Where should Montreal plant its coveted 500,000 trees?

The city’s government must find a place for the urban forest it promises by 2030

As Christmas trees begin gradually disappearing from windows this time of year, the opposite may soon be true for trees just outside them. With an urban forest in mind and a shovel in hand, will Montreal’s government be planting near you?

The city’s Climate Plan is promising half a million more trees on the island by 2030. However,  as the Government of Canada’s website explains, large-scale tree planting is often not as simple as it sounds. It involves ensuring that “the right tree is planted in the right place, for the right reasons.”

Determining the right place when it comes to tree planting is something that Carly Ziter, urban ecologist and assistant professor at Concordia University’s Department of Biology, is wholeheartedly invested in. Ziter’s research focuses on “ecosystem services,” or the services that flora could provide to people within urban environments.

“One of the reasons I focus on urban areas is that you are providing benefits directly to people where they live,” said Ziter, who had cycled to the university’s greener Loyola campus despite the snowy start to the November day. “Things like reducing temperature during heat waves, reducing flooding, improving air quality, improving mental health and wellbeing.”

The tree oath is part of the city’s vision for a “green Montreal,” with a three-pronged mission: to combat climate change, bolster the ecological resilience of the island, and improve quality of life for residents.

As a part of that tree oath, Soverdi, a tree-planting non-profit organization based in Montreal, will be planting 200,000 of those trees on non-municipal land, which takes up 66 per cent of the city’s total land area according to Soverdi’s General Manager Malin Anagrius. Private and institutional land is Soverdi’s main focus, explained Anagrius, and a greening of Montreal cannot be possible if there is an exclusive focus on parks, or cutting through sidewalk pavement to plant trees.

“That’s the traditional tree planting when you think about trees. It’s either the side of the street or in the forest,” said Anagrius. “But what we do is that we try to see it otherwise and try to make a little mini forest behind different kinds of land.”

The non-profit collaborates with boroughs, land owners, and companies to fund the sprouting of these mini forests in locations such as schools, hospitals, and industrial areas.

“Trees can be integrated into a lot of different spaces,” explained Ziter, “and so even if we don’t have enough space for, you know, a larger green space or a park or a garden, we might have enough space to plant a tree.”

In spite of its versatility, the location of a tree is paramount to maximizing its benefits and can present several challenges, as outlined in Montreal’s 2021 Nature and Sports Plan. One challenge is the “availability of required spaces for planting.” The government is also committed to identifying and planting trees in zones which are vulnerable to heat waves, since greening would help prevent overheating.

For Christopher Vaccarella, president of Concordia’s Political Science Student Association, the question of place was an easy one to answer. In keeping with the association’s first sustainability policy, Vaccarella and his partners successfully planted 250 trees in Montreal last year.

“​​All of our tree planting projects were in elementary schools,” shared Vaccarella proudly, sitting at a Second Cup Café in downtown Montreal. He donned a forest-green fleece jacket, a colour absent from the storefronts of many cafés downtown.

“But what I found interesting was all of them are in the East End, which is what we preferred because that’s an area neglected by the city.”

Vaccarella’s heavy endorsement of planting trees in the east comes as no surprise. Just this October, a CBC article analyzing a 2015 study on Montreal’s tree canopy revealed significant disparities across the island. The wealthier neighbourhood of Mount Royal, with its median income of $110,000, boasted a 40 per cent canopy cover. In the east, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and its median income of $40,000 had a canopy cover of just 11 per cent. Reasons mentioned in the analysis  include real estate values, lot sizes, and differences in property tax revenue.

“If I had 500,000 trees in Montreal, I would certainly focus on improving what we sometimes call tree equity,” said Ziter. “[We should] focus on reducing some of those disparities in the canopy cover and ensuring that low canopy, low green space areas did receive the majority of those trees.”

Soverdi is doing their best to ensure just that, as their operations continue taking root in areas like the east end of Montreal.

“It costs a lot more too, to plant in the city than to plant in [a] rural environment,” said Anagrius, whose organization Soverdi has planted 85,000 trees in Montreal since 2014. Trees need to be bigger in order to withstand a metropolis’ tougher conditions, and in many cases, obstacles like asphalt have to be removed to make planting possible.

Location also breeds all sorts of complex decisions concerning appropriate tree species, Ziter explained.

But greener may not always be better. Vaccarella expressed worries over eco-gentrification, a phenomenon that associates greening with snowballing real estate and rent values.

“Just here,” Vaccarella claimed, pointing to the grey pavement adjacent to the Second Cup coffee shop. “You can fill that with a tree and it’ll probably shoot up the market value by a couple of hundred bucks.”

Indeed, when announcing the $1.8 billion greening project in May, Mayor Valérie Plante emphasized the allure of an urban forest for tourists and investors. The greening is a point of focus in the city’s post-pandemic recovery plan, which could exacerbate government-led gentrification.

“One thing that’s really important is thinking about, as we implement greening projects or policies, are we also thinking about corresponding social mechanisms or policies that will help people to stay in their communities?” asked Ziter. She believes that these mechanisms could include rent freezes, subsidies, and a more community-led approach.

Still, that disparity may be bridged with the city’s development of 110 km of “green corridors” connecting large parks and living spaces across the island. One of those corridors will branch out from Bois-de-Saraguay Park in Ahuntsic-Cartierville to Angrignon Park in Le Sud-Ouest.

“You’re going to get a lot more people that can access that kind of thin strip of green space than if you had that same amount of land kind of condensed in, you know, a square or a circle where it’s really only serving people in that particular area,” said Ziter.

This “linear greening” would also benefit wildlife as the corridors create safe paths for their city-wide movements. For the urban ecologists, the location of a tree should not only have humans in mind. “I would also want to think about areas where we could try and maximize the impact for both people and other biodiversity,” explained Ziter.

Towards the end of last year, tragic events in British Columbia concerning the knock-on effects of wildfires, floods, and deadly mudslides have once again drawn attention to issues of soil stability. Reforesting is one viable solution, though it represents a vastly different and much larger scale of tree planting according to Ziter.

Anagrius hopes the topic of reforestation will be addressed by the federal government and their own 2030 arboreal aspirations.

“With the two billion trees project from the federal government, I think there’s enough trees for everyone,” said Anagrius. “We just have to find the space to plant them.”



Visuals by Madeline Schmidt

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