City hopes LRT construction will help ailing downtown trees take root

After trying unsuccessfully to grow trees on a downtown Edmonton block for five years, the city gave up. But the city's forestry manager hopes Valley Line LRT construction could lead to better growing conditions and healthier trees.

Close to 3,500 trees are replanted in Edmonton every year at a cost to the city of $2.2 million

Two of the problematic tree beds where the City of Edmonton has been unsuccessful at growing trees along 102nd Avenue and 100th Street for the last five years. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

For five years, the City of Edmonton tried unsuccessfully to grow trees in three downtown sidewalk plots. After chopping down and replanting new trees every year, the city finally gave up.

But with the downtown Valley Line LRT construction comes new hope for Edmonton's urban greenery. 

Shylah Kuysters and her husband Dale have run the Sequel Cafe near the corner of 102nd Avenue and 100th Street for the past six years.

She said they've rooted for the new trees to grow in the planters in front of their restaurant each year, but to no avail.

"They get broken, they get vandalized; they just don't grow very well. They're sad little trees," Kuysters said. 

"Then the city comes and they cut them down. A week later a crew comes in and they replant them. They last a month, get cut down and the next year it's the same thing all over again."

After co-owning and operating Sequel Cafe for the past six years, Shylah Kuysters has been disappointed with the city's unsuccessful attempts to grow trees along the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Currently in all three planters sits a single stump. In 2015, the trees again failed to grow and the city called it quits.

From 2010 to 2015, the city unsuccessfully replanted the three trees five times, at an estimated cost of $1,000 per tree. 

"We do recognize these are particularly harsh locations," said Crispin Wood, the city's manager of urban forestry.

"Primarily what they're up against here is a lack of uncompacted soil volume," he said. "You have trees that are growing in hardscape environment — hard compact road bed, concrete sidewalk."

On top of that, a lack of sunlight and high pedestrian and vehicle traffic caused stagnant growth and wear and tear on the young trees.

The City of Edmonton stopped trying to plant trees in these beds in 2015, but Urban Forestry staff hope upcoming LRT construction on 102nd Avenue will lead to better growing conditions. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Hope blooms with LRT construction

Wood sees the upcoming downtown Valley Line LRT construction as a potential moment of redemption for the city's attempts to grow trees in the area.

He said the soil's growing conditions could be improved after construction is finished.

Jasper Avenue had a similar tree-growing problem before LRT construction in the area—a problem that improved when the construction was completed, Wood said.

"The opportunity to improve the growing conditions and ensure a nice healthy and mature tree long term, is something to be excited about from a forestry perspective," he said.

Between 3,000 and 3,500 trees have to be replanted in the city's parks and along roadways every year due to natural death or being the casualty of a traffic collision, Wood said. That amounts to an annual cost of $2.2 million.

The city spends an additional $1 million per year to water 9,000 trees.

Wood added that the city is working on a strategy to improve growing conditions in hardscape environments like downtown sidewalk beds.