Why the GTA’s urban forests need help

Guest Blog by: Michelle Sawka - Project Manager, Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition 

Toronto’s urban forest touches most corners of the city, and you probably know some parts of it very well. It includes all of the trees and shrubs growing along streets, in front and back yards, in parks, and in ravines and natural areas.

The Green Infrastructure Ontario (GIO) Coalition recently released the State of the Urban Forest in the Greater Toronto Area (SUF) Report. For the first time, there is a resource detailing the overall health of the urban forest on a regional level. It shows a valuable natural network in crisis. Some key findings of the report include:

GTA municipalities are measuring the benefits of their urban forests as key green infrastructure assets. For example, the region’s urban forests:

  • improve air quality by removing pollution (valued at $36.5 million annually)
  • sequester carbon (value of carbon currently stored is $70 million)
  • save energy through shade and cooling (valued at $20 million annually)

Our region’s urban forests face a growing crisis:

  • They have low species diversity - Only 4 species make up 54% of the tree population, leaving the urban forest vulnerable to pests and disease. In fact, 10% of tree population is Ash (3.2 million trees) and we have already lost a large number of them to the Emerald Ash Borer infestation.
  • The trees are small – Only 5% of the GTA’s trees are classified as large, whereas an ideal urban forest would have about 30% large trees. And a whopping 85% of trees are small, compared to the ideal maximum of 40%.

All levels of government need to take action to improve coordination and management of urban forests:

  • The opportunity to take action is here and the report complements GIO’s Ontario's Urban Forests: Call to Action, which brings together a growing number of stakeholders across the province to call for multilevel government support for municipalities and other stakeholders and funding and greater coordination at a provincial scale.

Urban forests are a form of community infrastructure and should be regarded as such by policy makers. The SUF Report allows us to see, for the first time, the overall health of the GTA’s urban forest. It is time for local, provincial and national policy leaders to make serious investments in the urban forest.