[Guest Writer, Erin Wade, owns the salad bistro Vinaigrette, the general store Modern General and two sustainable farms in Texas and New Mexico. She was born and raised in Bellingham and spends part of the year back home.]
Humans are wired to relax and thrive at the sight of green.
This isn’t just woo-woo hippie stuff. As Esther Sternberg describes in her book, Healing Spaces, people in hospitals with a view of trees heal faster. Being around trees can lower heart rate, calm hypertension and boost our immunity. A treed landscape is part of the public good, beneficial to the community in ways we are only just beginning to understand but that native Northwesterners have probably always known implicitly. It’s the reason we love it here.
Robust development shouldn’t cost the very thing that makes a place lovable.The Bellingham Municipal Code and the Whatcom County Code need to be updated with specific ordinances that better protect trees—especially the oldest and most majestic ones—within the built environment. Austin, Texas, where I now live, is growing as fast as Seattle and has one of the most progressive tree protection ordinances in the country. I know this because I renovated and opened a restaurant there that was and remains the site of three “heritage” Live Oak trees. Yes, the Northwest has more and different trees than Central Texas. Historically, trees have been so abundant and persistent in Washington, builders tend to treat them as expendable, like weeds.
So does the code.
When I asked a local civil engineer if there were restrictions on cutting trees outside the watershed, he said, “No. It’s a logging town. The assumption is that trees are meant to be cut.” In the Lake Whatcom Watershed overlay, the area right around the lake, removal is meant to be limited to 30 percent of the canopy. But even in this sensitive watershed, the code allows an exemption of up to 5000 square feet, which in many cases is the majority of a lot. It is also easy to game the code by saying a tree is sick or hazardous when it’s not. Drive around the lake and count the lots that have 70 percent tree coverage. One hand will do.
If a rapidly growing city doesn’t protect its “urban forest,” you end up with a cityscape that is oppressively hot and depressingly devoid of green. Accelerating growth in the squelchy, carbon-breathing Northwest, at the expense of trees, is a climate change double whammy: we lose trees, which convert and store carbon, and increase the urban heat-island effect. An urban heat-island is a metropolitan area that is significantly hotter than its surroundings due to human activity and paved surfaces. Urban heat-islands intensify the local effects and extremes of global warming such as droughts, parched yards, floods, runoff, and erosion. Trees do the opposite: they cool and filter the air, conserve groundwater, hold and slow precipitation, and insulate and protect the ground beneath them.
A bolstered tree protection ordinance makes it harder for us to foist the real costs of our actions on tomorrow. And, the trees on a site become assets to be featured and utilized rather than obstacles to be cleared. The designs that result from this balance are inherently more sustainable, shaded and beautiful. They have lower heating and cooling costs, a smaller carbon footprint and are healthier places for people to live, with space for life outside and views of green through their windows. This isn’t anti-development but evolved development. Many of the stale habits of modern building became convention when nature was huge and scary, filled with lurking dangers we couldn’t see. Chopping down wild things, and fencing them out, was a matter of life and death.
Now, we live in the Anthropocene, an epoch in which humans have altered the carbon balance of the earth and atmosphere, built towering skyscrapers, reached every corner of the globe and rendered the very idea of “wildness” just about extinct. Not cutting down wild things is today’s self-preservation. Nature isn’t something “out there” anymore, kept at bay but conveniently trotted out when we need it. We have to make room for it within our homes and workplaces, while we still can, if we want our children to experience life with trees the way we did.
When I go home to Bellingham to visit my parents, who live in the same house where I grew up, most of the trees that were the background to that nature-filled childhood are gone. It’s an older neighborhood now, and many of the houses are second homes for people who live elsewhere. The families whose kids are long grown are adding garages for more cars, and the new houses being built are twice the size of the old footprints. There are fewer places for kids to hide, no avuncular trees to sprint madly toward, triumphant, yelling “ollyollyoxenfree.”