On January 25, this year, I wrote directly to Sheffield City Council, with expert advice. In professional correspondence, one normally expects an acknowledgement of receipt, but the lack of response and their subsequent actions suggests that they chose to ‘conveniently’ ignore it.
In the light of recent democracy-threatening events, I would like to present my advice as an open letter.
It might help explain to local people why such matters are serious and why there is legitimate concern over the legitimacy of the knowledge-base being used by SCC and Amey.
Dear Committee Members, Independent Tree Panel.
I offer my personal opinion, based on my professional experience as an environmental manager, as course leader for environmental science degrees and as a member of the applied environmental team in the Department of the Natural and Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University.
It is not clear (from the SCC website) who appointed or funds the panel, but it may indeed be independent of SCC and Amey. It cannot, however, be impartial. The members are all very suitable for inclusion; several from public sector interests in medical health-care, disability, Health and Safety and the physical management of tree structures. If I were to choose a panel to support my decisions to reduce the number and diversity of trees (especially the older ones), I could do no better than this choice. It is not the wrong panel – far from it; all the embodied expertise is entirely relevant. The problem with the panel is in what is not represented. It is automatically one-sided unless it includes expert understanding of the functions of street trees. The panel is missing an applied urban ecologist.
A street tree is more than wooden furniture. It, along with the wide variety of smaller plants and animals that live in, on and around it are life-enhancing to all its local human neighbours. They ameliorate extremes of air temperature, filter air, produce oxygen, absorb carbon, reduce wind tunnelling and reduce flooding. They maintain natural environmental regulatory systems, which we often take for granted. With their trunks often set in Tarmac or paving, it is easy to forget that street trees are not isolated, single-function structures. They are all part of the wider local environment, interacting with the natural life-support systems, which act, even in urban environments. Without them, we lose more than the obvious birds, but also a wealth of other pest-controlling, and other useful or aesthetically pleasing organisms.
Being living things, trees can present risks. On a pavement, even the lolly-pop trees of the past, present a greater physical risk than no tree at all, especially when its roots cause uplift, or branches hang low.
But reducing the number and diversity of trees and their functions is a greater and more insidious, long-term risk to human health and wellbeing. Ecologically sensitive management of street trees accepts that there are genuine, immediate risks, and weighs them with the risks associated with a human landscape with no trees – aesthetic, psychological, ecological and environmental.
Sheffield hosts two universities with departments training the biologists and environmental managers, planners and landscape architects, whom we all trust will solve our global environmental problems.
There are many environmental experts in our city, as a result. It is very sad that our city councillors and Amey have such an out-dated view of environmental management, that they have not thought it necessary to include a panel member who understands the role of the processes affected by tree management.
In urban planning, there is an expectation that decisions made, will maintain or enhance the environment. Maintaining the environment only for the obvious and most superficial of interactions is short-term thinking. Maintaining the whole environment and living more with its diversity, where possible, will sustain humans.
I expect the oversight of panel constitution will be corrected before the SCC-Amey partnership reputation is further damaged.
Dr Douglas Fraser
Senior lecturer in environmental science and environmental management. Department of the natural and built environment. Faculty of development and society. Sheffield Hallam University