Calgary: Urban Forest vs Tree Abuse?

By Richard White, September 6, 2014 (An edit version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "From bald prairie to urban forest," on September 6, 2014)

Recently, Toronto-based Lamb Development Corp. announced it would be creating orchard between the two condo towers on 12th Avenue next to Stampede.  I thought this was a strange idea being Calgary is not know as fruit belt by any stretch of the imagination. But after a little digging I learned that since 2009, the City of Calgary has been planting fruit trees and shrubs as part of a pilot community research orchard program.  The three pilot orchards are in Hillhurst-Sunnyside (50 trees), Baker Park (100+ trees) and Ralph Klein Park (no number given on city of Calgary website).  The first two focus mostly on apple trees, while the later will consist of a variety of pear trees.

The City of Calgary recommends two varieties of apple trees - Prairie Sun and Prairie Sensation, both are about six feet tall and produce about 20 lbs. of apples when mature.  The two varieties of pears recommended are “Ure” and “Early Gold.” The “Capilano” apricot is also recommended, as are several varieties of cherries.  Fruit bearing shrubs include the “Hinnomaki Red” gooseberry, American Hazelnuts, Honeyberries or Haskaps. 

A quick check of Calgary greenhouse and landscape websites confirmed that indeed, several other varieties of fruit trees would grow well in Calgary. In fact, I forgot but when we moved into our house in West Hillhurst (aka Grand Trunk) in there were two mature apple trees in the neighbour’s backyard that produced a massive amount of apples.  They removed the trees a few years later as the apples quickly drop to the ground, became very mushy very quickly, becoming “wasp magnets. They weren’t much good except for applesauce, which we ate a lot of that summer.

At this time, the City has no plans to create more community orchards, but interested individuals should contact their community association if they are interested. The city might consider facilitating an orchard in your community – could be in a pocket park, community garden or along the boulevard near your home.  The City even has an “orchard steward” program i.e. someone who takes an active role in caring for and maintaining an orchard by pruning, monitoring health and harvesting the fruit.

Silver Springs experimental orchard.

Apple tree on the front lawn of a century old home in Inglewood. 

Treeless Prairie

While digging I also found out a lot more about Calgary’s urban forest. Indeed, Calgary’s urban forest is a remarkable achievement given the City’s climate doesn’t naturally support trees.  It is estimated that 3% of trees in Calgary’s urban forest die annually.

Early photographs of Calgary show a treeless prairie landscape, however in the 1890s William Pearce, envisioned Calgary as a “city of trees,” developing an experimental farm with an irrigation system so he could grow more types of trees.  His home and farm is now known as Pearce Estates Park, located at the far east end of Inglewood where the Bow River turns south.

He also encouraged Calgarians to improve the appearance of the City by planting trees around their homes. And, in 1899, the City Council passed not only the first tree protection bylaws, but also started promoting tree planting.

Calgary before trees.

Mount Royal before trees.

Over $400M 

Today, Calgary boasts 445,000 trees in our groomed parks and boulevards, worth an estimated $400 million. The value of individual trees ranges from $300 to $33,000.  The most valuable trees are a pair of American Elms in Rideau Park.

In our natural areas, there are several million more trees – Weaslehead Flats alone having an estimated 3 million trees.

North Glenmore Park forest

This Bur Oak is a heritage tree on Crescent Road was planted in 1937.

Heritage Elm tree in the middle of a Stampede PARKing lot. 

The Sunnyside urban forest didn't exist 100 years ago. 

Collaborating with citizens

One of the key tree management tools of the City today is to collaborate and engage with citizens to enhance our urban forest with community awareness and education, tools and shared stewardship opportunities.   For example, the “Symbolic Tree Program” which allows you to commemorate a birthday, wedding, anniversary or any other day by planting a tree in a city park.

The BP BirthPlace Forest which between 2001 to 2009, planted trees over 50,000 trees at nine sites across the city to reflect the children born in the city each year.

The City also has a Planting Incentive Program (PIP) where the City will match 50% of the cost of a new tree to be planted on City-owned residential property. Choose the species of tree from the city’s approved tree list and once approved the City will does all the rest.

Silver Springs BP Birthplace Forest 

Calgary Tree Fun Facts

Urban trees are important not just for the aesthetics, shade and privacy, but they also help make Calgary the “cleanest city in the world” (2013 Mercer Global Financial and HR Consulting ranking). It was estimated that Calgary’s urban forest removes a total of 502 tons of pollutants each year, with an estimated value of almost $3 million (US Forest Service Urban Forest Effect Model: Calgary Study 1998).

Each year, the City removes 500 to 800 pioneer poplar trees i.e. those planted 75 to 100 years ago to as these trees are at the end of their lifespan and it allows opportunities for other trees to grow

One of the fun things to do when walking around inner-city communities is to play “Guest the cost of that tree!”  On almost every block there are one or more signs at each infill site indicating the value of the city trees on the lot.  The builder is responsible for protecting all city trees and if that isn’t possible they have to pay the city the amount posted to replace the trees.

In 1913, William Reader, Parks and Cemetery superintendent unsuccessfully (surprise, surprise) experimented with growing palm trees in pots in the summer in Central Memorial Park as well as around City Hall.  

Olympic Plaza trees

 Last Word

Sometimes I think Calgarians are in denial that we live in winter city.  I am often reminded of this when I pass by the struggling oak tree planted by the City in Grand Trunk Park across the street from my house. It, like many of the thousands of oak trees planted by the City; struggle to grow in a place not meant for trees - certainly not oak trees.  Could this be “tree abuse?”  In fact, some might say creating an urban forest in Calgary is “disturbing its natural ecosystem.”

This oak tree has been struggling to grow in West Hillhurst's Grand Trunk Park for over 10 years. It looks more like a sculptural piece than a tree. 

The streets of every inner city community in Calgary were strewn with fallen branches after the September 8 and 9th snow storm. Another reminder that we not only live on the treeless prairies, but on the edge of the Rockies.  

The streets of every inner city community in Calgary were strewn with fallen branches after the September 8 and 9th snow storm. Another reminder that we not only live on the treeless prairies, but on the edge of the Rockies.  

Stephen Avenue Trees? Sculptures? 

Urban forest provide a canopy over the street winter and summer.

Today, Calgary’s tree canopy is estimated to cover 7% of its over land mass. The goal is to increase this by 1% per decade to a 20% canopy.

In the summer, for those Calgarians living in established communities it is hard to imagine Calgary was a barren, treeless prairie landscape.  Yes, Mount Royal was a treeless hill less than 100 years ago!

To learn more about the City of Calgary’s Parks Urban Forest Strategic Plan, read the document at:

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