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Ditch the lawn love, Halifax: Tristan Cleveland says we need more trees in our city

Although we have an obsession with perfect green lawns, grass alone isn't environmentally friendly or useful, says our Metro columnist.

There’s nothing environmentally friendly or special about a plot of grass, says Tristan Cleveland.

CHRIS SO / Toronto Star

There’s nothing environmentally friendly or special about a plot of grass, says Tristan Cleveland.

Believe it or not, some people oppose trees.

Homeowners in Eastern Passage have stood on the spot where a new tree is supposed to go to prevent crews from planting them. Yes, we apparently have reverse tree-huggers.

I never thought I’d need to write a column saying trees are good. It’s a bit like saying Christmas is good, or ice cream, except Christmas creates garbage and ice cream causes diabetes, so trees are actually more purely wholesome.

Thanks to Halifax’s Urban Forest Master Plan, more than a thousand trees are planted yearly in the public right-of-way, beautifying Fairview, Colby Village, the Peninsula, Cole Harbour and Eastern Passage. Up next are Sackville and Woodlawn.

John Simmons, Halifax’s Urban Forester, says most residents support the trees, but he has heard a wide range of complaints:

“Everything from ‘I’ll have to rake the leaves in the fall,’ to ‘it’ll break into my sewage system.’ Or ‘my child will climb up on it and fall.’”

“None of them have substance,” he points out. Trees further down the street will still blow leaves into lawns and roots can only get into cracked sewage systems. And a city where kids have nothing to fall from would be very, very flat.

The opposition is surprising considering all the benefits trees offer. They suck pollution out of the air, including about 10 per cent of particulate matter from traffic. They cool down neighbourhoods on hot days and shield homes from wind on cold ones, saving Halifax residents about $12.4 million in energy costs per year.

And they can add thousands of dollars to property values (about 3.5 to 4.5 per cent). City staff are trying to put money in people’s wallets and some of them are against it.

The real issue is likely surprise at the prospect of change. For future tree-plantings, the city will try dropping leaflets at every house in advance so everyone knows why the trees are coming while also addressing common concerns. Hopefully that helps.

But the opposition may stem, in part, from North America’s cultural obsession with grass. Whether it is on front lawns or parks like Citadel Hill, the emptiness of lawns is treated like a sacred good. It baffles me. Other than providing a place to play baseball or sit, boring stretches of green don’t accomplish much.

Grass, as a non-native monoculture, is a disaster for biodiversity and pollinators. Using a gas mower for an hour releases as much CO2 as driving a car 160 km. Between 695 and 900 litres of water is sprinkled on an average lawn per day. And to the limited extent pesticides are allowed in Halifax, they’re not making anyone healthier.

The hurricane in Houston recently brought vivid attention to how much we depend on plants to absorb stormwater before it gets to our pipes or saturate groundwater. A mature tree can suck up to 380 litres. Cut grass may not block water, but it’s not storing much.

Grass is green, but it’s not environmentally friendly. It’s only with trees and a mix of other plants that we can have an attractive, healthy city prepared for storms. Simmons tells me that for every dollar the city spends on trees, we get about $7.26 in services. All we have to do is not oppose this one good thing.

Ditch The Lawn

Tristan Cleveland is speaking this Saturday on the history and stupidity of lawns at an event put on by Halifax Diverse in cooperation with HRM. Saturday at 9 a.m.Rowe Building, Dalhousie. 6100 University Ave. Room 1011.

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