Photo depicting a single-family home with a row of cedar trees removed from its front yard. A back-hoe is parked next to the tree stumps.

OPINION | We Must Get Seattle’s Updated Tree Ordinance Right to Protect Community Well-Being

by Lois Martin and Sandy Shettler

Many of us feel grateful to live in a city like Seattle that is home to majestic green trees. It’s no exaggeration to say our large trees save lives by boosting our mental and physical well-being and protecting us from severe heat and flooding. To value people means valuing trees because of the many benefits gifted us through their existence. 

Unfortunately, the most recent Tree Canopy Assessment makes it clear Seattle is losing trees and the life-sustaining benefits they provide residents. Black- and Brown-majority neighborhoods in South Seattle lost their existing large trees at a rate nearly double that of neighborhoods north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.  

All hope is not lost. We do have a chance to preserve the dwindling urban forest in our communities as Mayor Harrell prepares to update Seattle’s tree ordinance within the next 14 to 21 days. The key is getting it right to ensure sustainable policies.

The current draft of the updated ordinance contains gains in regulation but is accompanied by serious flaws that undermine its stated goals of protecting existing trees. Key elements may make it impossible to reverse tree canopy decline as new and denser housing is built across the city.

The root of the problem is that the draft ordinance doesn’t require or meaningfully incentivize developers to retain large trees on-site during development.

Fees for removing large trees are low, and more problematically, the draft expands the amount of a lot’s dirt that can be covered with buildings and pavement in multifamily zones to 85%. On a typical city lot, only a 2.5-foot perimeter strip of open soil would remain. This is not enough to support a small ornamental tree, much less a tree large enough to cool and shelter multifamily homes.  

The new rules would use tree-removal fees to fund tree planting on public land, prioritizing planting in parks and right of ways in neighborhoods already experiencing environmental injustice, such as South Park and Georgetown. This removal and replanting plan fails to account for the negative impact of losing large trees on communities and human health, especially in those neighborhoods already suffering from inequitable density policies, such as the Central District and South Seattle. 

The draft emphasizes tree-planting programs. Yet, planting programs are no match in scale for the number of trees that will be lost, and planting success is not guaranteed. Baby trees have high mortality, especially with changing weather patterns and hotter summers. The ordinance does not provide funding or protections to ensure they are adequately supported as they develop. One can drive down I-5 and see new tree plantings adjacent to the freeway where half of the saplings are dead from neglect. They need continual nurturing, similar to any young living thing. 

Photo depicting a residential street where one side has a row of trees removed and cut down.
A row of cedars removed illegally from a West Seattle property and retroactively approved by the city. (Photo: Kersti Muul)

Established, mature trees that have lived many healthy decades are valuable. Their presence near our homes and schools protects us from urban heat and pollution. Removing these trees as urban heat islands in Seattle’s residential areas grow more deadly does not make sense. We know people need mature trees right where they live to derive the health benefits of cleaner air and summer cooling.

Losing mature trees also has negative impacts on children’s health and development. Children connect to nature when they see a tree right outside their window or front door, growing where they live and play. They learn about birds, insects, and the web of life. These connections with nature are critical for children’s cognitive development. Children from historically marginalized communities and disproportionately impacted neighborhoods are already lacking access to green spaces near their homes and schools. The close presence of urban trees supports child health, and is a daily source of joy and wonder and a window to the natural world. 

When a large tree is removed, the surrounding community immediately loses its health and ecosystem benefits. Existing mature trees have benefits available now, today — and we need to preserve them.

Given these problems, how do we amend the current draft tree protection ordinance to make sure it can succeed? 

Keep trees while developing homes. A tree inventory should be the first step of every project. This ensures healthy trees are integrated into the design and helps developers avoid rework and delays. We should follow the lead of Portland and require that when lots are developed, open space is set aside that could be used to save existing trees or plant new trees. We should require projects to prioritize maximizing the retention of existing trees throughout the development process on the lot to be developed, and to ensure trees on neighboring lots (regardless of the size of the tree) are not damaged. City planners should have the right to ask developers for alternative site designs if tree removals are requested. None of these simple measures is in the current draft. 

We can build new homes while saving trees and planting new ones. Proven development techniques, such as bridging over roots, using pier foundations instead of trenches (where seismic conditions allow), and consulting with arborists on building placement prior to drawings, can successfully create new housing surrounded by large trees. Removing healthy trees must be a last resort.

Remove guaranteed 85% lot coverage. We should retain Seattle’s current lot coverage flexibility in multifamily zones so we can build homes and save trees at the same time. Trees need earth for their roots. Multifamily zoning would become Seattle’s predominant zoning if the middle housing bill (E2SHB 1110) under debate in the state Legislature passes, no matter what neighborhood someone resides in — the entire city will have to navigate its impacts. 

Track Seattle’s large trees. The Last 6000 has long advocated for a citywide commitment to a census of our large trees. Seattle’s recent canopy study measured “canopy” at the 8-foot level. From this perspective, three large rhododendrons have the same value as a 100-year-old Douglas fir, yet their contributions to the community can’t be compared. 

We want to ensure a sustainable future for generations to come, and having a robust urban tree canopy will help our communities combat climate change. Seattle residents should contact Mayor Harrell and City Councilmembers (especially those serving on the Land Use Committee) and ask for a tree ordinance that truly protects trees. Trees make us the Emerald City — we need to fight for them!

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Lois Martin is an early childhood educator who advocates daily for a sustainable future for students. 

Sandy Shettler is on the steering committee of The Last 6000, a campaign to document and preserve Seattle’s majestic trees. She is a medical social worker who appreciates the interdependency of people and a healthy urban forest.

📸 Featured Image: A row of cedars removed illegally from a West Seattle property and retroactively approved by the city. (Photo: Kersti Muul)

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