Sunday, September 2, 2007

Summer Retrospective 3.0: LEAF + TPSC

“There are people in the city who think trash is solely a municipal responsibility,” states Todd Irvine of the Toronto Public Space Committee (TPSC) and the Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests (LEAF) initiative. “Which in many ways should be the case, but if a person sees a problem with refuse, the initial reaction is to call Public Works instead of cleaning it up themselves.”

That mentality, Irvine contends, most certainly extends to the care of trees in the city. LEAF’s recent collaboration with the TPSC by way of city tree tours seeks to educate about trees, both publicly and privately owned, and to promote their care by way of collective responsibility.

Unfortunately, the projected decline of the Toronto tree canopy, which is estimated to reduce from 21% to a mere 17% coverage of the urban landscape, is making their task increasingly urgent. LEAF, who has been in operation 10 years, has been planting 1,000 trees a year through their Community Programs. This directly contributes to water and air filtration, not to mention acres of lovely shade for future Torontonians. Additional programs include the much lauded tree tours led by Irvine and Liz Forsberg.

“What’s often a misconception about LEAF is that somehow we’re a City of Toronto affiliate,’ Irvine explains, “but we’ve never received any financial support from the city, in spite of the mass effort over the years to preserve and educate the populace about the trees here.”

LEAF did, however, recently receive a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. This came as a slight surprise considering LEAF's current TPSC affiliation. “We weren’t certain what the provincial reaction was going to be...TPSC often advocates groups who are anti-corporate.” Irvine explained.

However, the juries behind the Trillium Granting bodies are comprised of individuals from the Toronto community including local activists. “Which, in a way makes a lot more sense,” Irvine continues, “because this project is extremely concerned with issues that surround the health of trees in every Toronto community. We’re concerned with the entire equation.”
Currently, the Toronto urban forest consists of 7 million trees, half of which are on private property. LEAF receives calls from home-owners on a daily basis concerned with trees in their neighborhoods and asking for help on how to deal with developments in their area.

“What people don’t often realize is that we aren’t a large organization,” Irvine adds, “and that we don’t have all of the resources that are necessary at our disposal to help callers with every problem.” These problems often include dying trees and older trees that are going to be cut down from city development projects. “In spite of our size, we try to leave everyone with an adequate answer or reference, if not a solution.”

When asked what other North American cities were doing to maintain their respective canopies, Irvine immediately had some surprisingly harsh numbers. “The local populace is often under the impression that Toronto is a very “green” city, but the truth is that there are other municipalities with much higher percentages than us.” The most drastic example being Washington DC, which boasts an impressive 40% tree canopy. Our sister city Ottawa also surpasses us, with about 27% tree coverage.

So, what have these other cities done differently? Specifically, Washington DC has been far more fortunate on the funding side of the equation. “That continues to be a huge problem for LEAF,’ Irvine concedes, “We have several excellent people on staff, but without constant and adequate funding, we can’t afford many services we hope to provide. This really is a full time job on everyone’s part.’

Irvine also cited a hefty donation from Betty Brown Casey, once photographs of the declining canopy in the entire District of Columbia were brought to their attention. Out of that, Casey Trees was born, and the organization still is still able to operate on that initial grant, which was a staggering 50 million dollar contribution.

Not that LEAF is expecting any donations like that in the near, or even distant future, but their goals remain unshaken. Always maintaining a good sense of humour about the situation, Irvine drew an interesting comparison: “Trees are a lot like puppies. Once you teach people how to take care of them, it’s easy to maintain that momentum. They’re very likeable things."

As likeable as they are, they aren't the only facet of the environment in need of attention. Irvine contends that there are a lot of worthy causes, but that trees are paramount to the health of any city. The Trillium Grant is an excellent start, but LEAF will require on-going support to continue their important work.