Downtown view from McHugh Bluff. Photo: Dave Robinson

Calgary plans to double its urban forest

But budget cuts threaten this goal.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

Sign Me Up!

The Sprawl connects Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we can only keep doing this with community support. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!

We’re nearly five months into the COVID-19 pandemic. For many people, the pandemic has resulted in a lot of free time on their hands. If you’ve been down to the Bow River pathways, you’ll see that walks and bike rides have become the time-killer of choice for a lot of Calgarians.

Unbeknownst to them, people have been taking in one of Calgary’s most valuable public resources: its urban forest, which is made up of about seven million trees.

A healthy urban forest is a highly desired urban trait—and a goal.

“There's all sorts of social benefits in the bigger picture that our urban forest provides for us,” said Julie Guimond, the City of Calgary’s urban forestry lead.

“It helps with managing stormwater. It also provides a huge amount of habitat for biodiversity, for birds, small mammals, and insects. There's a lot of research out there that shows that tree canopy actually reduces crime in areas, increases spending in local businesses. People actually slow down on roads where there's trees.”

There’s a lot of research out there that shows that tree canopy actually reduces crime in areas.

Julie Guimond,

City of Calgary Urban Forest Lead

Calgary’s trees—spread across public property, residential homes, green spaces and parks—make up Calgary’s urban forest. And it's a $1.3 billion asset thanks to its effect on the environment and quality of life.

Calgary’s urban forest coverage is currently at an 8.25% canopy level—a way of calculating the percentage of green coverage from trees’ leaves within a municipality's limits.

That's down from 8.5% in 2014, when "Snowtember" hit Calgary. The late-summer snowstorm caused around two million trees to be damaged, reducing the tree canopy to just over 8%.

The city’s long-term planning goal is to double the size of the urban canopy to 16% by 2060. This means planting 3,500 trees each year just to maintain the current canopy coverage, and an additional 4,000 trees per year to reach the city’s goal.

But in Calgary, we struggle to keep the urban forest healthy and expanding.

Budget cuts challenge our urban forest

Compared to other Canadian cities, Calgary’s tree canopy is fairly small. Unlike cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, Calgary isn’t a naturally conducive environment for trees to begin with, as the dry prairie, chinooks and unexpected snowfalls all work against building the city’s urban forest. Calgary also occupies a much larger area than most Canadian cities.

“Planting new trees is one piece of the puzzle,” said Guimond. “We are hopeful that we can prove the impact of planting to further attain the target canopy so we have the needed capital in future years.”

In 2019, the operational budget for the city's urban forestry department was $14.2 million, or about $10 per Calgarian. However, the $60 million in budget cuts that were announced in July 2019 affected the city’s urban forest plan.

Trees are so essential to quality of life, the environment and climate.

Druh Farrell,

City councillor

Calgary’s 2019-2022 Service Plans and Budget report found that, due to “capital funding constraints,” the city would be unable to plant the 7,500 trees needed annually to reach its long-term tree canopy goals. Instead, the city will increase the number of trees pruned each year to “improve the resilience” of Calgary’s urban forest.

After “Snowtember” in 2014, the city made a one-time infusion of $35.5 million to repair and replace the damaged trees. The funds remaining from this and the current operating budget are going to be focused on caring for existing trees.

For Ward 7 Councillor, Druh Farrell, the budget cuts to the long-term growth of the urban forest is to the detriment of all Calgarians. The topic is especially close to Farrell, as trees are the reason she got into politics in the first place, connecting with the late Calgary city councillor Barry Erskine to pass the city’s first tree bylaw when she was 28 years old.

“We had to cut back on a lot of our capital projects,” said Farrell in a phone interview. “Trees were one of the casualties. It appears wrongheaded to me because trees are so essential to quality of life, the environment and climate. I would have hoped to find alternatives to cutting our tree budget.”

A valuable city asset

“We consider trees assets,” said Guimond. “I think the biggest misconception is that a tree is easily replaceable like a perennial flower or shrub. Trees take years to establish after planting and decades to see the larger tree canopy and environmental benefits that brings.”

Trees are unlike many other city assets because they only gain value over time.

Trees are unlike many other city assets because they only gain value over time (if properly maintained). That’s the reason why a relatively new neighbourhood like McKenzie Towne, with more than 9,000 trees, has an estimated urban forest value of around $11 million, while an older neighbourhood such as Varsity, which has 2,000 fewer trees, has an estimated urban forest value of $31.4 million.

A key part of the city’s plan involves being able to track, assess and maintain the seven million trees that are currently spread across Calgary.

Thanks to around 140 city workers, Calgary Parks and the urban forestry department keep updated tabs on every single one of our trees, including tracking up to 60 data points for each tree to estimate their monetary value.

All of that information is then nicely laid out in an interactive map and is updated weekly.

While the city says that it does not keep a definitive ranking of the most highly-valued trees, these monetary estimates range from $500 for newly planted trees, to upwards of $100,000 for older or historic trees.

Monetary estimates range from $500 for newly planted trees, to upwards of $100,000 for older trees.

Let’s use the tree in front of my house in West Hillhurst as an example. It’s a Schubert Chokecherry that, planted about 15 years ago, removes 81.5 grams of air pollutants per year, stores 80.3 kilograms of carbon per year, and has an estimated total valuation of $1,446.49.

You can check this data with every single tree listed in the map in a kind of green keep-up-with-the-Joneses pursuit.

So the next time you’re out on a walk along the river pathways, through your neighbourhood, or even on your way to the store, take a minute to appreciate an urban asset we often take for granted.

To commemorate Calgary’s urban forest, welcome to the first-ever YYC Tree Awards—based on City of Calgary data. Let’s begin!

Most Tree-ed Up Neighbourhood

Winner: McKenzie Towne, 9,348 trees
Runner-Up: Edgemont, 7,792 trees

This first award actually requires an asterisk next to it. According to the City of Calgary, Glenmore Park actually contains the most trees with 10,198, but considering that’s primarily a green space and not a “neighbourhood” per se, McKenzie Towne’s 9,348 trees were more in line with the spirit of the award.

The neighbourhoods with the smallest number of trees are—unsurprisingly—industrial areas. So congrats to Great Plains, which has only six trees, according to the city's map.

City of Calgary, urban forest management map.

Most Tree-Dense Neighborhood

Winner: Queen’s Park Village, 5,531 trees per km2
Runner-Up: Eau Claire, 4,242 trees per km2

Lowest Tree Density: Great Plains, 1 tree per km2

Highest Estimated Tree Value by Neighbourhood

Winner: Varsity, $31,402,269
Runner-Up: Bowness, $28,947,925

Again, Glenmore Park technically wins this one with an estimated tree value of $32,335,107, but the livable neighbourhood with the highest estimated tree value is Varsity with $31,402,269 spread across its 7,142 trees.

As I was going through this data, I became aware of the fact that the city has neighbourhoods without names. “Section 23” (just south of Great Plains) has the lowest estimated tree value in Calgary with only seven trees valued at $6,080.

Matthew Coyte is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Avenue Magazine and the Canadian Institute of Mining Magazine. He's also a big tree guy.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

Sign Me Up!

We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we can't do it alone. We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!