Photo depicting an aerial view or Rainier Avenue South with downtown Seattle off in the distance.

OPINION | Seattle’s Tree Ordinance Is an Affront to Climate Justice

Growing up as a low-income immigrant kid, Seattle’s trees were a wonder and a rare luxury for me, so our City Council’s latest canopy-damaging tree ordinance comes as a shock and disappointment. Did these people grow up in the same Seattle I did?

by Susan Su

Seattle’s recently passed Tree Ordinance — an update to the existing ordinance last adjusted in 2009 — poses the greatest threat to urban canopy we’ve seen in decades. Rather than protecting trees, the Tree Ordinance allows property developers to remove any and all trees from any and all lots across the city, with the small exception of a few hundred previously designated Heritage Trees. That endangers over 80% of Seattle’s canopy, which has already been following a steep decline down to Los Angeles levels. Under its guise of protection, access to environmental justice — and to a fair future for our children — is in danger. But we can hope for better: saving trees, creating housing, and inspiring a generation that believes in “both/and,” not “either/or.”

This is a personal story of how tree equity shaped my childhood and inspired my career fighting for climate justice for all.

My parents immigrated to Seattle from Chongqing, China, in the mid-1980s, after my dad seized an opportunity to take a rare trip to America as a student translator and fell in love at first sight. We recently found some old photos he’d taken in those days — not of his wife, his baby daughter, or even of himself, but of America’s grocery store shelves, its produce stacks and its seafood displays. “Look at all of this, you can get it every day of the week!” he wrote to my mom at the time. 

I grew up low-income, attending a church-run preschool where I learned English on the fly. Later, in public school, I relied on the free-and-reduced lunch program. Space was limited in the apartment units we rented, but I was always close to my parents, and besides, I had what felt like my own forest in the back of the lot our building occupied. 

As a kid, the trees were an equalizer for me. We didn’t have money to go on ski trips to Stevens Pass or Whistler, but we had the public library, and we had a cooling escape of mature trees right on our lot. As an adult who knows a bit more about how the world works, it’s been a saddening disappointment to see our City Council’s equity-defying — and, quite frankly, suspect — opposition to the basic concept of tree equity in a place called “The Emerald City” that prides itself on its inclusive, progressive politics. 

Now a mom myself, with a career I love as a climate investor and nonprofit adviser, it’s been shocking for me to witness the duality of saying we care about climate action and environmental justice, yet simultaneously greenlighting the removal of our best — and, to date, our only scalable — method of carbon removal, temperature reduction, air filtration, and storm mitigation, an all-in-one defense against the impending onslaught of urban heat islands, asthma-inducing air quality, and 1,000-year floods now coming every year. The worst of these effects fall on the shoulders of marginalized communities, on the folks who couldn’t cool off by going to the mountains or taking a boat ride on the lake.

I’ve found myself wondering: Did our Seattle leaders grow up in the same Seattle I did? Perhaps they had more resources to enjoy mountain getaways or more exotic experiences, and perhaps the value of the humble backyard tree was lost on them. Trees do so much for us, from reducing extreme heat to mitigating storm runoff to reducing the incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and asthma

Treeless neighborhoods, typically lower-income and historically redlined, experience temperatures that are 9 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, on average, than affluent, tree-covered neighborhoods in the same city. When temperatures reach the mid-80s, that’s an inconvenience. But when they reach the mid-90s, that’s a 10-times amplifier to the challenges our lower-income communities already face on a daily basis. 

Yes, trees perform incredible services for our physical health and urban resilience, but that’s not all they do. Where futuristic direct air capture machines might one day bring CO2 levels back down and eventually trigger cooling, even the best direct air capture facility won’t be able to offer kids a place to play hide and seek, to imagine they’re in a castle instead of the side yard of their apartment complex, to seek shade on an unseasonably hot afternoon. 

Everyone deserves tree equity. Everyone deserves having mature trees that shade us, clean our air, protect us, and heal our hearts like they did for me as a low-income immigrant child. And not just little, decorative trees planted last year to compensate for a clear-cut, but the original and majestic native trees that give us a sense of place, time, and timelessness. 

I couldn’t go on ski trips to Snoqualmie or summer vacations in Chelan like some of my schoolmates, but I always had the green space at Thornton Creek or the trees in my north Seattle apartment building’s backyard. This is tree equity: trees for everyone, rich or poor, owner or renter, young or old. 

As a new mom and climate activist, I want to keep that promise to the children of my son’s generation, regardless of income or background, and I hope the Seattle City Council will reconsider that future over the short-termism of greater profit margins for a select few.

Across the country and over decades, builders’ interests have systematically weaponized the housing affordability crisis to oppose climate progress, energy efficiency, and even basic safety and consumer protection. Developers and real estate investors have hit an emotional nerve that reduces the complexity of capital markets, foreign buyers, and gnarled supply chains — the real culprits in our housing crisis — to a “gotcha” that lets them pursue unchecked, unsafe, and regressive development that will lock in lower energy standards, higher emissions, and greater heat for the next 30 years, likely more. 

What they’re missing is the “both/and.” It’s not housing or trees, it’s housing and tree equity. Anyone who denies its feasibility is speaking the language of profit margins that benefit the few at the expense of the many. And yet, housing is a public good — just like electricity, safe roadways, and health care. Those in this business should have to follow basic guidelines that ensure equity for everyone, including future generations. If their own morality falls short, then legislation should step in to help guide the way.

There’s a reason why every utopic depiction of a futuristic city is covered in green: We as humans know intrinsically that we need trees in order to survive — not just “out there,” where increasingly few can access them, but everywhere, and especially right here in our own backyards. 

This update to the existing Tree Ordinance is an affront to the Emerald City and its diverse inhabitants and a closed-door giveaway to private interests robbing our city of shared riches in the name of personal gain. Let’s remember what Seattle was — and what it could still be — during our inevitable next heat wave, and during November’s City Council elections.

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.

Susan Su is a climate venture investor focused on backing technologies to solve climate change, and an adviser to several climate-focused nonprofits. She is also a mom and a Seattle resident. Find her on LinkedIn and Substack.

📸 Featured Image: Aerial view of Rainier Avenue South looking downtown. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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