced and are distributed to portions of the city that need them the most. By implementing this new policy, the City of Milwaukie has charted a path to welcome more affordable housing options in its residential neighborhoods while ensuring its tree canopy is protected and will thrive into the future.

Benefits of Trees, artwork by Olivia Lott/Content by Micah Meskel.

Portland’s Pedestrian Design Guide

The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) recently adopted the Pedestrian Design Guide (PDG) through an administrative rule process, which will serve as a guideline for how sidewalks should be built in public and private development in the future. From the outset, PBOT was directed by its commissioner in charge, Jo Ann Hardesty, to prioritize improving pedestrian accessibility and safety for all sidewalk users while making our city more resilient to climate change impacts. Its integration of trees along sidewalks will help serve both of those priorities along with providing many other co-benefits for the community and environment.

Taking into consideration some suggestions from Bird Alliance of Oregon, the Urban Forestry Commission, and others, the PDG significantly expanded the space for trees within the public right-of-way in both width, depth, and frequency of planting areas, ensuring that even large trees will thrive along streets throughout the city. Placement of more trees along sidewalks will improve the pedestrian experience by reducing temperatures, improving air quality, and increasing safety as the trees will help buffer sidewalk users from traffic and pollution. This is all in addition to the increase in wildlife habitat, access to nature, and habitat connectivity that tree-lined streets will provide the adjacent communities. This is especially important in some of the city’s most urbanized areas where space for trees, especially large trees, is limited. Ultimately the PDG will help “un-pave the way” to ensure the city’s tree canopy plays a role in better connecting pedestrians and wildlife across Portland.

Are You a Bird Alliance of Oregon Activist?

Our efforts to improve Milwaukie’s tree code and Portland’s PDG were bolstered by our activists’ involvement. If you aren’t registered to receive email action alerts, please sign up today so you can help shape efforts to protect trees in the near future.

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