Saving Seattle's trees may mean saving their yards

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A home in the University District

Amidst all the noise over the city’s recently adopted Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), scarcely a word has been spared for the 4.35 million Seattleites who have the most to lose in the push to create more housing. These aren’t just any residents. They clean the air and water, and protect Puget Sound from the tainted runoff that is the leading threat to salmon and other local aquatic critters. According to a 2012 inventory sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, they store two million metric tons of carbon, sequester another 140,000 tons each year, and remove 725 metric tons of other pollutants from the air. They prevent mudslides and block piercing noise and searing sun.

These stalwart Seattleites do more than air conditioners to cool the city, saving it from becoming even more of a heat island. Even before Seattle’s weather took a turn toward Tucson, they reduced building energy use by $5.9 million a year by blocking sun and wind and fostering evaporation. They’re a main component of the “livability” that’s saluted in the HALA report’s title, but scarcely discussed in its text. Numerous studies show that being around them is good for not only physical but mental and emotional health, not to mention children’s learning abilities.

These are Seattle’s trees, and they’re squarely in development’s sights, whatever lip service developers may pay to them. To take a particularly poetic example: At the corner of South Willow Street and Seward Park Avenue, an enormous cottonwood and a thicket of other broadleafs – nothing fancy, but a lot of green – lined the oversized front yard of a modest older home on a double lot. A developer bought that yard and, through some deft shortplatting magic, turned it into three lots. The trees were replaced with three looming gray and white boxes that look like all the other contemporary lot-busters going up around town. One scraggly, much-thinned ash and a few sidewalk saplings still cling to the remaining dirt perimeter.

The company responsible for this arbor-cide is called Green Canopy Homes. On its website, the company boasts that "we are the only for-profit homebuilder (that we are aware of) in all of America that was intentionally and deliberately started to combat and lessen the negative impacts of climate change and resource scarcity via in-city homebuilding.” Green Canopy’s CEO and CMO participated in the HALA committee’s strategic workgroups.

Beyond their credits, the word “canopy” does not appear in the HALA report. Nor does the word “trees.” What happened to that patch of lower-case green canopy is happening everywhere houses and apartments are going up. That is to say, just about everywhere in Seattle.

Even with its most controversial provision – the elimination of single-family zoning – deferred, HALA is still a density agenda. And density, absent special protections, is the mortal enemy of trees. The city, in its development standards, has tried to defy the laws of geometry by allowing other mitigating measures that take less space but are less effective – setbacks, balconies, bioswales, green roofs – to substitute for the open space where trees can grow.

But trees get in the way when soaring prices induce developers to max out their lots, and the city to allow more housing units in the hope (vain so far) that supply will outrun demand and hold prices down. “The problem is lot coverage and setbacks,” says one veteran Seattle arborist who has fought for years on behalf of stricter tree protection, but insists on anonymity for professional reasons. As the city grows, “there simply isn't enough space for existing large trees.”

The HALA agenda will accelerate this process by loosening coverage and setback restrictions, and upzoning targeted single-family areas near transit and city-designated urban villages. But the process is already proceeding apace under current zoning, as developers raze smaller homes and what few unbuilt private plots remain. Surging development has already stalled, maybe reversed the much-hailed growth of Seattle’s canopy during the preceding three decades.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.