Calgarians' tree opposition not totally off-base but likely misguided, expert says

Calgary residents who worry new trees will give criminals more places to hide in a park outside their homes aren't totally off-base, says the president of Tree Canada, but he worries their campaign against expanding the urban canopy will actually be counter-productive to their goals.

Police data show Calgary's Brentwood community has seen a spike in crime, particularly theft from vehicles

Michael Rosen with Tree Canada says some Calgarians' opposition to new trees in a Brentwood park is not the best way to prevent community crime. (Natasha Frakes/CBC / Inset: Tree Canada)

Calgary residents who worry new trees will give criminals more places to hide in a park outside their homes aren't totally off-base, says the president of Tree Canada, but he worries their campaign against expanding the urban canopy will actually be counter-productive to their goals.

"I feel bad for the people that think the solution is not to plant trees or to get rid of trees, that that somehow gets their neighbourhood safer," said Michael Rosen.

"That's really not the case."

Tree Canada is a charitable, not-for-profit organization that advocates for the planting of trees nationwide.

Rosen, who is based in Ottawa, said his attention was seized by the story of Calgary residents' opposition to new trees in a small park in the city's northwest Brentwood community due to concerns over crime.

"There are not many studies will back up what these people believe, that trees somehow harbour criminal activity," he said.

"All evidence exists to say that trees have a calming effect on people and that makes them less oriented towards criminal behaviour."

'Not quite an absolute'

That said, Rosen noted "it's not quite an absolute" that trees are good for community safety.

"If you get a line of trees that are all locking canopies and are, in fact, not just shading but blocking vision into, say, a park or a public space, that can be problematic," he said.

"But that's not the reason for not planting the trees or the vegetation. That's a case of managing the vegetation through pruning."

But Brentwood resident Ellen Burgess said she's well aware of the concept of "crime prevention through environmental design" and believes the city's plan to plant trees in the unusually shaped green space that borders about two dozen homes along Brentwood's Barron Crescent N.W. is not a good example of it.

The green space surrounded by Barron Crescent N.W. already has some mature trees but the city says it needs to plant more to replace some that are at the end of their life cycle and to help boost the urban canopy, which was damaged by the heavy snowfall of September 2014. (Google Maps)

"Where they are placing these trees — all around the perimeter of the park — is going to make this more challenging," she told The Calgary Eyeopener.

"Given that we are around a park, it's not as easy as it is for most folks on streets to just look across the street and see your neighbour's house … and see if people are all right."

Brentwood has indeed seen a spike in crime in the past couple of years, particularly thefts from vehicles, according to community crime statistics from the Calgary Police Service.

The following graph depicts reported criminal incidents, by type, in Brentwoood from January to July over the past four years:

Burgess acknowledged that area residents' worries about the new trees have been the subject of derision on social media and have not been taken particularly seriously, but insisted their concerns are legitimate.

"A lot of people don't take the issues surrounding crime seriously until it's happening to them and their neighbours," she said.

"We've had a significant increase in our little corner of the world, and we're trying to put a stop to it."

Ian and Ellen Burgess oppose having more trees planted in the park, and worry about safety issues. (Natasha Frakes/CBC)

The city, which had paused planting trees in response to angry opposition from area residents, plans to resume planting, according to urban forestry lead Jeanette Wheeler.

Other area residents have asked for more trees, she noted, and the location of newly planted trees is carefully considered.

"We want to make sure that we've got the right tree in the right place and we train our staff accordingly," Wheeler said.

with files from The Calgary Eyeopener


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