Ottawa organization gives away record number of trees, as city fights worsening heatwaves

Ecology Ottawa is seeing record demand for tree seedlings at its annual giveaways this year, as it says efforts to limit the effect of worsening heat waves are gaining momentum across the city.

Experts say the urban heat island could be one of Ottawa's largest climate-related challenges

Ecology Ottawa has seen record demand at its annual tree giveaways this year, helping expand the canopy cover in the city. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Ecology Ottawa is seeing record demand for tree seedlings at its annual giveaways this year, as it says efforts to limit the effect of worsening heat waves are gaining momentum across the city.

The non-profit environmental advocacy group said it's given away more than 9,400 seedlings so far — well over what it gave away in the same period, before the pandemic, in 2019.

With cooling urban neighbourhoods as one of the project's goals, the organization has hosted dozens of giveaways every year since 2014.

"Trees do so many different things," said Robb Barnes, executive director of Ecology Ottawa.

He says they can help mitigate the urban heat island effect. The effect is the tendency for urban areas to be hotter than surrounding rural areas, mostly because pavement and other manufactured materials retain heat, while forest cover and farmland cool the surrounding air.

Robb Barnes, executive director of Ecology Ottawa, says tree cover and greenspace are important ways for the city to limit the impact of future heat waves. (Submitted/Ecology Ottawa)

Trees are 'incredible devices'

As extreme temperatures claim lives across the country, David Gordon, a professor in the school of urban and regional planning at Queen's University, says the national capital region needs to plan to address the heat island effect. 

He says it will be "one of the major environmental changes over the next 50 years."

"Things that you typically put in your plan are managing urban forests, increasing the urban tree canopy, [and] enhancing green infrastructure ... Trees are incredible devices. Just incredible devices," he said.

Gordon said alternative building materials, careful land use planning, and green and reflective roofs are also on the list of approaches used to cool neighourhoods around the world.

Capital canopy targets 

The City of Ottawa set a 40 per cent urban canopy target in its new draft plan, which a spokesperson said in an email was a "critical threshold for heat island mitigation".

But Barnes, who heads Ecology Ottawa's tree giveaway, said he wants to see 40 per cent coverage in each of the city's neighbourhoods — not just a city-wide total that could mask regional differences.

"[In] low income developments you often see that trees are just very much absent, so we really want to restore green infrastructure in those areas," he said.

Efforts to increase Ottawa's canopy cover must recognize that much of Ottawa's land is privately owned, said Jen Stelzer, the director of community sustainable programs with the not-for-profit Envirocentre.

She said the tree giveaway is an important initiative because cooling Ottawa's neighbourhoods requires buy-in from homeowners.

"It takes two to tango. Individual residents own a great deal of land in this city," she said.

"We can put trees in parks and put trees in boulevards, but [we need] homeowners and residential properties understanding and really supporting putting trees in our communities ... it would make a very big difference."

Ecology Ottawa's next tree giveaway is Saturday at the Rotary Club of Orleans.


Ben Andrews


Ben Andrews is a reporter with CBC News in Ottawa. He can be reached at or @bendandrews.

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