The Boston City Council moved closer last week to creating a law that would promote the growth of tree canopy to protect neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to the negative effects of summer heat.
An ordinance that was filed in January to regulate the removal of trees on public and private property has been in working sessions to determine specifics such as what situations allow for the removal of trees, replacements for removed trees, and the creation of an advisory committee. An updated version was posted in early March, according to City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, and after a working session on Thursday a new version of the ordinance was close to completion.
“A handful [of cities] have created their own sort of enhanced measures that go beyond the state in terms of the protection of trees, ” said Arroyo, who is a co-sponsor of the ordinance, in a phone interview on Wednesday. “The City of Boston has not done that to date, and so this would be the first tree [ordinance] that we create citywide.”
The ordinance, which is also sponsored by Councilors Liz Breadon and Kendra Lara, comes after Mayor Michelle Wu released the city’s new Urban Forest Plan in September, and announced a new forestry division in December, both of which aim to expand the city’s tree canopy.
Arroyo said the main purpose behind the ordinance is to improve urban tree canopy for communities that are disproportionately affected by lack of it.
“When we talk about what trees do, how they purify the air, how they deal with toxins, and all those different things, we want to make sure that we’re doing our part,” Arroyo said. “It’s important that moving forward, we have something on paper where Boston ... [is] able to offer canopy, because they have such an impact on the long-term health of the city and its residents.”
Boston’s tree canopy has remained relatively stable at only 27 percent of all city land area from 2014 to 2019, according to a city assessment released in 2020.
In a city report the following year, officials noted that leafier neighborhoods had significantly lower temperatures in the summer than more densely populated areas with fewer trees. These neighborhoods, known as heat islands, were concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods with large populations of marginalized communities.
Neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Chinatown that had 7 percent less tree cover compared to Boston’s citywide median could reach up to 106 degrees during the day, according to the report.
National nonprofit tree conservation group American Forests ranked Boston in 2021 as second, among large cities across the country, in the greatest disparity between the hottest neighborhood and the citywide average, according to a Globe article.
“What we know is that trees make cities more climate-resilient, improve health outcomes, and that they haven’t been equitably distributed,” said Chris David, vice president for data science at American Forests, in the article. “They should be considered as important as any infrastructure, and the federal government should be helping cities pay for them.”
Arroyo said the ordinance will likely be divided into two, with the first ordinance regarding public property to be presented to the City Council by the end of April or in May. Regulations governing the removal of trees on private property will take more discussion, he said, and will be included in the second ordinance, which would likely involve requiring a permit to cut down a tree.
“Everybody agrees that those trees [on private property] need to be protected, but there’s nothing currently that we have on the books that protects them,” Arroyo said. “It’s a new thing for Boston, and it requires ... working out the details on how to make a private tree protection ordinance that is actually enforceable and reasonable to address.”
David Meshoulam, executive director and co-founder of tree advocacy group Speak for the Trees, said he worries that advocates and community members aren’t being included in the process of finalizing the drafted ordinance.
Although he has provided feedback on the ordinance to city councilors and officials, he said, he has not heard back from them.
“I’m right now trying to figure out how we can get our voices included in the process, which has been the most frustrating point,” Meshoulam said.
Meshoulam said it’s important that the ordinance protects the city’s larger and older trees because “we can’t just replace large trees with a bunch of small trees” as it can take decades for a tree to reach maturity.
He and other advocates are also concerned about whether the ordinance will enforce any consequences for cutting down a tree without a permit, he said.
“It’s just going to end up being a slap on the wrist as opposed to something that’s actually going to protect trees,” Meshoulam said. “We don’t want business as usual where developers can pay their way out of this.”
According to the March version of the ordinance, situations that would allow the removal of any tree on public property would include “hardship to a property owner, economic development, facilitating the development of affordable housing, pedestrian access enhancement, transportation improvement, or public project development.”
That version of the ordinance also grants Boston’s tree warden, who is responsible for city trees, to hold hearings for tree removals on public property, review projects, and make recommendations on projects involving the cutting down of trees on public property. It would require a replacement tree to be planted at or near the spot where the removed tree had been, and that it be cared for through watering, fertilizing, and pruning for at least two years.
One of the goals of the new ordinance, Arroyo said, is to increase the number of trees in the city for future generations and ensure that “ultimately we have more trees.”