I like to think of it as a country-blues hybrid, but whatever the genre, it’s still the same old City of Winnipeg song. And the lyrics go something like this:
"Our trees are dyin,’ our sewage is headin’ for the river, but we got no money, for nothin’ but roads."
Sound familiar? Well, if it does, that’s because it pretty much sums up where we’ve been for the last 10 years, budget-wise. And it’s telling that in a two-volume budget document that runs to some 600 pages, the phrase "climate change" is not mentioned. Not even once.
At a time when we’ve lost 33,000 elms in just five years, and only 19 per cent of the public trees cut down were replaced in 2021, next year’s urban forestry capital budget stays pretty much the same.
Yes, there’s an additional $2 million in the operating budget, but that doesn’t get us very far. It certainly won’t ensure the thousands of boulevard trees the city has already removed will be replaced within two years, nor will it get us anywhere near a best-practice seven-year pruning cycle.
I know you’ve heard this before, but it really does bear repeating: this city needs to start spending more money on maintaining and replanting our public trees, or over the next decade we are going to be in very serious trouble. Here’s why:
If we don’t spend more, those of you living in River Heights-Fort Garry, Daniel McIntyre, Mynarski and St. Boniface are going to be very unhappy campers. Because in case you haven’t noticed, you’ve already lost a ton of mature trees. To be specific, between 2016 and 2020, Daniel Mac lost 21 per cent of its trees, Mynarski lost 15 per cent, and St Boniface and River Heights-Fort Garry came in at a tree loss of between 10 and 15 per cent.
In 2021, those numbers continued to climb. And as they climb, so too does our tree-replacement backlog, which means more streets with fewer trees and thousands of unhappy Winnipeggers.
In fact, almost every neighbourhood in this city has a tree deficit that will very likely continue to climb, because, thanks to climate change, we’re looking at more extreme weather events, more drought and more invasive pests and diseases. Which all spell more tree deaths.
So what’s the solution? Well, what we don’t need are last-minute operating budget increases that only last for a couple of years. What we do need is a sustainable long-term financial plan for our public canopy, one that considers the predicted impacts of climate change, forecasts what we’ll need, budget-wise, over the next decade and builds capacity to execute that plan to ensure our public canopy thrives.
Such a plan should also identify a reliable revenue source to finance it.
Right now, every Winnipegger spends about $17 a year on our public trees. And I’d bet most of us would support city council spending another $10 from our current taxes to support a long-term strategy aimed at improving our pruning cycle, expanding our public canopy and ensuring that every boulevard and park tree lost is replaced within two years.
I’d also lay bets that most Winnipeggers would be even more enthusiastic if they knew their money could be matched by federal funds from the 2 Billion Tree Initiative and Canada’s new Natural Infrastructure Fund.
And a lot of us would be over the moon if the city assigned public trees and other natural infrastructure assets to public works, alongside roads and sewers, instead of protection, parks and community services, where they currently sit. Trees aren’t a "community service"; they’re natural infrastructure. And recent studies show that capitalizing on their benefits, whether alone or in hybrid green/grey infrastructure projects, is key to building better, more climate-resilient cities.
Tree planting can be targeted to improve both runoff control and water conservation, protect asphalt surfaces, reduce energy costs and air pollution, and can also be factored in as part of a carbon-reduction strategy. And given that Winnipeg needs to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, capitalizing on the infrastructure benefits of trees could help to achieve that goal.
Given all that, would you support Trees Please Winnipeg’s request for a long-term sustainable budget plan to protect and expand our public canopy and achieve a more climate resilient city?
If your answer is yes, then get on the phone or fire up your computer and tell your city councillor. Because if you don’t, 10 years from now or sooner, you may find yourself sitting on a treeless street, in a 32 C heatwave, crying the same old city budget blues.
Erna Buffie is an author, filmmaker and interim chair of the Trees Please Winnipeg Coalition. Find out more about Trees Please at https://treespleasewinnipeg.com/