Manitoba·Opinion

The dollars and sense of taking care of Winnipeg's trees

On March 20, 2019, the City of Winnipeg passed its budget for the coming fiscal year. While it earmarked money to hire a supervisor of urban forestry, one Winnipeg resident says more money should be invested in our city trees — and even suggests it makes good, green "cents" to do so.

In a sense, money can grow on trees, blogger 'Elmwood Guy' says in open letter to the City of Winnipeg

Investing in urban forestry makes sense if you branch out and do the math, argues Michel Durand-Wood. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

On March 20, the City of Winnipeg passed its budget for the coming fiscal year. While it earmarked money to hire a supervisor of urban forestry, one Winnipeg resident says more money should be invested in our city trees — and even suggests it makes good, green "cents" to do so.

Here, in a letter to the City of Winnipeg, Winnipeg blogger Michael Durand-Wood, a.k.a. "Elmwood Guy," explains why he thinks money can grow on trees.


Dear Winnipeg,

I hear you're planning to cut your urban reforestation budget by 36 per cent. Ouch.

But not counting last year, you say, this is actually an increase over historical funding levels. So really, we should all be pretty satisfied. Plus, it's trees. Don't we have bigger worries?

That's a disappointing attitude.

After all the conversations we've had, I would've hoped you'd be doing the math now before making investment decisions.

(Nope, you're just like my kids. I'll probably be repeating "Get off your brother's head" for the rest of my life.)

OK, let's do this.

Compare these two blocks in my neighbourhood of Elmwood.

Two streets in Elmwood: one with few trees, left, and one tree-lined. Durand-Wood argues the trees make the houses on the tree-lined street a more attractive investment. (Michel Durand-Wood)

On the right is the ironically named Poplar Avenue, lined with elms.

Beautiful, right? Fir sure. (Heh heh, tree pun. I'm such a dad.)

The one on the left is Union Avenue W., three streets over. Exact same neighbourhood, same types and age of houses, just without trees.

Stark, eh? Someone saw the ghost of Elvis here.

That tree will keep spewing cash at you, all the while cleaning the air … and generally looking nice.- Michel Durand-Wood

But, there's more to this than just looks — there's math! (Don't worry, it's easy math.)

Average Poplar Avenue home assessment: $208,026.

Average Union Avenue W. assessment: $170,554.

Wow! Homeowners on Poplar pay 22 per cent more property tax than their neighbours on Union, despite being virtually identical in every way. That's an extra $219 per year to you, per house.

In my opinion, that's courtesy of the street trees.

So — what if we planted a tree in front of every house on Union?

Tree services will plant a six-foot sapling for about $515 plus GST, including care for the first two (all-important) years. That's $540.75 per tree.

Now, the tree has to grow to a certain height before you reap the benefits of the entire $219 increase. But you'll still see a growth in values every year, gradually as the tree gets taller.

Investing in trees could keep the city in the green, says Durand-Wood. (Emma Durand-Wood)

A silver maple, which is a tall, fast-growing tree, will already tower 26 feet after 10 years. Easily big enough to realize your investment.

In my opinion, over those 10 years of gradual increases in value, you'll have collected a total of $1,204.50 in extra property taxes. That's a 22.3 per cent average annual return on your initial investment of $540.75.

A pretty kick-ash return, I would say. (Boom!)

Street trees are low-cost, low-risk, and high-return.- Michel Durand-Wood

Oh, it gets better. Every year after, that tree will keep spewing cash at you, all the while cleaning the air, cooling in the summer and generally looking nice.

But wait, there's more! Every tree also soaks up an average of 3,785 litres of rain annually!

Remember when you dumped three million litres of raw sewage into the river because your sewers got overloaded with rain runoff? Yeah, just 700 or 800 more trees could have prevented that. Those added savings are just gravy on top! (Not actual gravy. That would be gross.)

Street trees are low-cost, low-risk, and high-return. Isn't this the investment you've been pine-ing for? (Don't worry, there's more coming!)

Or you could spruce up some roads, increasing neighbouring property values by… $0.

Plus, you won't be able to replace the trees you currently have, further eroding your existing tax base. That's really bad yews. (It's a tree, look it up.)

The way Durand-Wood sees it, a simple sapling is a solid investment. (Emma Durand-Wood)

And not to be a jerk, but your preliminary budget even says this about your money woes: "New long-term growth revenue sources will be required in the future to address the growing structural deficit."

"Growth revenue sources"?!? Amigo, it's like you're literally talking about trees!

Your past funding levels have given us a backlog of Dutch elm removals. And now the emerald ash borer could wipe out some of your canopy by 2030.

Are you sure you can't find a measly $2.6 million, less than a quarter per cent of your annual budget, to counter that?

Look, it would obviously be ideal if you could invest fully in the repair and replacement of all your infrastructure (like a responsible city should), but you're in a really bad place right now. And until you get out of this mess, you'll have some hard choices to make.

But hard choices needn't be dumb choices. Don't axe the investments that offer a positive ROI (like trees) while keeping the money-losers (like roads). Do the math, already!

And I'm probably going out on a limb here, but I bet you'd be the most poplar city in Canada if you did! (Twofer!)

Ok, I'll leaf you for now. (Couldn't resist.)

Love,

Elmwood Guy


This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Michel Durand-Wood

Elmwood Guy blogger

Michel Durand-Wood lives in Elmwood with his wife and three children. He writes at DearWinnipeg.com, a really fun blog about infrastructure and municipal finance, and has no special training or education in city planning, municipal finance, infrastructure maintenance, or anything else he talks about. He's just a guy, in love with a city, asking it to make better use of his tax dollars.

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